Top News of 2001

January 21, 2002 by Ray Kurzweil, Amara D. Angelica

In its first year of operation, has chronicled the notable news stories on accelerating intelligence. We’ve selected here the most important of those stories to document the key breakthroughs for 2001 in continued exponential growth of computation, communication, and other information-based technologies; comparable acceleration in efforts to reverse-engineer the human brain and other sources of the templates of intelligence; similar growth in our understanding of the information basis of biological processes; and the contributions of nanotechnology.

Foreword by Ray Kurzweil. News story selection by Amara Angelica and Ray Kurzweil. Originally published on January 3, 2002.

When I introduced The Age of Spiritual Machines, When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence (Viking) in January of 1999, my primary thesis that computers would achieve both the hardware and software of human intelligence within thirty years and that an intimate merger with these technologies would greatly amplify the powers of our human-machine civilization was considered a radical notion. Now, three years later, there has been a sea change in informed public perception, as anticipation of a transbiological era has moved far closer to the mainstream. A major reason for this transformation in understanding is the torrent of notable news stories that support and move forward the foundation of this thesis.

On February 22 of 2001, we introduced Although “AI” connotes the field of “artificial intelligence,” we mean it in the larger context of “accelerating intelligence,” which are the multifarious threads that are advancing our understanding and mastery of what I regard as the most powerful force in the Universe, namely intelligence. Ultimately I believe that intelligence will prove to be a more powerful force in determining our destiny than those vast cosmological forces.

One of our primary purposes in launching was to document the flow of new developments that are moving us toward a singular point in human history, indeed to what is increasingly becoming known as the “Singularity.” We set a high bar to post a news story on the site. It had to represent a significant step forward in one of the important underlying threads in our advance toward the Singularity: continued exponential growth of computation, communication, and other information-based technologies, comparable acceleration in efforts to reverse-engineer (i.e., understand the principles of operation of) the human brain and other sources of the templates of intelligence, similar growth in our understanding of the information basis of biological processes, and the ripples of impact all of these developments are having on our economic and social lives.

Despite the high bar we set, even we were surprised at how many advances and breakthroughs made the cut. As of yearend, we posted 724 news stories since our launch on February 22. We offer here some of the highlights.

There were many stories that provide strong support of the expectation that computational resources will continue their now more than one-century-long period of exponential growth, both through and beyond Moore’s Law. In particular, there were genuine breakthroughs in the important area of molecular electronics, with multiple methodologies demonstrating the feasibility of computing in three dimensions, and at the molecular, or even atomic level. For example, scientists at Harvard University have grown tiny nanowires–crystal rods of silicon and other semiconductors to form rudimentary circuits that perform basic logic operations–Oak Ridge National Laboratory developed genetically engineered bacteria that function like microchip components, and Matrix Semiconductor engineers made 3-D circuits by coating standard silicon wafers with many successive layers of polysilicon.

Included among these developments was intriguing progress in harnessing the perplexing powers of quantum computing, which promises to be able to test every combination of values of multiple “qubits,” ambiguous bits that code zero and one simultaneously, thereby instantly searching vast spaces of possible solutions to problems. For example, scientists at the IBM Almaden Research Center have recently performed the most complex such calculation yet: factoring the number 15. And researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara have used 10-13 second pulses of laser light to “tip” the quantum spin alignment of electrons.

Closely related to molecular and quantum computing is nanotechnology, the ability to manipulate individual atoms to create virtually any physical entity. Nano-engineered entities provide the opportunity to combine extremely tiny structural elements, mechanical components, and electronic intelligence. Nanotechnology has an important role in the hardware of intelligence in that the next era after two-dimensional semiconductors (i.e., Moore’s Law) will be three-dimensional molecular devices built using principles of nanotechnology. For example, scientists from Lucent Bell Labs have fabricated an individually addressable transistor whose channel consists of just one molecule and Georgia Institute of Technology researchers have created “nanobelts” that could lead to inexpensive ultra-small sensors, flat-panel display components and other electronic nanodevices.

