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The Newest 'Information Technology' Is Actually the Oldest

During a trip to Portland last week, for the North American Conference on Sustainability in Higher Education, I read several books. (I always carry reading material to handle any amount of down time at airports or in the air.) One of them was a science fiction novel that reminded me, in terms of the science involved, of the sort of stuff that was being written about mechanical space travel in the decades before we actually ended up going to the moon.

More specifically, this book extrapolated out from some of the current research that is either minimally-developed or only now seen as near-term possible due to the sequencing of the human genome and the kinds of multidisciplinary research that is going to be happening in all of those "life sciences centers" popping up on campuses. At some point down the line, and not in the far future, we're going to have to be thinking a little more carefully about what we now consider to be "technology."

And I don't mean the old saw about "Blackboards and chalk is a technology." What's happening in the nanotech area and in various kinds of biological research is pointed directly toward a "biotechnology that isn't just prosthetic arms and artificial hips but instead aims to duplicate, and maybe do better, some of the stuff other technologies now do.

Brain/Computer Interfaces

Nathan Remmert, the oldest son of one of my family's best friends, experienced a broken back last spring and is paralyzed from the chest down. We're all in awe of how well he and his family have adapted to the changed circumstances and it makes it all pay more attention to not only stem cell research, but the various research tracks which involve electronics that mediate between a human brain and the outside world in place of defective body parts or organs.

One researcher, who is both deaf and blind, is working on a keyboard that will be capable of simultaneously turning anything she types into both speech and Braille. Many researchers are working on ways to use eyeball tracking to control computers, and some are even working on ways to implant electrodes that will, interacting through computing devices, let people like Nathan control appliances, doors, moving parts of his house, and more, using what would have in the past been called telepathic powers.

But these kinds of applications just touch the surface of what's going on, and what's going to happen.

Rat Neurons Piloting Fighter Jets

"Somewhere in Florida, 25,000 disembodied rat neurons are thinking about flying an F-22." Yep, that's right. This research involved taking a clump of disembodied rat neurons and letting them grow in an electrode array and form their own "brain." So what? Well, I just can't write it better than the article puts it, so I'll quote it. This disembodied clump of rat neurons, which is electronically hooked up to a flight simulator are:

"…able to control the pitch and roll of the simulated F-22 fighter jet in weather conditions ranging from blue skies to hurricane-force winds. Initially the aircraft drifted, because the brain hadn't figured out how to control its 'body,' but over time the neurons learned to stabilize the aircraft to a straight, level flight." Full article here.

Adding "Wet Drive" Storage to Your Hippocampus

At a recent Society for Neuroscience meeting, a multi-disciplinary and multi-laboratory team from six campuses says it is now "no longer a question of if, but when they will have a silicon implant chip that can allow people with injuries or diseases that destroy their memory functions to utilize silicon technology for extra memory storage. Now, I can't imagine even for a second that once such a thing is available, there will be an inevitable consumer demand for it. Personally, I would never undergo cosmetic surgery to change the shape of my nose or plump up my lips--but I surely would strongly desire an implant that would give me more brain memory space, perhaps even to the point of eidetic memory.

Enjoying Your Cake and Keeping It, Too

Nanotechnologists want to build tools and robots that are as small as the smallest viruses. The biggest problem in that field right now is how to move the molecules around when there aren't physical tools to do that. Recent research at the University of Michigan describes a possible way to create molecular structures with "sticky patches" on them that cause the particles to stick to each other in just the right way to create different shapes like sheets of spheres, chains, rings, and staircase assemblies of a size which can then be physically manipulated into larger but still non-level structures.

Those scientists know that we already do "nanotechnology"--in our bodies. Inside our cells are functional areas that are, functionally, nano-assemblers with instructions encoded to build physical (biological) structures from the raw stuff of elements and molecules. When the researchers can duplicate that--and it is just a matter of time--we may be into an age where I can send my mother a birthday cake by sending digital instructions to a molecular assembly device inside her home computer. It builds her an exact duplicate that she and our family back in Ohio and West Virginia can enjoy, while I keep the original in my home in Ann Arbor.

And then my mother and I each would have the ability to have another cake built just like it--we will be able to eat our cake and keep it, too.

Getting Rid of Physics Envy--Biology as an Information Science

Some researchers are implanting research to apply integrated systems theory to the understanding of the human body--at all levels.

"Systems biologists aim to understand how cells work by seeing biology as a network of systems, consisting of genes written in DNA, which send messages about the cell written in RNA, which provide the recipes for proteins, which do the work of life in our bodies. Understanding the networks will lead to tests that will identify diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and AIDS." Full article here.

This is part of a "digital revolution" in biology that, to biologists, d'esn't mean things like laptops and wireless, but instead the research and practical consequences that are stemming from the understanding that DNA, the recipe for life, is a digital code, and biology is really an information science. Understanding the body in systems theory means that in your future is a commode that d'es thousands of diagnostic tests every time you go to the bathroom, and communicates the information directly into your medical records.

So, the newest stuff that we are calling an information technology is actually billions of years old, and we've gotten to this better understanding of it using the silicon-based information technology that is only a few decades old. Sometimes technology is just amazing.

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