I first became interested in science when I was about nine years old and learned that there were other worlds besides the one we lived on—that the world is a whole lot larger than I thought it was. As a child I got caught up in the excitement of the dawning space age, but by the time I was a teenager I began to wonder why getting sick had to be so miserable, why there had to be so many incurable diseases, and why, in the science fiction stories that I loved to read, people thousands of years in the future could travel across the galaxy, but they still grew old and died. I decided I wanted to become a biochemist and find a way to stop aging.
By the time I got to graduate school, during the late 1960s, I saw that there was very little interest among serious and successful scientists in finding a way to cure aging. Since my first objective was to to get a degree so that I could get a real job and earn some money, I ended up choosing more conventional topics for my PhD thesis and for the remainder of my research career.
I devoted my PhD research to trying to find the structure of a small ribosomal RNA molecule that was an obscure part of structures that all cells use to make proteins. We developed a novel method and got some interesting information, but not enough to really illuminate the system we were studying. Most of the remainder of my research career was devoted to exploring the genes of a virus (a human adenovirus) that had the property that in certain circumstances it was able to transform certain normal cells in laboratory cultures into cells that resembled tumor cells. It was thus one of a class of viruses that were called tumor viruses. During the 1970s, when I first started working in this area, and for some time thereafter, there was widespread hope within the scientific community that studying these viruses would reveal the molecular secrets of cancer, and that this understanding would lead to cures. To make a long story short, I was able to identify the proteins produced by many adenovirus genes, and the work of the community of adenovirus researchers contributed a few pieces to the molecular understanding of cancer that has emerged with increasing clarity over the past few decades.
An unexpected bonus from mapping adenovirus genes was the discovery (in which I played a small part) that one stretch of DNA could code for more than one protein, largely through a novel process called RNA splicing. Although RNA splicing was found to be ubiquitous in higher organisms as well as in viruses, it was thought at the time that the production of multiple proteins from one DNA region probably only happened in viruses—because viruses were under evolutionary pressure to keep their genomes small, while higher organisms were not. Nevertheless, now it is known that although only about 1.5% of the human genome codes for proteins, the genes in this 1.5% are expressed in multiple ways so that the human genome produces 90,000 proteins from less than 30,000 genes, reminiscent of what happens in adenovirus.
In 1996, after a number of years working in the pharmaceutical industry (on several projects aimed at developing vaccines for HIV and cancer), I decided it was time for a career change. I decided to focus on an emerging technology that had caught my eye a decade earlier.
My education, positions, and research publications through 1996
In 1986 I had stumbled upon the book Engines of Creation by K. Eric Drexler, in which he introduced the concept of nanotechnology to a broad audience. Drexler cited the example of the molecular machinery that has been evolved in living cells to argue that we would be able to design a much wider variety of molecular machine systems that would eventually be able to manufacture complex objects large and small to atomic precision.
Such molecular manufacturing systems, or nanofactories, would be able to build any material, device, or system of machines that is compatible with the laws of physics by directly placing the individual atoms where they should be for the material to have the desired properties, or for the device to function. Nanofactories would inexpensively build copies of themselves, make cheap solar cells to harvest abundant solar energy, and use plentiful atoms from dirt and garbage as perfect standardized parts. Atomic trajectories would be controlled so no pollutants would be released to the environment. Exponential growth would make possible inexpensive manufacturing of anything that could be designed, and machine intelligences could do engineering design work millions of times faster than teams of human engineers.
The nanotechnology Drexler envisioned would make possible material abundance and a vast increase in available computing power, as computer circuits were reduced to atomic scale. Microscopic robots he called cell repair machines would greatly expand medical capabilities and make it possible to control aging and rejuvenate the old by making cellular and even molecular surgery practical. Drexler's more recent writings on nanotechnology are available on his web site and at his blog.
I was fascinated and inspired by Engines of Creation. I attempted to guide my research in the direction of nanotechnology, but I could not see a way there from the work that I was funded to do. So during the following decade I found a few ways to become involved in nanotechnology on my own time.
