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20191027 – The Age of Living Machines


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The main idea of this book is to present the latest technological achievements of MIT and other American high tech institutions and then convince reader that bright future depends on giving them lots and lots of government money above and beyond of lots and lots of government money they are receiving now.



This refers to growth of population and need to overcome Malthus ideas about population growth outpacing resources, resulting in wars and starvations. Author points out that it was prevented by technological development of XIX and XX centuries and her believe that we need another technological breakthrough to prevent it in the future. Author also presents here the plan of the book with annotation for each chapter.


This starts with a bit of biography of how author became MIT president and then moves to ideas of integrating different scientific fields, with such integration providing for new discoveries and inventions. Author discusses the first such integration of physics and engineering and then promotes the new integration of biology and engineering.


This chapter introduces the nucleic acids, DNA and RNA, which serve as biology’s information system. Nucleic acids direct the assembly of biological structures and ensure the accurate transmission of traits from one generation to the next. Nucleic acids can be manipulated, and this chapter describes how nucleic acids of viruses have been manipulated for next-generation battery fabrication. DNA and RNA carry the instruction set for the assembly of proteins, the mini-machines responsible for many biological functions.


This chapter tells the story of the discovery of protein, called aquaporin. Aquaporin serves as a highly specific channel for water flowing into and out of cells (in bacteria, animals, and plants) and is now being deployed in commercial water filters.


The technologies discussed in this chapter introduce one of the fastest growing areas of medicine—namely, molecular medicine—with its central premise that disease processes reflect perturbations in the normal molecular processes of our cells. Highly sensitive new technologies that recognize those perturbations make early disease detection more reliable and less expensive. Our complex biological functions, such as breathing, digestion, and hearing, are carried out by complex tissues composed of an array of different kinds of cells gathered and organized together, with the brain the most complex tissue of all.


This describes how the brain sends messages along nerves to move limbs and how new technologies can restore to amputees and victims of brain injury the ability to move their limbs.


This is the last technological chapter that returns us to the sum of the parts. For every living organism, the sum of gene and protein expression is revealed in its physical traits -its phenotype. Over at least the last ten thousand years humankind has selected and propagated plants and animals by evaluating their phenotypes. Here author describes new engineering tools that accelerate phenotype-based selection, promising to identify more productive and more resilient food crops in time to nourish the planet’s growing population.

7 CHEATING MALTHUS, ONCE AGAIN: Making Convergence Happen Faster

The final chapter discusses what author calls Convergence 2.0: combination of technical and biological sciences, which follows historical conversion of physics and engineering – Conversion 1.0. Author notes that all fundamental discoveries necessary for Conversion 1.0 were made before 1930, but somehow fails to mention that it was done with private support with no government money whatsoever. After that she greatly praises government role in its implementation, which was driven by military needs of WWII and then Cold War. Author then links scientific progress directly to government funding and call for its dramatic increase.


This book is interesting for me in two ways. One is description of current and coming technological achievements based on scientific research. The other one is author’s mode of thinking, which is probably highly typical for contemporary bureaucratic scientist who probably spent good chunk of her time in all kinds of competitive bureaucratic fights for funding. Understandably, the future of science in her mind depends on outcome of these bureaucratic games. I do not believe that it is correct approach. Government / Bureaucratic funding produces well fed, wealthy bureaucrats rather than well developed technology. I would like to see real breakdown of funding, which I have no doubt would demonstrate huge waste on meaningless projects like “Future impacts of increase in temperature from global warming on something in XXV century”. I think that America had very good scientific arrangement when Universities funded by private charities and reasonable tuition fees produced high quality fundamental science and well educated citizens who were capable developing new technologies and run successful businesses, while adjusting these technologies to human needs and making huge amounts of money in the process. Later on these successful people donated significant resources back to Universities partly to satisfy their scientific curiosity, something that well educated people usually develop, and partly to establish their legacy. The current system of government funding from money confiscated from productive people and allocated vie political and bureaucratic games is detrimental to development of real science and supports huge waste on pseudo science, which is always much more politically correct than real science.


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