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Interview With Robert A. Freitas Jr.
By: Svidinenko (Svidinenko) 2004.07.06

Interview With Robert A. Freitas Jr.

world leading nanomedicine scientist answering some questions


Robert A. Freitas Jr.

Robert A. Freitas Jr., J.D., has degrees in physics, psychology, and law, and has written nearly 100 technical papers, book chapters, or popular articles on a diverse set of scientific, engineering, and legal topics. He is is author of "Nanomedicine", the first book to comprehensively address the technical issues involved in the medical applications of molecular nanotechnology and medical nanodevice design.

Nanomedicine may be defined as the monitoring, repair, construction and control of human biological systems at the molecular level, using engineered nanodevices and nanostructures.

His book is well-known in Russia and our site provides translation to russian some Robert's science articles. So our visitors and members have some nanomedicine-related questions to Mr. Freitas. Nanotechnology News Network sincerely thanks to Robert A. Freitas Jr. to this interview.

Dmitry Rijasanov transhumanist and site administrator (http://www.bessmertie.ru):

"Can you show some examples of working projects of modern nanomedicine in age curing problem? When, how do you think, first experiments in the field of age curing will be done? Maybe this kind of experiments already done?"

R.F. - "The techniques of biotechnology, including genomics and genetic engineering, might well be able to cure many, even most, causes of aging over the next couple of decades. However, nanorobotic medicine will almost certainly cure aging. If my colleagues and I can induce sufficient resources (both human and financial) to be directed toward the development of molecular nanotechnology and molecular manufacturing, a nanomedical cure for aging should be within reach in 20-30 years. Of course, if such resources are not made available, it will take longer.

You can read what I wrote on this subject in the text immediately preceding and following Slide 69 in my lecture “Death is an Outrage”, located online at: http://www.rfreitas.com/Nano/DeathIsAnOutrage.htm."

Nickola, young scientist (fond of nanotechnology):

"Can human control medical nanorobots (vasculoid appliance or other complex medical nanorobotics) via brain? Can human control metabolism via mind commands to nanorobotics applications in it body?"

R.F. - "There are many ways to inmessage (from external doctors or the patient to nanorobots inside the body) and to outmessage (from internal nanorobots directly to the patient or the doctor), as described at great length in Section 7.4 of Nanomedicine, Vol. I, located online at: http://www.nanomedicine.com/NMI/7.4.htm.

Some of these methods do involve direct data links between nanorobots and neurons in the brain, or other neural cells such as the optic nerve. One of my favorite ideas is ocular outmessaging, wherein a nanorobot is stationed in each retinal cell, allowing complete real-time control of the human visual field (imagine the possibilities!); see online at: http://www.nanomedicine.com/NMI/

Nanorobots should also be able to communicate directly with living cells, including neural cells. They could insert new signals where none previously existed; extinguish an existing signal that was passing through; modify an existing signal to make it into a different signal; or, most interestingly, use the existence of one signal to trigger actions elsewhere in the body – in effect creating complex new physiological reflexes or links that have never before existed in nature. See online discussion at: http://www.nanomedicine.com/NMI/

Giving “mind commands” will be tricky, but some version of this is undoubtedly possible See my general discussion of inmessaging to in vivo nanorobots at http://www.nanomedicine.com/NMI/7.4.2.htm, and my more specific discussion of inmessaging (from patient to nanorobots) at http://www.nanomedicine.com/NMI/ Once the nanorobots have received a valid command, they can collectively take any action that is physically possible, and altering metabolism is easily physically possible."

Alexander A. Olikevich, CEO of Nanotechnology News Network Ltd., Deputy Director of IUSD Institute for Nanotechnologies, President of Youth Science Society (http://www.nanonewsnet.ru):

"What can Russian Youth do to get nanomedicine education?"

R.F. - "I’m not familiar enough with your schools and university system to say for certain what is the best specific course of action for you.