One consequence of the expected development of cell repair machines, which Drexler pointed out, is to strengthen the rational basis for the practice of cryonics, in which patients are preserved at very low temperatures immediately following legal death in the hope that future medical technology will be able to repair damage caused by disease and aging, as well as repair damage caused by the low temperature preservation process itself. In 1988 I was asked to provide a letter of support for the reasonableness of cryonic preservation of those legally deceased, a practice which impresses most people, upon first hearing of it, as rather bizarre, but which seems more sensible when viewed in light of probable developments in advanced nanotechnology for medical applications. My letter was submitted in support of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in the Dora Kent case.
Mine was among several declarations submitted in the case. I argued that the scientific basis existed, even at that time, to consider cryonics a "rational gamble" that future technology would enable the successful reanimation of cryonics patients as healthy and vigorous cured patients. On the basis of that letter, I was interviewed as part of a film on cryonics made for British television during 1988 and titled "The Living Dead".
Engines of Creation inspired quite a few people interested in the future of technology, so I joined with a few friends in Seattle who met on a regular basis to discuss what was happening relevant to the development of nanotechnology. Among our projects was a conference we held in Seattle in 1989 focused on nanotechnology and "the effects that these advanced technologies might have on society over the next 30 - 50 years". The NanoCon Proceedings are available here. Among the eclectic topics presented at NanoCon, Nadrian C. Seeman described his work founding what would become the field of structural DNA nanotechnology.
I co-edited two books that resulted from nanotechnology conferences sponsored by the Foresight Institute.
In 1996 I began a career as a self-employed nanotechnology consultant, writer, and editor. James B. Lewis Enterprises describes what I have been doing the past 12 years. During this time nanotechnology has acquired a broader meaning than the atomically precise manufacturing systems that Drexler envisioned. Instead of pointing to a very powerful and general future fabrication technology that does not yet exist, the term now covers a wide range of current technologies in which useful properties of materials and devices are generated by controlling the structure of matter on a length scale stretching from atomic dimensions to as much as 100 nanometers (several hundred times greater than atomic dimensions). The bustling nanoscale science and technology enterprise has already produced hundreds of consumer products and reasonable hopes for major advances in the coming decade in fields such as drug delivery, computing device fabrication, and energy. So far no clear path has emerged from current technology to general purpose atomically precise manufacturing systems, so such systems are probably still a decade or two or three in the future, but major accomplishments in a number of scientific areas are pointing toward several plausible pathways from current nanotechnology to advanced nanotechnology.
The work that I have been doing the past 12 years, mostly for the Foresight Institute, initially focused on web site maintenance, generating HTML, and editing, but more recently has largely involved writing about nanotechnology in reports, newsletters and blogs. As much as possible, I try to keep up with of the spectrum of topics included under the heading "nanotechnology". Over the past couple decades there have been major advances in nanoscale science and technology—methods of studying and controlling the structure of materials on a length scale ranging from atoms to 100 nanometers. Numerous new materials with unprecedented properties have been discovered or invented—fullerenes, nanotubes, nanowires, graphene, dendrimers, quantum dots, etc.—and many of these are (or soon may be) commercially exploited. Exciting applications that should appear over the next five to ten years will include targeted drug delivery systems to improve cancer therapy, smaller computer circuits, stronger and lighter materials, novel catalysts, and a variety of nanoscale sensors and actuators.
Although the road from early stage nanotechnology to the advanced nanotechnology of nanofactories is not yet clear, a number of possible paths are presented by current scientific advances. Scanning probe microscopes have directly arranged atoms and molecules on surfaces, and plucked atoms from surfaces and replaced atoms on surfaces, breaking and forming bonds in the process. Molecules similar to proteins, but different from any natural protein, have been designed to fold into specific structures. Synthetic DNA molecules have been designed to form stable branched structures, to fold into complex shapes, and to perform simple mechanical functions, like grasping and releasing other molecules and walking along a surface in a programmed manner. Artificial molecular machines have been designed to execute mechanical movement in response to light.