Nanotechnology also has a critical role in the software of intelligence in that nanobots (robots built using nanotechnology) traveling through the bloodstream will ultimately provide us with close up views of the brain’s circuitry and electrochemical information processes. For example, a University of Illinois at Chicago researcher has created a nano-scale injectable capsule for treating diabetes in rats that is big enough to let the insulin out, but small enough to keep antibodies from entering.

Nanotechnology will also provide us with means of providing intimate connection between biological and non-biological intelligence, and along these lines, there were several engaging developments in 2001. For example, scientists at Max Planck Institute have created the world’s first living silicon circuit by coating a chip with a protein and adding snail neurons, while scientists at the University of Texas are using a sliver of protein to connect neurons and tiny crystals of semiconductors called quantum dots, which could be used in prosthetics operated directly by a user’s nerve impulses and in sensors that detect tiny quantities of neurotoxins.

One of the profound implications of combining biological and non-biological systems will be the increasing realism of virtual reality. Ultimately, we’ll be able to do anything with anyone (or a very good simulation of anyone) in compelling virtual reality environments. There were major strides in this area as well. For example, new computer software allows filmmakers to add synthespians (virtual actors) with realistic hair, clothing, skin and muscles to make them indistinquishable from real people and new videoconferencing technology such as Teleportec creates the illusion that you’re in the same physical space as other people, who might be thousands of miles away.

There was also significant progress in the brain reverse engineering in 2001. For example, researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas have discovered a biochemical pathway that helps describe how neurons in the brain and spinal cord form their connections and could lead to discoveries in nerve regrowth and regeneration. And Lloyd Watts continued to develop his model of the human auditory system’s computations in the auditory pathway.

Perhaps the area with the most immediate impact is the merger of information technology with biology, and there were several breakthroughs in 2001 regarding the genome, therapeutic cloning, and related areas. For example, draft sequences of the entire human genome led to the surprising discovery that the human gene count was low–only 35,000 genes–and alternatives to controversial human embryonic stem cells were explored for creating tissue needed to repair damaged organs.

Continued exponential Growth of Computation

Nanowires May Lead to Superfast Computer Chips

Original news item

New York Times, November 9, 2001

Scientists at Harvard University have grown tiny crystal rods of silicon and other semiconductors, then sluiced them onto chips to form rudimentary circuits that perform basic logic operations.

Nanowires are easier to make and manipulate and they may be easier to miniaturize to the sizes needed for superfast computer chips.

They might also make good sensors for proteins, DNA and other biological molecules. Among other things, that could aid the development of devices to detect pathogens like anthrax.

A Vertical Leap for Microchips

Original news item

Scientific American, January 2002

Engineers have discovered a way to pack more computing power into microcircuits: build them vertically as well as horizontally, giving Moore’s Law a new breath of life and accelerating the delivery of more computing power for less cost.

Stacking devices vertically offers a way around some of the weighty obstacles that threaten to derail Moore’s Law sometime between 2010 and 2020.

Matrix Semiconductor engineers made 3-D circuits by coating standard silicon wafers with many successive layers of polysilicon (as well as insulating and metallic layers) and polishing the surface flat after each step.

Intel’s unveils world’s smallest transistor with 15-nm device

Original news item

Silicon Strategies, November 15, 2001

Intel has developed a 15-nanometer device that will be used to make microprocessors and other chips by the end of this decade. The new technology is said to handle switching speeds of 0.38 picoseconds, or 2.63 trillion switches per second.

Intel Cites Breakthrough in Transistor Design

Original news item

Reuters, November 26, 2001

Intel Corp. has devised a new structure for transistors–the TeraHertz transistor–that it said could lead to microprocessors that run at blazing speeds and consume far less power than conventional ones. This could be another step in extending Moore’s Law into the next decade.

The new technology solves a fundamental problem–leakage of electrical current within a transistor–that has emerged with super-speedy transistors with dialectrics only about three atomic layers thick.