In general, if you are interested in the longer-term visionary goals of molecular nanotechnology, including medical nanorobotics, the best thing you can do is to learn as much as you can in a great variety of fields – chemistry, physics, biochemistry, physical chemistry, mechanical engineering, computational chemistry, biology, robotics, medical sciences, and so forth. Nanorobotic medicine, when it begins to arrive in 10-20 years, will be a very multidisciplinary field. You should definitely have a specialty, so you have something immediately useful to contribute as a trained specialist, but the broader your knowledge the more valuable you will be to the team. Remember: Nanorobots may consist of billions of atoms and may require a tremendous collaborative design effort. Each nanorobot design may require huge design teams of thousands of technical people, possibly cooperating internationally, much as Boeing used many teams around the world to help it design the 777 jet aircraft. A sophisticated future nanorobot might have millions (or more) of working parts – it may be a very complex machine indeed!"

Dmitry Leschev, member of the Center of Advanced Researches:

"After reading Nanomedicine Book vol. I, section 3.5 about molecular nanoreceptors I have question:

Why needed so high construction accuracy - 0,001 nm? If this receptor will be so high-accurate, we can't bind large target molecule, which ligand rotates and oscillating. And molecular models of oxygen molecule O2 and nitrogen N2 presented in Nanomedicine as cylinders, but at the room temperature they looks like spheres due to fast temperature rotation. How we can separate them in this case?

And if molecular receptor made with chemically bounded binding sites (like hemoglobin binding site for oxygen), why need so high accuracy, when target molecule binds chemically already? E.g. can we make chemical reception to small molecules, large molecules can binging and twisting to shape to the receptor due to Brownian motion - so why needed high accuracy in molecular receptor?"

R.F. - "You don’t usually need such high construction accuracy – usually 0.01 nm is good enough in the “product”, though often in manufacturing we need the tool that makes the product to have higher accuracy than the product it manufactures. Some molecular receptors might require this high accuracy, to make very subtle distinctions between molecules that are very similar. But most types of receptors, and target molecules, will not require this precision. I put this discussion in the book primarily to let the reader know that this kind of precision is, in principle, available if and when needed.

Regarding O2 and N2, if there is even a very slight difference in the mean diameter of their rotational envelopes, then the rates at which they pass through a hole of intermediate diameter will differ slightly, and this differential can be used to separate them using diffusion cascade sortation (http://www.nanomedicine.com/NMI/3.2.4.htm) with many units connected in series, or by other similar means.

You are correct about the hemoglobin binding site – if a molecule has a strong covalent or electrostatic affinity for a binding site, then shape-complementarity-based binding sites might be unnecessary in that instance. As noted in NMI Section 3.5.1 (http://www.nanomedicine.com/NMI.3.5.1.htm), there are a number of different forces that can be applied to a given binding site design, in order to produce a desired ligand-receptor specificity. As the designer, you will choose whichever one(s) are most appropriate for the job at hand. For example, distinguishing two very similar but chemically inert uncharged molecules might require a binding site that primarily depends upon shape-complementarity (e.g., pure van der Waals) to very high geometric precision in order to establish adequate discrimination – as exemplified in Table 3.6 at http://www.nanomedicine.com/NMI/3.5.5.htm."

Dmitry Rijasanov transhumanist and site administrator (http://www.bessmertie.ru):

"I heard about nanoparticles, which can improve brain cells and make their lifecycle longer for 4 times. And, in another study we find that buckyballs damage brain. What nanomedicine says? Can nanorobotic devices in human body brings good results to one tissues and organs, and destructive to another ?"

R.F. - "Nanoparticles are not nanorobotic medicine. Nanoparticles are just very small bits of dumb matter, which have perhaps been cleverly functionalized with some particularly useful chemical group that provides targeting to a specific organ of the body, or helps sneak the particle through the cell wall, and so forth.

It is not surprising that as we begin to employ new kinds of materials in the medical field, we will discover heretofore unknown possibilities – and problems. Right now, the biocompatibility research has just begun on the particles most commonly employed in today’s nanomedicine – simple particles such as dendrimers, quantum dots, and the like. (See http://www.nanomedicine.com/NMIIA/15.3.6.htm) Some of these nanoparticles will turn out to be perfectly safe; others will turn out to have dangers – the research is just now being done. I recently published an entire book on this subject, though primarily from the standpoint of medical nanorobotics, available online at http://www.nanomedicine.com/NMIIA.htm.

