The journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science has declared discoveries about evolution the 2005 winner of its annual list of Top Ten Breakthroughs. Others worthy of mention include the nature of neutron stars, cell communication, miswiring of the brain, nuclear fusion, and Earth's origins.
Many weird and wonderful new gadgets, gizmos and inventions were revealed in 2005. Autonomous cars, robotic assistants and nano-circuitry provided a bright view of the future, while cellphone viruses, virtual crime sprees and "non-lethal" crowd control weapons hinted at technological troubles ahead.
The busiest inventor of the year was almost certainly Google, which continues to grow from a search engine into a many-tentacled technological titan. 2005 saw Google launch a service for hosting and searching video clips, an internet phone program, a searchable map of the world and an effort to digitise books from some of the world's largest libraries, to name a few of its projects.
...among the wackiest innovations of 2005 were a pair of shoes that limit television time for couch potatoes, a virtual air guitar, and a system that delivers smells across the internet, for the more odor-conscious online shopper.
When the Austrian government passed a law this year allowing police to install closed-circuit surveillance cameras in public spaces without a court order, the Austrian civil liberties group Quintessenz vowed to watch the watchers.
Members of the organization worked out a way to intercept the camera images with an inexpensive, 1-GHz satellite receiver. The signal could then be descrambled using hardware designed to enhance copy-protected video as it's transferred from DVD to VHS tape.
The Quintessenz activists then began figuring out how to blind the cameras with balloons, lasers and infrared devices.
The National Security Agency got caught with its hand in the cookie jar, literally, on Wednesday.
The NSA, which functions as the United States' information systems watchdog, admitted it has been posting cookies on the computers of visitors to its web site, despite federal rules banning such activity.
Cookies are small files placed on computers by web programs residing on sites visited by those computers. They were originally designed to hold identifying information to make web surfing easier and faster. . .
Posting long-term cookies on web surfers' hard drives is a direct violation of a June 2000 policy recommendation issued by the Office of Management and Budget that bans such activities. . .
The NSA ended its cookie distribution when a privacy activist and the Associated Press started asking questions about the cookie placements.
If the watchers will watch, then the watchers must be watched.
Genes that control the timing of organ formation during development also control timing of aging and death, and provide evidence of a biological timing mechanism for aging, Yale researchers report in the journal Science.
"Although there is a large variation in lifespan from species to species, there are genetic aspects to the processes of development and aging," said Frank Slack, associate professor of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology and senior author of the paper. "We used the simple, but genetically well-studied, C. elegans worm and found genes that are directly involved in determination of lifespan. Humans have genes that are nearly identical."
A microRNA and the developmental-timing gene it controls, lin-4 and lin-14, affect patterns of cellular development at very specific stages. . .
According to Slack, [there is] strong evidence of an "intrinsic biological clock" that runs for aging as well as for normal organ development.
"This microRNA is conserved in humans leading to the enticing idea of being able to beneficially affect the results of aging including diseases of aging," said Slack. Work is under way to identify other microRNAs regulators and genes they target, to determine where they function and whether they behave the same way in mice, and to see if they are altered in human diseases of aging.
Genetic therapy holds great promise for treating several serious health problems, as well as possibly stopping natural deterioration altogether. However, the current state of the art can also cause problems, including cancer. Eventually, with the use of advanced nanotechnology, scientists may be able to directly edit the DNA of living cells in the body.
But even without that level of sophistication, massively parallel scanning -- made possible with tools built by molecular manufacturing (MM) -- may enable the sorting of cells modified outside the body. The ability to inject only non-cancerous cells would make some kinds of genetic therapy much safer. Microsurgical techniques could allow the implantation of modified cells directly into the target tissues.
Health improvement and life extension do not depend on MM, but it certainly will make them accessible to more people. Any treatment that can be automated can be applied to any number of people at low cost; such efficient research will speed the development of cures for complex problems such as aging.
What about the common objections to radical life extension?
If everyone were healthy and lived a long time, we'd overpopulate the earth.