“What’s going to limit transistor performance is the power consumption, not the speed and not the size,” said Gerald Marcyk, director of components research in Intel’s technology and manufacturing group. He added that Intel is aiming to have 25 times more transistors in processors than in current ones, running at 10 times the speed, yet with no increase in power.

Smart bacteria

Original news item

New Scientist, May 26, 2001

Genetically engineered bacteria that function like microchip components are being developed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Researchers modified Pseudomonas putida cells to produce AND and OR gates. For the AND gate, they used chemical “inducers” as inputs. One causes a gene to make a protein that the second input inducer must have to express the output enzyme.

In theory, a single cell could do massively parallel computations.

To Store Data, a Hologram ‘Picture’ Is Worth a Million Bits

Original news item

New York Times, March 22, 2001

Bell Labs spinoff InPhase Technologies is developing a new data storage system using 3D holograms, due out in a few years. It will allow a CD-ROM size disc to hold 400 gigabytes, enough to store 100 full-length feature films. The technology will feature an ultra-high-speed data transfer rate, allowing for downloading an entire digitized movie in 30 seconds. The U.S Defense Department’s National Imagery and Mapping Agency is a sponsor.

Parasite corrals computer power

Original news item

Nature Science Update, August 30, 2001

Using the Internet itself as a computer, researchers have solved a mathematical problem with the unwitting assistance of machines in North America, Europe and Asia.

The Notre Dame team exploited the Internet transmission control protocol (TCP). The TCP ensures accurate communication, using a “checksum”–a mathematical operation performed by sender and receiver. The two computers compare answers–if they differ, data has been corrupted in transit and they try again.

The researchers replaced the checksum (sent by their computer) with a potential solution to the problem they were trying to solve. They posted all the possible solutions to servers around the world. Each host sent only valid answers back to the parasite. Otherwise, it dropped the message.

Unfortunately (or not), the effort of communication currently outweighs the benefits of spreading the computational load.

Intel Makes an Ultra-Tiny Chip

Original news item

New York Times, June 10, 2001

Intel has made developed silicon transistors less than 80 atoms wide and 3 atoms thick, capable of switching on and off 1.5 trillion times a second, making them the world’s fastest.

The research will make possible computer processor chips with one billion transistors and 20 gigahertz speeds and memory chips that can each store four billion bits of data.

Intel scientists are saying that they can see their way at least three more generations into the future, to transistors with a 0.045-micron technology.

Quantum Computing

Efforts to Transform Computers Reach Milestone

Original news item

New York Times, December 20, 2001

In an important milestone toward making powerful computers that exploit the mind-bending possibilities of calculating with individual atoms, scientists at the I.B.M. Almaden Research Center announced that they have performed the most complex such calculation yet: factoring the number 15.

The scientists performed the calculation by manipulating single atoms, showing that the algorithm’s multiple steps could be carried out simultaneously.

If this kind of quantum parallelism can be extended to a larger scale, numbers hundreds of digits long could be factored with ease. Since many encryption schemes assume the near impossibility of factoring large numbers, a working quantum computer would potentially put much of the world’s most secret information in jeopardy.

In the experiment, Dr. Chuang (now with MIT) and his colleagues used a molecule consisting primarily of fluorine and carbon atoms. A vial of liquid containing quadrillions of the molecules was placed inside a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer. By bombarding the molecules with a precise sequence of electromagnetic pulses, the experimenters flipped the atoms back and forth between 1 and 0.

Although the number 15 is not a large number, the research, published in the journal Nature, demonstrates the practical implementation of a quantum computer.

Computing, One Atom at a Time

Original news item

The New York Times, March 27, 2001

Scientists are Los Alamos National Laboratory are pushing the state of the art in quantum computing. Currently, they’ve achieved calculations involving seven atoms. This year they are shooting for 10 atoms, allowing for 1024 calculations at the same time.

Advanced quantum computer to be developed

Original news item, April 24, 2001

University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers plan to use silicon germanium quantum dots to create a quantum computer. Under a U.S. Army Research Office $1.2 million grant, the team will combine advanced physics theory, silicon-germanium heterostructured materials, and low-temperature and high frequency measurements to build a semiconductor-based quantum gate or qubit.