But realize that nanoparticles are just the bare beginnings of the field of nanomedicine. They are only the initial “baby steps”. As our ability to build more complex structures to molecular precision continues to grow, eventually we will be able to make robotic devices that include onboard computers, sensors, pumps, power generators, subsystems to allow communication with the outside world, and so forth. Devices of this level of sophistication, which we may begin to see in 10-20 years, will not be at all like the passive nanoparticles of today that are producing such seemingly contradictory results. Rather, these more advances machines will actively locomote to a specific site of action, using a precise navigational system rather than mere diffusion. They will collect local data and select their actions from a wide range of possible actions, unlike today’s dumb nanoparticles or drug molecules that can just do one thing. They will be able to report back to the doctor or patient what they are doing, in real time, and report the successful completion of the mission. Then they can locomote safely out of the body, e.g., to be excreted through the kidney or liver. If the desired mission is to bring good results to a specific organ, a particular tissue, or even to an individual named cell – the nanorobots will accomplish this with high reliability and essentially zero side effects.

This is the ultimate goal of nanomedicine. It is why the future of medicine is now so exciting. Most of us will live to witness the greatest revolution in the quality and precision of health care, ever seen in human history."

Svidinenko Yuriy, Analyst General of Nanotechnology News Network Ltd. (http://www.nanonewsnet.ru):

"Can we reach simples nanomedical devices in next 10 years due to construction of protoassemblers from complex protein machines ?"

R.F. - "I can’t rule this out, but I think it is unlikely. Assemblers (in the molecular nanotechnology sense) work so well because they will be positionally assembling very rigid materials such diamond or sapphire. When you start talking about protein assemblers, you are talking about something that is “soft and squishy”, and so you are going to get something like a synthetic ribosome if you go that route – and this will only get you the ability to build more soft and squishy stuff. This can be an extremely useful ability from the medical standpoint, since the human body is mostly made of soft and squishy stuff. But you’ll have a hard time building nanocomputers and other objects requiring high digital precision and requiring huge numbers of parts at high number density, using such means.

If you want to go the soft squishy route, a more promising approach is biorobotics. Here, you start with a stripped-down “minimal organism” like a bacterial or yeast chassis, with all but the minimally-essential 250-300 genes intact. Then you add, into the stripped-down genome, new genes that do whatever you want the cell to do – eat cholesterol, secrete missing insulin or synthetic antibiotics, glow green, or whatever. Essentially, the idea is to take over the machinery of a microbe and install new genetic machinery, thus converting it into a living “biological robot.” There are already several companies in the U.S. actively pursuing this very goal – including one company headed by Craig Venter, the man who first decoded the human genome in 2000. Getting to microbial biorobots probably won’t take 10 years – we could see the first results of these efforts in 5 years, and very possibly much sooner."

Alexander Kurinny, CIO of Nanotechnology News Network Ltd., site administrator MicroBot.ru (http://www.microbot.ru):

"What we can do as members of society to prevent using nanomedical devices in destructive aims by international terrorists or world armies?"

R.F. - "Researchers in this field are especially concerned about this problem, and some of us have helped to formulate the Foresight Guidelines (http://www.foresight.org/guidelines/) which are a good start. 

Any technology can be used for good or ill.  In the near term, development of this technology will be very expensive, requiring lots of resources, time, money, trained people, computers, laboratories, etc.  These are resources which, fortunately, are not generally available to terrorists, or to lawless rogue nations.  So in the early years, only the most advanced and responsible nations will have access.  

Eventually, the technology may progress to the point where the ability to do harm is within the reach of terrorists.  However, this will probably take at least 20-30 years.  During the intervening time, global society and law-abiding nations will have plenty of time to devise defenses against anticipated destructive acts.  Just as we have fire departments to put out fires (including fires maliciously launched by arsonists), in the future we will develop nanotech-based defenses that will be sufficient to deal with any anticipated nanotech-based threats that might be maliciously launched by terrorists.  

But to address your specific question more explicitly:  What can we do as members of society to help out?  Ultimately, each one of us needs to work as hard as we can, individually, to help bring prosperity, open knowledge, and long healthspan to everyone in the world.  In such a world, the motivations to engage in acts of terrorism will be vastly reduced, and thus such acts may be expected to be far fewer in number, more manageable and less disruptive to our lives.  In the end, this is the only enduring solution to our situation as an intelligent tool-using species.  We cannot renounce the use of tools without renouncing that which makes us human."

Nanotechnology News Network sincerely thanks to Robert A. Freitas Jr. to this interview

2004 NanoNewsNet.com

Robert A. Freitas Jr.
Robert A. Freitas Jr.

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