Once infant mortality is minimized, birth rate contributes far more to population than lifespan, because children grow up to have children of their own. But as people get healthier, richer, and better educated, they have fewer kids. The birth rate is already below the replacement level in several rich countries.
Overpopulation is a centuries-old problem. Traditionally, it's been solved by infanticide, plague, and vicious war. MM will allow us to develop far more sustainable lifestyles and figure out better solutions for living in greater numbers on and beyond the Earth.
Life extension is immoral and we should resist it.
Smallpox vaccination, anesthesia, and blood transfusions also were said to be immoral. Today it's obvious that that's crazy. No one wants to be sick, and life extension is a natural result of health extension. Anyone who visits the doctor is working to improve their health and often trying to increase their lifespan as well.
Death is a natural part of life and it shouldn't be shunned.
Since when does natural equate with good? Tooth decay is natural -- should dentistry be outlawed? Polio is natural -- should we ban the Sabin vaccine? Cholera is natural -- should we allow epidemics to rage unchallenged?
It is an entirely human response to try to fix problems that are harming people -- including death. Some 150,000 people die globally every day. In the U.S., it's about 200,000 a month (6,500 a day). Given these numbers, it does seem rather odd that we aren't demanding a solution now. Perhaps one reason is that we live in a culture of death -- a culture that has convinced us that death is natural, good, and impossible to fight against, so we shouldn't even try.
But we should try, and as this book shows, some very smart people are currently engaged in finding the solutions. In the Bible, people were said to have lived for upwards of 900 years, and it would be nice to get back to that kind of run on life. As Rabbi Neil Gillman once said, "There is nothing redemptive about death. Death is incoherent. Death is absurd."
"This is your robot captain speaking. We're beginning our descent, so I've turned on the Fasten Seatbelt sign..."
The jet approaching Reagan National Airport followed the complicated turns required for the prescribed route over the Potomac River, banking sharply left and right as it descended smoothly toward Runway 19. But the two pilots never touched the controls. The plane was being guided by the autopilot, which was taking its cues in three dimensions, from satellites in orbit.
Until now, an autopilot could only fly a plane in a straight line or around a gentle curve. But the one shown off [recently] by the Federal Aviation Administration was following a path as sinuous as the river beneath, a route that planes use to control noise when they approach the airport from the north. The problem is that pilots can follow a river only when they can see it, and when the clouds descend, National is sometimes closed to arrivals.
But now at National, and a handful of other airports around the country, autopilots can fly planes safely over terrain that no one on board can see, including around mountains. Use of the new system is expected to cut the number of times that airplanes have to divert because of weather, interruptions that cost an airline tens of thousands of dollars in refueling costs and schedule disruptions.
Meanwhile, on the ground...
A new robot can recognize the difference between a mirror image of itself and another robot that looks just like it.
This so-called mirror image cognition is based on artificial nerve cell groups built into the robot's computer brain that give it the ability to recognize itself and acknowledge others.
The ground-breaking technology could eventually lead to robots able to express emotions.
Under development by Junichi Takeno and a team of researchers at Meiji University in Japan, the robot represents a big step toward developing self-aware robots and in understanding and modeling human self-consciousness.
Lots of us get bookstore gift certificates for Christmas. I was wondering if you had a list of recommendations for books that are good regarding molecular manufacturing?
Thanks for the question, Mike. Here is a short list compiled by CRN's Director of Research, Chris Phoenix:
Engines of Creation, by K. Eric Drexler (1986) — Although outdated in some respects, this book remains a classic introduction to the potential of nanotechnology. The manufacturing mechanism described, a collection of semi-autonomous cooperating “assemblers,” has been superceded by a model far more similar to conventional factories; this development obsoletes the book's most famous warning, about runaway self-replicators or “grey goo.” Although Engines was written in the political context of the U.S.-Soviet conflict, its broader warnings about military implications and the need for wise policy still have great value. Many of the author’s predictions and recommendations are relevant and forward-looking two decades after publication. (The entire book is available online.)