Researchers predict the process could be scaled to make and link thousands of qubits, resulting in the first useful quantum computer in 10 to 30 years.

Ultrafast Electron Spin Manipulation Allows for High-speed Quantum Computing

Original news item, June 29, 2001

A new way to change quantum spin states on ultrafast time scales (femtoseconds) by manipulating electron spins could pave the way for all-optical quantum computation in solids by loosening the stringent requirements on coherence times.

Researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara used 10-13 second pulses of laser light to “tip” the spin alignment of the electrons.

The results were published in the June 29 issue of Science. “Conventional computer bits consist of miniature electronic switches that are either off or on (0 or 1),” UCSB physicist David Awschalom said. Quantum-bits can be any combination thereof, for example 41% on, 59% off.” This property, he says, “enables computational algorithms with exponentially improved speed and fundamentally different functionality.”

Purdue builds quantum-computing semiconductor chip

Original news item

EE Times, September 24, 2001

Quantum-dot techniques have produced the first examples of quantum computing in a semiconductor at Purdue University.

Researchers demonstrated that traditional GaAs fabrication equipment can be used to fashion quantum dots — each representing a single qubit — in domains as small as 50 nm in diameter.

Two of the dots were placed close enough for the team to observe quantum-spin interactions, a discovery that might lead to semiconductor-based quantum computers. The researchers plan to put their chip to work by demonstrating that it can manifest quantum entanglement. If they can show entanglement, and if their measurements show that the dots are maintaining a coherence period long enough to do a quantum calculation, they plan to build a real quantum computer In theory, tiny quantum dots can be used to create computers that fit hundreds of millions of qubits onto chips.

‘Spin’ Could Be Quantum Boost for Computers

Original news item

New York Times, August 21, 2001

Spintronics, based on magnetic properties of electrons, promises to make possible radical advances in computers and other electronic devices.

Possible applications of spintronics include:

· M-RAM, or magneto resistive memory, which will remember data after the power is turned off, eliminating boot-up time and possibly doing processing and storage in the same chip.

· Quantum computers that can perform multiple computations simultaneously.

· Reprogrammable computer chips

Positioning atoms with lasers

Original news item

Nature Science Update, June 15, 2001

An atomic conveyor belt/catapult that uses lasers to position individual atoms has been developed, researchers report in the June 15 issue of Science.

The German researchers use laser beams to retard fast-moving caesium atoms, which they hold in a trap of light and magnetic fields. The team then pulls these “cold” atoms out of the trap one at a time using two laser beams. They can stop an atom at any point and hold it in a stationary trough of a standing wave of light to position it to within one micron and over a one centimeter range.

The development may allow atoms to be arranged in straight chains or wires to make the smallest of electronic circuits–eventually, quantum supercomputers.

Nanotechnology and making things smaller

First self-assembling nanopatterns imaged by Sandia researchers

Original news item, September 3, 2001

Self-assembling nanostructures have been observed and recorded in real time video for the first time by Sandia National Labs researchers.

The nanostructures, which self-assemble and transform, were observed with a low-energy electron microscope (LEEM).

Theorists long have believed that competing attractive and repulsive inter-atomic interactions can lead to the spontaneous formation of ordered patterns in widely varying chemical and physical systems. Potentially, such patterns could be used as templates for nanostructure fabrications.

The research was described in the Aug. 30 Nature.

Scientists Take Step Toward Single-Molecule Switches

Original news item

Science, June 22, 2001

Computers of the future may have components that function based on the action of single molecules, according to a paper by researchers at Penn State and Rice University published in the June 22 edition of Science.

Conformational changes–which happen when molecules alter their arrangement by rotation of their atoms around a single bond, effectively changing shape by moving or turning–determine how and when that conductance switching occurs in those molecules.

Researchers determined that limiting conformational changes reduces switching between the “on” and “off” states. Next step: figuring out how to control switching.

