Timely Commentary by Ray Kurzweil

Golden era of nanotechnology: a post-evolutionary world

Trends hint at a golden era of nanotechnology

Innovations like robotic blood cells portend a “golden era” of nanotechnology

By Ray Kurzweil
(May 11, 2006)

BEAUTIFUL MINDS: By 2029, scientists will understand how human intelligence works.
(Source: Dr. Abdon Guerra F/Flickr)

It turns out that information technology is increasingly encompassing everything of value. It’s not just computers, it’s not just electronic gadgets. It now includes the field of biology. We’re beginning to understand how life processes, such as disease and aging, are manifested as information processes and we’re gaining the tools to actually manipulate those processes. All of our creations from intellectual and cultural endeavors, from our music to our movies, are facilitated by information technology and are distributed and represented as information.

Evolutionary processes work through indirection. Evolution creates a capability, and then it uses that capability to evolve the next stage. That’s why the next stage goes more quickly, and that’s why the fruits of an evolutionary process grow exponentially.

The first paradigm shift in biological evolution, the evolution of cells, and in particular DNA (actually, RNA came first) — the evolution of essentially a computer system or an information processing backbone that would allow evolution to record the results of its experiments — took billions of years. Once DNA and RNA were in place, the next stage, the Cambrian explosion, when all the body plans of the animals were evolved, went a hundred times faster. Then those body plans were used by evolution to concentrate on higher cognitive functions. Biological evolution kept accelerating in this manner. Homo sapiens, our species, evolved in only a few hundred thousand years, the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms.

Then again working through indirection, biological evolution used one of its creations to usher in the next stage of evolution, which was technology. The enabling factors for technology were a higher cognitive function with an opposable appendage, so we could manipulate and change the environment to reflect our models of what could be. The first stages of technology evolution — fire, the wheel, stone tools — only took a few tens of thousands of years.

Technological evolution also accelerated. Half a millennium ago the printing press took a century to be adopted, half a century ago the first computers were designed with pen on paper. Now computers are designed in only a few weeks’ time by computer designers sitting at computers, using advanced computer assisted design software. When I was at MIT [in the mid-1960s] a computer about the size of a room cost millions of dollars yet was less powerful than the computer in your cell phone today.

One of the profound implications is that we are understanding our biology as information processes. We have 23,000 little software programs inside us called genes. These evolved in a different era. One of those programs, called the fat insulin receptor gene, says basically, hold onto every calorie because the next hunting season might not work out so well. We’d like to change that program now. We have a new technology that has just emerged in the last couple years called RNA interference in which we put fragments of RNA inside the cell as a drug to inhibit selected genes. It can actually turn genes off by blocking the messenger RNA expressing that gene. When the fat insulin receptor was turned off in mice, the mice ate ravenously and remained slim. They didn’t get diabetes, didn’t get heart disease and lived 20 percent longer: They got the benefit of caloric restriction without the restriction.

Every major disease and every major aging process has different genes that are used in the expression of these disease and aging processes. Being able to actually select when we turn them off is one powerful methodology. We also have the ability to turn enzymes off. Torcetrapib, a drug that’s now in FDA Phase 3 trials, turns off a key enzyme that destroys the good cholesterol, HDL, in the blood. If you inhibit that enzyme, HDL levels soar and atherosclerosis slows down or stops.

There are thousands of these developments in the pipeline. The new paradigm of rational drug design involves understanding the information processes underlying biology, the exact sequence of steps that leads up to a process like atherosclerosis, which causes heart attacks or cancer or insulin resistance, and providing very precise tools to intervene. Our ability to do this is also growing at an escalating rate

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