Rolling out the Red Carpet

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Friday, November 7, 2008

Latching on Nanotechnology

Today I reassemble excerpts of my lectures, delivered at various local universities, on Nanotechnology—the largest breakthrough of 21st Century—the act of purposefully manipulating matter at an atomic scale and has the ability to manage universe at a molecular perspective. The nano-era is just around the corner and I see a multi-trillion dollar industry coming for a jumpstart within 5-10 years.

Nanotechnology is going to change the face of present day solutions to health problems. For instance the tiny autonomous robots that will work in bloodstream, clearing out plaque deposits, fixing various genetic flaws, looking for and eliminating cancer cells, and working in tandem with brain cells will vastly increase the human intellectual capacity. They will be like built-in doctors—cruising about, taking samples, communicating diagnosis, and finally, at your design, they will deal with whatever problem they encounter by administering drugs, or performing minute surgery.

The story of nanotechnology in medicine will be the story of extending surgical control to the molecular level. The easiest applications will be aids to the immune system, which will selectively attack invaders outside tissues. Immune machines will have no difficulty identifying cancer cells, and ultimately be able to track them down and destroy them wherever they may be growing. Destroying every cancer cell will cure the cancer.

Devices working in the bloodstream will nibble away at atherosclerotic deposits, widening the affected blood vessels. Cell herding devices will restore artery walls and artery linings to health, by ensuring that the right cells and supporting structures are in the right places. This would prevent heart attacks.

With constant monitoring of our every bodily function, and continuous removal of dead cells, nanites will keep us at 100% peak health, giving us life-spans far exceeding those we can expect today—100, 200 or even 300 years; cancer cells—gone; poorly functioning kidney fixed; broken bone repaired; funny looking nose tweeked. Out and out, memory of one human being will be more and sharper than of several PCs of today.

It will impact the practice of medicine in many ways. The tools of medicine will become cheaper and more powerful. Research and diagnosis will be far more efficient, allowing rapid response to new diseases, including engineered diseases. Small, cheap, numerous sensors, computers, and other implantable devices may allow continuous health monitoring and semi-automated treatment. Several new kinds of treatment will become possible. As the practice of medicine becomes cheaper and less uncertain, it can become available to more people.

With real-time monitoring of the body's systems, it will be possible via nanotechnology to detect undesired effects far earlier, allowing a more aggressive and experimental approach to treatment. Researchers will be able to gather far more data and process it with computers millions of times more powerful. The result will be a detailed model of the body's systems and processes, and the ability to predict the effects of any disease or treatment. Diagnosis will also be far easier and more informative. It will be possible to build thousands of diagnostic tests, including invasive tests and imaging tests, into a single, cheap, hand-held device. A variety of single-molecule detection technologies will be available even with early nanotechnology. Trustworthy diagnosis will make medicine far more efficient, and also reduce the risk of malpractice.

The practice of medicine today involves a lot of uncertainty. Doctors must guess what condition a patient has, and further guess how best to treat it without upsetting the rest of the body's systems. By contrast, when pathogens and chemical imbalances will be directly detected, many conditions will be treatable with no uncertainty, allowing the use of computer-selected treatment in common cases. This may further reduce the cost of medical care, although doctors, regulatory agencies, or the patients themselves may resist the practice initially.

Many organs in the body perform fairly simple functions. Already, sophisticated machinery can replace lung function for hours, heart function for months, and kidney function for years. Since nanotechnology can build machines smaller than cells, many other organs will be candidates for replacement or augmentation, including skin, muscles, various digestive organs, and some sensory functions.

With nanotechnology, we should be able to build mass storage devices that can store more than a hundred billion billion bytes in a volume the size of sugar cube. RAM that can store a mere billion billion bytes in such a volume and massively parallel computers of same size that can deliver a billion billion instructions per second

One aspect of nanotechnology is about building working mechanisms using components with nanoscale dimensions, such as super small computers (bacteria sized) with today’s MIPS capacity, or super computers the size of sugar cubes, possessing the power of a billion laptops, or a regular sized desktop model with the power of trillions of today’s PCs

The nano-engineered materials will have superior physical properties—stronger, cheaper and lighter. Material strengths are currently limited by lattice defects and intermolecular bond energies. Nanoscale materials, in contrast, might be produced with microstructures that are ordered over the long range. This could lead to stronger and lighter materials. In a similar way, the hardness and surface smoothness of nano-engineered materials would be controllable to a greater extent than at present. They will be much cheaper than the products produced by conventional industry.

The military aspects of nanotechnology have gotten more attention. We see upcoming weapons that are simultaneously more effective and less lethal. Weapons that are enormously powerful, but non-lethal, might tend to be used a lot. Pentagon is doing research for development of nano-weapons. Mastery of nanotechnology could lead to the kind of military supremacy that mastery of steam power and repeating firearms gave the West in the 19th Century

Pakistan should create awareness, prepare for nano-era, include nanotechnology as a subject matter in core curriculum and most importantly our industry needs to stay vigilant and stop making un-informed decisions for investment. (