Nanotube single-electron transistor is ideal for molecular computers

Original news item, July 6, 2001

The first single-electron transistor (SET) to operate at room temperature have been developed. Its minute size and low-energy requirements should make it an ideal device for molecular computers, as reported in the 29 June issue of Science.

The tip of an atomic force microscope created sharp bends in this 1 x 20 nanometers carbon nanotube, allowing only a single electrons to pass.

SETs only require one electron to toggle between on and off states. In contrast, transistors in conventional microelectronics use millions and are limited in packing density because of excessive heat.

Scientists Build Transistor Made of One Molecule

Original news item, November 8, 2001

Scientists from Lucent Bell Labs have fabricated an individually addressable transistor whose channel consists of just one molecule.

The transistors are just one nanometer in size, less than a tenth the size of any transistor made previously. Made of an unconventional organic semiconductor material and using a novel fabrication technique, they may lead to smaller, faster and cheaper computer chips in the future.

The main challenges in making nanotransistors are fabricating electrodes that are separated by only a few molecules and attaching electrical contacts to the tiny devices. The Bell Labs researchers were able to overcome these hurdles by using a self-assembly technique and a clever design.

Molecular switches a step closer to building a computer from the bottom up

Original news item

Small Times, October 26, 2001

UCLA researchers have moved an important step closer to building a computer from the bottom up: They have attached molecular switches on a grid as small as 50 nanometers.

The team has developed a 16-bit memory circuit that uses molecular switches that “work pretty well” on traditional wiring, said James Heath, UCLA chemistry and biochemistry professor and co-scientific director of the California NanoSystems Institute. The process uses chemical assembly and fluidics to mount the switches on a crossbar-type structure.

The next step is to place and connect the molecular switches on a lithographic grid. The molecular switches change their conductivity as electricity passes through.

Molecular computers one day could be much cheaper, smaller and more efficient than today’s silicon-based computers, with vast increases in processing power.

IBM’s carbon nanotube FET hints at post-silicon circuits

Original news item

EE Times, October 5, 2001

IBM Corp.’s manufacture of a top-gate carbon nanotube field effect transistor (CNTFET) is a key breakthrough in post-silicon circuit design, according to a leading IBM researcher speaking at this weeks’ Nanotube Symposium.

Now the company will work to shrink the gap for top-gate CNTFETs to 2 nanometers, which will increase the transistor’s performance exponentially and possibly fulfill the promise of carbon nanotubes as a nanoscale replacement for silicon circuits.

CNTs could produce a clutch of “billionaires” among those making key breakthroughs over the next decade, Leo Esaki of the Science Academy of Tsukuba said. Japan is developing a nanotechnology industry, with CNTs a key weapon, and the Japanese government last year founded the Center for Advanced Carbon Materials to speed this work, which is centered in Tsukuba.

“The Japanese government has spent $22 billion building Tsukuba,” Esaki added.

Carbon nanotubes could replace silicon in microchips

Original news item

New York Times, August 25, 2001

IBM researchers have created the first functional logic circuit within a single molecule, which could one day help to replace silicon in microchips, leading to faster and less power-consuming computers.

The new circuit uses a hollow carbon tube approximately 1.4 nanometers in diameter. The IBM researchers changed the nanotube’s electrical characteristics so that n-type sections would allow the flow of electrons while p-type sections would allow the flow of electric current using positive entities on the nanotube.

The sections were turned into transistors that encode the “NOT” logic function along the length of the nanotube. The characteristics of the resulting circuit — its ability to propagate voltage, called gain — allows for more transistors to be placed along the tube to make more complex circuits.

The finding was published in the August 26 Web edition of Nano Letters, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Chemical Society. The researchers also presented their findings August 26 at the Society’s 222nd national meeting in Chicago.

Buckyballs Make Fantastic Voyage

Original news item

Wired News, August 1, 2001

Fullerenes (a.k.a. Buckyballs–molecules containing 60 carbon atoms arranged in a sphere with a hollow center) are becoming an ideal platform for delivering drugs for diseases such as HIV, Lou Gehrig’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

C Sixty, which is developing products using fullerenes, also sees them being used for delivering bone-building drugs for osteoporosis and eventually for carrying cancer-killing drugs to tumor cells.