Articles and posts I have written on developments in nanotechnology
In addition to nanotechnology, molecular and cellular biology and biotechnology have made starting advances toward the goals that originally motivated me. The human genome has been sequenced and the vast networks of genes that regulate human cells both in health and in sickness are rapidly coming into focus. Stem cells have been isolated that can either renew their own population indefinitely or differentiate to make any cell type in the human body, and they will eventually provide a way to replace any cells that need to be replaced to cure a disease or ameliorate infirmity. Some of my old research interests are now areas where exciting progress is occurring. RNA molecules have been shown to be molecular machines that fill vital roles in fundamental life processes. Whole new classes of small RNA molecules that powerfully regulate gene expression have been discovered. Adenovirus gene products interact with cellular proteins that are intimately involved in whether cells are healthy or cancerous. Adenoviruses may yet have a role to play in getting useful genes expressed in cells to be used for medical purposes.
Back in 2002 the U.S. National Science Foundation issued a report predicting that four lines of rapidly advancing technologies (nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive science) are converging to create "a golden age that would be an epochal turning point in human history." The report was the subject of an article in Foresight Update 49. The final report published in 2003 and a follow up study sponsored by the NSF in 2006 are both available for download.
The first report Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance: Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information Technology and Cognitive Science, prepared in June of 2002, is available as a 482-page, 5.9 MB PDF. From the executive summary, written by M.C. Roco and W.S. Bainbridge:
In the early decades of the 21st century, concentrated efforts can unify science based on the unity of nature, thereby advancing the combination of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and new technologies based in cognitive science. With proper attention to ethical issues and societal needs, converging technologies could achieve a tremendous improvement in human abilities, societal outcomes, the nation's productivity, and the quality of life. This is a broad, crosscutting, emerging and timely opportunity of interest to individuals, society and humanity in the long term.
The phrase "convergent technologies" refers to the synergistic combination of four major "NBIC" (nano-bio-info-cogno) provinces of science and technology, each of which is currently progressing at a rapid rate: (a) nanoscience and nanotechnology; (b) biotechnology and biomedicine, including genetic engineering; (c) information technology, including advanced computing and communications; (d) cognitive science, including cognitive neuroscience.
…Convergence of diverse technologies is based on material unity at the nanoscale and on technology integration from that scale. The building blocks of matter that are fundamental to all sciences originate at the nanoscale.
Related to the convergent technologies concept is the concept of the technological singularity—a point at which many futurists expect that technological progress will become so rapid that it becomes difficult to guess what will follow. The Wikipedia article (accessed Nov. 17, 2008) provides a good brief summary of the history of the concept. The basic idea is accelerating change leading to an intelligence explosion, especially as machines become capable of true human-level intelligence, and then rapidly improve themselves. An excellent source of information about the technological singularity is the KurzweilAI.net web site, developed by inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity is Near, who sets the date for the technological singularity at 2045. The Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence is another excellent source of information on the technological creation of smarter-than-human intelligence, and its implications. Eliezer S. Yudkowsky, Research Fellow of the The Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, has clarified the three different schools of singularity thought. The "Accelerating Change" school emphasizes that "technological change feeds on itself, and therefore accelerates". The "Event Horizon" school claims that once technology improves upon human intelligence, the future will be qualitatively different from just having new gadgets. The "Intelligence Explosion" school claims that once technology improves upon human intelligence, a positive feedback loop will be created such that increased intelligence will be applied to produce even greater intelligence.
Building a future worth having will require developing and using wisely the crucial technologies that are made possible by an explosion of recent scientific discoveries. It is important that the public be well informed about science and its potential benefits, and assured that the technologies that are converging to transform our future are being developed openly and carefully. I believe it is important and useful to describe where these advances are coming from so that people can see that what seems far-fetched is in fact an expected outgrowth of what we now know. I believe it is essential to communicate these scientific developments, the technologies that are arising from these developments, and the issues and opportunities that these technologies will present.
As a science writer and nanotechnology consultant, I am actively seeking writing assignments related to science and technology topics. I am particularly interested in and knowledgeable about the network of topics that are converging to facilitate manipulating the fundamental atomic building blocks of the physical world to create solutions for our most pressing human problems. For more on these topics: Building a Future Worth Having.Send email to Jim Lewis: