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Part III: The Ramifications of Bio-Engineering & Bio-Mathematics

This is part three of a five-part article entitled Biology: Not a Science Anymore.

Read Part I Here
Read Part II Here

The ideas and developments I highlighted in the last article may all seem impossible, or at least impractical. But listen to Dr. Rodney Brooks, MIT Professor and Director of the Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT. He says:

biotechnology“Fifty years ago, just after the Second World War, there was a transformation of engineering. Before that, engineering had been a craft-based exercise, but starting around 1950 it was transformed into a physics-based discipline. Now we are seeing the beginnings of a transformation of engineering again, this time into a largely biologically-based discipline…At MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, where I am director, I see signs of this transformation every day. We have torn out clean rooms where we used to make silicon chips and installed wet labs in their place, where we compile programs into DNA sequences that we splice into genomes in order to breed bacterial robots. Our thirty-year goal is to have such exquisite control over the genetics of living systems that instead of growing a tree, cutting it down, and building a table out of it, we will ultimately be able to grow the table. . . Similar transformations are happening throughout engineering departments, not just at MIT but all over the world.” [1]

Professor Brooks continues:

“Some of the early biological augmentations of ourselves may entail increasing the number of neurons in our cortex.  Already these sorts of experiments are being carried out on rats.  When extra layers of neurons are placed in the brain of a rat at a critical time in its development, its intelligence is enhanced relative to rats without this augmentation.  As we better understand the hormonal balances that control the growth of our brain in childhood, we will perhaps be able to add sheets of neurons to our adult brains, adding a few points to our IQ and restoring our memory abilities to those we had when younger.  There will likely be some errors and horror stories about augmentation gone haywire, but make no mistake — the technology, in fits and starts, will proceed.

“By the midpoint of the twenty-first century, we will have many, many new biological capabilities.  Some of them seem fanciful today, just as projections about the speed, memory, and price of today’s computers would have seemed fanciful to the engineers working on the first digital computers in 1950.” [2]

Psychology and mathematics are also turning biological.  As Marc Hauser, Professor in the Department of Psychology and Program in Neurosciences at Harvard University, wrote:

“A chicken with a piece of quail brain bows its head like a quail but crows like a chicken.  A seventy-year-old man with Parkinson’s disease, confined to his wheelchair, receives a piece of brain from a pig and in no time at all is out golfing, without a hint of his porcine accessory.  This is not science fiction, a la Douglas Adams.  This is scientific fact.  Today we can swap brain tissue not just among individuals of the same species but between species.  In the next fifty years such exquisite neurobiology will have revolutionized our understanding of the brain—of how it is wired up during development and how it has evolved over time.”

And consider these thoughts from Ian Stewart, the 1995 recipient of the Royal Society’s Michael Faraday medal:

dna-tech“Far more influential, and far more radical, will be the mathematics inspired by the biosciences:  biomathematics.  As the triumphal announcements about the human genome give way to a new realism about the results, it has become clear that merely sequencing DNA does not get us very far in understanding organisms, or even in curing diseases.  There are huge gaps in our understanding of the link between genes and organisms. . . .

“Genes are part of a dynamic control process that not only makes proteins but modifies them and gets them to the right place in a developing organism at the right moment in its life history.  The understanding of this process will require much more than a mere list of DNA codes, and most of what’s missing has to be mathematical.  But it will be a new kind of mathematics, one that blends the dynamics of organism growth with the molecular information processing of DNA. . . . The new biomathematics will be a strange new mixture of . . . analysis, geometry, and informatics.  Plus lots of biology, of course.” [3]

Stewart also says:

“Today, complex systems are being studied in two main areas—biology and finance.  A stock market, for instance, has many agents who interact by buying and selling stocks and shares.  Out of this interaction emerges the financial world.  The mathematics of finance and commerce will be revolutionized by throwing away the current “linear” models and introducing ones whose mathematical structure more accurately reflects the real world.

“Even more dramatically, mathematics will invade new areas of human activity altogether—social science, the arts, even politics.  However, mathematics will not be used in the same way as it is currently used in the physical sciences.” [4]

And National Medal of Technology recipient Ray Kurzweil writes:

“. . .‘narrow’ AI [includes] machine intelligence that equals or exceeds human intelligence for specific tasks. Every time you send an e-mail or make a cell phone call, intelligent algorithms route the information.  AI programs diagnose heart disease, fly and land airplanes, guide autonomous weapons, make automated investment decisions for a trillion dollars’ worth of funds and guide industrial processes.  These were all research projects a couple of decades ago.

ai“So what are the prospects for ‘strong’ AI . . . with the full range of human intelligence?  We can meet the hardware requirements . . . . [W]e need about 10 quadrillion calculations a second to provide a functional equivalent to all the regions of the brain.  IBM’s Blue Gene/L computer is already at 100 trillion.  If we plug in the semiconductor industry’s projections, we can see that 10 quadrillion calculations a second will be available for $1,000 by around 2020.” [5]

The ramifications are mind boggling, and the science is clearly here to stay.

But how is this all shifting to the realm of statesmanship and social leadership? The answer is profound. Genetic engineering, cloning, bio-mathematics and direct genetic healing cross the boundaries between science and leadership on many levels.

Jefferson spoke for all the great freedom philosophers of history when he wrote, “all men are created equal.” Indeed, this is the most basic tenet of free government, free markets and just laws.

But what if a new generation of children aren’t created equal?

dnaWhat if only the very rich, or citizens in certain leading nations, can afford the gene scripting that gives their children the brains of Aristotle, the strength and speed of a professional football player, the height of a pro basketball center, and the looks of Apollo?

What if some men and women really are created “more equal than others?”

Politicians may try to stop the use of this technology for a time, just like they met in diplomatic summits and signed treaties to stop the technologies of the machine gun, chemical weapons, mind-enhancing drugs for entertainment, or nuclear weapons.

But where the technology exists, human beings will find a way to use it. The statesmen of the 21st Century will have to do better than just passing laws or signing treaties.

Upcoming Article, Part IV: Preparing for the Biology Age Through Education

[1] Rodney Brooks, “The Merger of Flesh and Machines,” The Next Fifty Years: Science in the First Half of the Twenty-First Century. 2002. Edited by John Brockman. New York: Vintage Books. See also: “We have turned labs where we used to assemble silicon and steel robots into labs where we assemble robots from silicon, steel, and living cells. We cultivate muscle cells and use them as the actuators in these simple devices, the precursors of prostheses that will be installed seamlessly into disabled human bodies. Some AI Lab faculty who study how to make machines learn have stopped building better Web search engines and begun inventing programs that can learn correlations in the human genome and thereby make predictions about the genetic causes of disease. We have turned rooms that used to house mechanical CAD (computer-assisted design) systems into rooms where we measure the cerebral motor control of human beings, so that eventually we can build neural prostheses for people with diseased brains. And our vision researchers, who used to build algorithms for detecting Russian tanks during the cold war, now build specialized vision systems to provide guidance during neurosurgery.”
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ian Stewart, “The Mathematics of 2050,” The Next Fifty Years: Science in the First Half of the Twenty-First Century. 2002. Edited by John Brockman. New York: Vintage Books.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ray Kurzweil, “Long Live AI,” Forbes. August 15, 2005. He also writes: “Our technology is also shrinking at an exponential rate. By the 2020s nanotechnology will let us build vast numbers of tiny machines at the molecular level. The killer app of strong Al, combined with nanotechnology, will be blood-cell-size robots called nanobots. We’ll have billions of them traveling in our bloodstream, communicating with one another on a wireless local area network and transmitting information and software to and from the Internet. They’ll keep us healthy by destroying pathogens and cancer cells, removing debris, correcting DNA errors and otherwise reversing disease and aging processes. They’ll also go inside our brain capillaries and interact with our biological neurons. By augmenting and/or replacing the signals from our real senses, they’ll provide full-immersion virtual reality from within the nervous system. ‘Experience beamers’ will send their entire flow of sensory and emotional experiences onto the Internet the way people now beam images from their Web cams. We’ll be able to plug in and experience what it’s like to be someone else.”

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Part III: The Ramifications of Bio-Engineering & Bio-Mathematics