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The Age of Biological Machines

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Analogue computer in 1949

In the beginning we had raw materials, then moved into the development of analogue computing devices, then made a transition to silicon and digital technologies, and now, with the development of biological machines- we are faced with situations that require a close ethical analysis. Since the 1950s, we have the transformation of silicon technology- starting with Bell Labs and Intel to produce supercomputers. Then in the 1970s-1980s, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs revolutionalised the personal computer. However, now electronics is now taking another step in its evolution: biological machines. Previously, I wrote about DNA or molecular computing in The End of Software Development.

The National Academy of Sciences recently published a paper on scientists who developed a prototype of molecular computer based on nanofabricated networks. Molecular computers, as a proof of concept, have been developed by various scientists around the world since the mid 1990s, however, currently researchers are now integrating molecular computing with nanofabricated networks. The problem with electronic computers is that although they are extremely powerful at performing a high number of operations at very high speeds in a sequential manner, they do not have parallel processing capabilities. Another problem with electronic computers is that they require a higher processing power as more data is input, and often suffer from cooling problems.

What is different about molecular or DNA computing is that it utilises biological elements- namely Adenosine and other molecules and enzymes which have self-organising, and self-selecting principles, and can be input to process multiple functions at once- similar to the way the human brain works. The molecular, nanotech driven computer that scientists had developed in July of last year, and the research which was published this past month, is based on a configuration of a specifically designed nanostructured network with a large number of molecular-motor-driven, protein filaments. 

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Other scientists have also integrated nanotechnology with molecular computing, such as researchers at Bar-Ilan University in Israel utilised strands of DNA to create a nanobot computer inside of a living creature—a cockroach in 2014. In their paper published in Nature Nanotechnology, the researchers describe how they created several nanobot structures using strands of DNA, injected them into a living cockroach, then watched as they worked together as a computer to target one of the insects cells.

Biochemical nanocomputers already exist in nature; in essence, they are manifest in all living things. Instead of silicon microchips, they are run on DNA molecules ("the processor") and enzymes ("the software"). The question of molecular computers infiltrating the commercial market is not a question of how, but when? What is interesting is that biological machines might not be perceptible to the naked human eye- instead it might resemble a droplet of water, and integrate seamlessly into one's own biology; in essence creating autonomous bio-molecular computers that can be injected into our own living cells, replacing the electronic computers we have today, which are only visible as external hardware and wearable smart technology. A lot has been written about this singularity, the marriage of human and machine- as popularised by Ray Kurzweil; however, as we move towards biological machines- and away from electronic computers, we are entering a more specious, ethical conundrum.

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The Terminator cyborg in popular media, inspired by Professor Kevin Warwick

Professor Kevin Warwick of the Cybernetics department at the University of Reading in the UK (whose nickname is "Captain Cyborg") has long been a pioneer in the development of the biological brain interface, as his research produced an interesting molecular computing methodology in which brain cells from living organisms were grown in a petri dish and were attached to a mechanical robotic interface. Biological machines have something electronic computers and current AI research based on binary computing does not have: they possess consciousness. One such robot Professor Warwick had developed was reported to have "committed suicide" because it could not cope with its environment, leading Professor Warwick to develop a Board of Ethics called "Bioethics", to address the main social, ethical, philosophical and anthropological issues related to his research.

The irony is, the more advanced we think we are becoming, in the end, we are returning to our biological roots of behaviour. Quite personally, unlike Ray Kurzweil and Professor Warwick, I do not like the idea of being injected or implanted with technology, especially a molecular nanostructured computing unit into my own cells. Why mess with nature's own perfection? However, if we could access that technology wirelessly, and choose to shut it on or off, then I think it would really take "wireless" into an entire new direction.

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A dystopian future of a society of people wearing 3D virtual reality headsets is highly unlikely with the advent of nanotechnology and molecular computing.

In the future, we won't be holding a smartphone or typing into our keyboards. We won't be wearing virtual reality headsets. Artificial intelligence will be replaced by molecular nanostructured biological machines, perhaps similar to our own selves, and they will have consciousness, just as we do, if we choose to give them a brain.

By 2040, we might access all our healthcare data via a biological implant in our fingertip or via a retina scan and be able to wirelessly access an interface that allows us to compute, write, read, and communicate with others via a seamless brain-to-brain interface. We might all possess quantum memories, able to exceed our own capacity for data. All the vivid details of our dreams and memories may be compressed into a scanning device that has the key to our DNA. However, if we think about current practical applications, and where this nascent technology will move towards in just the next 5-10 years, I will extrapolate that the sectors that will be most affected will be telecommunications, education and healthcare.