Mind Tech Merger in the Nanoscale

Biology and technology are both evolving toward more efficient methods of information processing. With a head start of a billion years, biology has evolved human consciousness; technology appears to be catching up rapidly.

Ultimate Computing is the common destination for the evolution of information processing systems in both biology and technology. At this point it is an extrapolation of converging trajectories, but Ultimate Computing may soon exist in the nanoscale. Nano = 10-9, one nanometer is a billionth of a meter, and one nanosecond is a billionth of a second. Subunits within biological protein assemblies (cytoskeletal polymers, organelles, membrane proteins, virus coats) are of nanometer size scale and undergo conformational oscillations in the nanosecond time scale. Nanoscale excitations, which may be coherent and coupled to intraprotein dipole shifts, can generate communicative "collective modes" within protein assemblies and provide a substrate for biological information processing. Thus the "nanoscale" (Figure 1.1) may be where living intelligence has evolved. Coincidentally, nanoscale devices including molecular computers, Feynman machines and von Neumann replicators are becoming feasible through technologies such as scanning tunneling microscopy. A nanoscale marriage of biomolecules and nanotech devices, providing direct communication and information transfer, could have profound benefits for biomedicine and our culture in general.

Figure 1.1: Sizing the Nanoworld. The diameter of each circle is given in nanometers (nm). A) 0.30 nm—a carbon atom, 0.15 nm in diameter. B) 0.50 nm—alanine, an amino acid with 13 atoms including 3 carbons, is about .33 nm in diameter. C) 12 nm—a tubulin dimer protein, the subunit of microtubules, is 8 nm long. It is composed of 2 similar monomers (alpha and beta tubulin), each made of about 440 amino acids. Cross hatching suggests the approximate amount of space available for each amino acid. D) 50 nm—a microtubule, 13 sided tube with an outside cross-sectional diameter of 25 nm. E) 1900 nm—a small 1000 nm diameter nerve axon might contain 100 microtubules (shown) and 1000 smaller filaments (not shown). Microtubules associate in informal clumps of 1 to 5 microtubules each, represented by dots. F) 40,000 nm—a nerve cell grown on the surface of a Motorola 68000 computer chip. The wire thickness is 15,000 nm wide. G) 170,000 nm—a nematode is a small worm of less than 1000 cells, 300 of which are neurons. Nematodes have a brain, teeth, muscles, gut, and sex lives.

Figure 1.1: Sizing the Nanoworld. The diameter of each circle is given in nanometers (nm). A) 0.30 nm—a carbon atom, 0.15 nm in diameter. B) 0.50 nm—alanine, an amino acid with 13 atoms including 3 carbons, is about .33 nm in diameter. C) 12 nm—a tubulin dimer protein, the subunit of microtubules, is 8 nm long. It is composed of 2 similar monomers (alpha and beta tubulin), each made of about 440 amino acids. Cross hatching suggests the approximate amount of space available for each amino acid. D) 50 nm—a microtubule, 13 sided tube with an outside cross-sectional diameter of 25 nm. E) 1900 nm—a small 1000 nm diameter nerve axon might contain 100 microtubules (shown) and 1000 smaller filaments (not shown). Microtubules associate in informal clumps of 1 to 5 microtubules each, represented by dots. F) 40,000 nm—a nerve cell grown on the surface of a Motorola 68000 computer chip. The wire thickness is 15,000 nm wide. G) 170,000 nm—a nematode is a small worm of less than 1000 cells, 300 of which are neurons. Nematodes have a brain, teeth, muscles, gut, and sex lives.

This one is about 450,000 nm long. H) 5,000,000 nm—one quarter of a human thumbnail with 50 nematodes represented to scale. By Paul Jablonka.

Comingling of consciousness and computer technology is a prevalent dream. Artificial intelligence based on brain/mind organization is a tentative step in this direction, as is the proposed use of self assembling protein arrays as switching circuits or "biochips." The Japanese effort towards the "Sixth Generation Computer" aims to "integrate biology and technology" by merging research in artificial intelligence and the functions of living organisms (Corcoran, 1987). By attempting to understand the conditions required to maintain biological "homeostasis", the Japanese are hoping to embark on a symbiosis between intelligent biological structures and technological devices, and even predict an "artificial brain"! One missing ingredient for such a Mind/Tech merger is an understanding of the mechanism of consciousness. Most models of brain organization consider nerve cells and their connections to be the brain's fundamental units of information processing. However, profoundly complex and intelligent activities occur within nerve cells. Further, simple organisms like single cell amoeba and paramecium perform complex tasks without benefit of brain or nervous system. In this book we view the cytoskeleton—networks of protein polymers which occupy and organize the interiors of all living cells (Figure 1.2)—as a highly evolved information processing system operating at nanoscale levels. Collective nanoscale activities of the cytoskeleton and related structures can explain biological organization, information processing, and consciousness, and be the target for the future evolution of technology.

Figure 1.2: Cytoskeleton within cells who have just divided. Intracellular microtubules are visualized by immunostaining. Spherical areas are cell nuclei, adjacent to which are the dense microtubule organizing centers (MTOC). With permission from DeBrabander, Geuens, DeMey and Joniav (1986), courtesy of Marc DeBrabander.

Technological emulation of life since the 13th century has been reviewed by author Claris Nelson (1985). Albertus Magnus is said to have create a life-like mechanical servant out of metal, wood, glass, leather and wax that could open doors and greet visitors. It was considered blasphemous work of the devil by Magnus' student Saint Thomas Aquinas who destroyed it. Science fiction writers predicted computers and robots long before they existed. In 1879, Edward Page Mitchell's The Ablest Man in the World featured a mechanical brain and in

Figure 1.2: Cytoskeleton within cells who have just divided. Intracellular microtubules are visualized by immunostaining. Spherical areas are cell nuclei, adjacent to which are the dense microtubule organizing centers (MTOC). With permission from DeBrabander, Geuens, DeMey and Joniav (1986), courtesy of Marc DeBrabander.

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