Kinematic Self-Replicating Machines, by Robert A. Freitas Jr. and Ralph C. Merkle (2004) — In its broadest sense, ‘replication’ means simply the building of a copy; the replicator need not be autonomous or even physical (it could be simulated). KSRM is worth reading for several reasons. First, it contains a wide-ranging and near-encyclopedic survey of replicators of all types. Second, it contains a taxonomy of 12 design dimensions containing 137 design properties, most of which can be varied independently to describe new classes of replicators. Third, it includes a discussion on the design and function of several molecular manufacturing-style replicators (again, in the broad sense; these are not the dangerous autonomous kind). The book puts molecular manufacturing in a broader context and is a rich source of insights. (The entire book is available online.)
Nanofuture, by J. Storrs Hall (2005) — Nanofuture combines a layman's introduction to molecular manufacturing with a description of some of its possible applications. The discussion of implications is scanty and rather optimistic, but the reader will get a good sense of how and why molecular manufactured products could transform—and often revolutionize—many of the technologies we use in daily life.
Nanomedicine, Volume I: Basic Capabilities, by Robert A. Freitas Jr. (1999) — This book was written to lay a foundation for subsequent volumes applying molecular manufacturing to medicine. As a fortunate side effect, it also lays the foundation for many other applications of the technology. Although some of the chapters are heavily medical, much of the book deals with technical capabilities such as sensing, power transmission, and molecular sorting. Scattered throughout are many useful physics formulas applied to real-world nanoscale, microscale, and macroscale problems. As such, it is useful on its own or as a companion to Nanosystems. (The entire book is available online.)
Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing and Computation, by K. Eric Drexler (1992) — This book is the foundational textbook and reference book of the field. Although not accessible to non-technical readers, it makes a clear technical case, grounded in well-established physics and chemistry, that molecular manufacturing can work as claimed. Several of its key theoretical extrapolations, such as superlubricity, have since been demonstrated by experiment. Although others remain to be confirmed, no substantial error has yet been found. (Partially available online.)
Our Molecular Future, by Douglas Mulhall (2002) — This book explores some of the implications and applications of molecular manufacturing, including its applicability to mitigating a variety of natural disasters. The proposal to deal with threatening asteroids by breaking them apart with self-replicating robots appears both unworkable and unwise, but aside from this, the book provides interesting food for thought as to how molecular manufacturing might be used.
Unbounding the Future, by K. Eric Drexler, Christine Peterson, and Gayle Pergamit (1991) — A good companion book to Engines of Creation, this provides a somewhat more focused look at how molecular manufacturing might work, how it might be developed, and what opportunities and issues it might create. (The entire book is available online.)
A human being is a part of a whole, called by us 'universe', a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest... a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.
How can a star point to Bethlehem? Scientists can re-create the night sky of 5 BC, when Christ is believed to be born. We do find a conjunction of certain planets at that juncture in time, but nothing noteworthy.
One theory is that the Christmas star was actually a comet, which can linger in the sky for weeks. If the comet sails upward, its tail points downward, and it looks as if it's pointing toward a particular spot.
The painter Giotto even painted the Christmas star as a comet centuries ago. Unfortunately, many comets return after thousands of years, so it's impossible to prove this theory.
* Flying reindeer
Every kid wonders how big, bulky reindeer can fly. In holiday blockbusters such as "Harry Potter" and "Lord of the Rings," we see magicians flying on broomsticks. Is the notion of flying feasible?
Scientists today can duplicate flying in the laboratory using powerful magnets. We can even levitate a train a tiny bit so it floats on air. But to fly like a reindeer, you would need room temperature superconducting magnets, which we don't have yet.
Presently, we still have to cool our magnets to near absolute zero. But one day, if we discover room temperature superconductors, this could spark a second industrial revolution.
* Santa and ESP
Some posit Santa can give out Christmas toys quickly because he can move presents with his mind. Even characters in the "Lord of the Rings" use telekinesis. What does science say?
There are four fundamental forces: gravity, light, and the two nuclear forces. Unfortunately, none allow for telekinesis. Sorry.
Movies such as "Harry Potter" also contain invisibility cloaks. Some people claim that even Santa can make himself invisible to children when he wants. But is that really possible?
At present, scientists cannot create invisibility in the laboratory. That's one technology that is beyond today's knowledge. Some have speculated that fiber optics may give us limited invisibility, but an invisibility cloak, per se, is not possible.
* Teleportation and cloning
Some say Santa must be able to teleport to give out all his presents, or maybe he simply clones himself. Teleporting and cloning have been "Star Trek" staples since the 1960s.
Santa would have to teleport thousands of times a second to give out all his toys. So far, we physicists can only teleport subatomic particles in the lab. It may take centuries before we can teleport a human being.
Cloning can already be done in the lab, but several hundred deformed mutants are created in the process. By the 23rd century, when "Star Trek" takes place, we may have ironed out all the kinks in cloning.
A new online information service launching in early 2006 aims to build on the model of free online encyclopedia Wikipedia by inviting acknowledged experts in a range of subjects to review material contributed by the general public.
Called Digital Universe, the project is the brainchild of, among others, USWeb founder Joe Firmage and Larry Sanger, one of Wikipedia's earliest creators.
As we all know, Wikipedia suffered some unwanted publicity recently with the revelation that it contained an anonymously written article linking former journalist John Seigenthaler to the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and John F. Kennedy.
"The vision of the Digital Universe is to essentially provide an ad-free alternative to the likes of AOL and Yahoo on the Internet," said Firmage. "Instead of building it through Web robots, we're building it through a web of experts at hundreds of institutions throughout the world."
The problem that Firmage and his colleagues are trying to solve is finding a financially viable way to back up an endless supply of no-cost and ad-free articles written by the general public with review and certification by subject-area experts.
There have been previous attempts at this. In fact, Sanger and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales were behind the last major attempt, known as Nupedia. But that effort died when it failed to generate the kind of critical mass that Wikipedia has--more than 45,000 active users and nearly 900,000 articles in English alone--over the last couple of years.
But Firmage, Sanger and Digital Universe President Bernard Haisch think their project can avoid the pitfalls of its predecessors. They've created a system built around the idea of portals--one for each major subject area, such as climate change, energy, education, the solar system and so on. Each portal will contain many different kinds of resources.
"There will be a lot of resources of different kinds that are actually prepared by experts and the general public under the management of experts," Sanger explained. "So this would include an encyclopedia, but also public-domain books, participatory journalism, forums of various kinds and so forth."
This certainly sounds like a worthwhile project. Of course, it might be a long time before they can mount a real challenge to Wikipedia, at least in terms of volume.
To be sure, when Digital Universe launches in January, it won't have anywhere near the depth and breadth of Wikipedia's information. But like Wikipedia--which launched in January 2001 with just 20 articles and has expanded steadily since--Digital Universe founders expect their project to grow slowly and organically.
It will launch with about a dozen subject-area portals, Firmage said, but will add a new portal every two to three weeks.
The real difference between the two will be in the verification of certain articles.
[T]he encyclopedia element of the project is the one that is the most similar to Wikipedia. But where Wales' project has just one kind of article -- those created and vetted by users -- the Digital Universe's encyclopedia will have two separate and distinct tiers: publicly written articles that are not certified by the experts as accurate, and those that are. . .
"It will be the first Web-based information resource that combines the trustworthiness and authority of scientific review and governance with the power of Web-based collaboration, all enabled by a state-of-the-art technology platform," wrote three Ph.D.s, Cutler Cleveland, Jim Lester and Peter Saundry, the chair and vice chairs, respectively, of the project's Environmental Information Coalition.
"As such, the (Digital Universe)," they wrote in an open letter, "will be a direct conduit of objective information from scientists and educators to decision makers and civil society at large."
It will be interesting to see how they treat our field of nanotechnology. We'll be watching.