“Buckyballs will undoubtedly become an important part of the total pharmaceutical toolkit over the next few years,” said Robert A. Freitas, Jr., research scientist at Zyvex Corporation. “They will help save or improve the lives of millions of people around the world.”

IBM nanotubes may enable molecular-scale chips

Original news item

EE Times, April 26, 2001

IBM researchers have developed a bulk process for producing nanotube transistors only 10 atoms wide, or 500 times smaller that current silicon transistors.

“We believe IBM has now passed a major milestone on the road toward molecular-scale chips,” said Thomas Theis, director of physical sciences at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center here. “Our researcher’s study [to be published Friday (April 27)] in Science magazine proves that we can grow carbon nanotube transistors in a manner similar to the way we grow silicon transistors.

“If we are ultimately successful, then carbon nanotubes will enable us to indefinitely maintain Moore’s Law in terms of density, because there is very little doubt in my mind that these can be made smaller than any future silicon transistor,” said Theis.

Carbon nanotube integrated circuit developed

Original news item

Nanodot, April 2, 2001

A carbon nanotube integrated circuit, with a thousand nanotubes acting like transistors, has been devised by IBM, as reported in Physics News.

Besides their small size, nanotubes are strong and can withstand high current densities and heat, allowing for high packing density.

Nanobelts may enable mass production of nanoscale electronic devices

Original news item, March 9, 2001

ATLANTA–Researchers have created a new class of nanometer-scale structures that could lead to inexpensive ultra-small sensors, flat-panel display components and other electronic nanodevices with low power consumption and high sensitivity.

Made of semiconducting metal oxides, these extremely thin and flat structures–dubbed “nanobelts”–offer significant advantages over nanowires and carbon nanotubes, said Zhong Lin Wang, professor of Materials Science and Engineering and director of the Center for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Nanobelts are chemically pure, structurally uniform and largely defect-free, with clean surfaces not requiring protection against oxidation. Each is made up of a single crystal with specific surface planes and shape.

Described for the first time in the March 9 issue of the journal Science, nanobelts could provide the kind of uniform structure needed to make practical the mass-production of nanoscale electronic and optoelectronic devices.

Nanotechnology: Six Lessons from Sept. 11

Original news item, December 13, 2001

The Sept. 11 attacks confirmed the ongoing terrorist threat and the importance of proactive development of methods to prevent nanotech abuse, K. Eric Drexler, Chairman of the Foresight Institute said in a statement sent to institute members.

“Foresight’s position favoring speedy development of advanced nanotech has also been strengthened,” he said. “The longer we wait, the better the infrastructure worldwide, the smaller the budget and project needed–and the easier to hide the work. Let’s do it fast, while it’s more difficult, expensive, and harder to conceal.”

Drexler said the “nanotechnology boom” is beginning–”already private investment in nanotech outstrips that from government”–and urged members to use their brains and their wallets to “ensure that the field of nanotechnology never has its own Sept. 11.”

The merger of biological and nonbiological systems

Chip lithography harnessed to grow living brain cells

Original news item

EE Times, August 21, 2001

Researchers are using chip lithography to “microprint” furrows that growing brain cells will follow, with the potential of creating “designer” biosensors, implants and prosthetics.

Professor Bruce Wheeler of Beckman Institute, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, prints a pattern on a substrate using lithography in a manner similar to the way signal paths are laid down on chips. The pattern overlays the electrode array and provides pathways for the neurons, which sit atop the electrodes and send out their dendrites and axons — the “wires” — along the signal paths to “auto-route” themselves as they grow.

By controlling the cell’s response, Wheeler hopes to improve on today’s medical implants, which tend to lose electrical sensitivity over time.

Scientists ‘Microstamp’ a Neuronal Network in a Dish

Original news item

Scientific American News, July 10, 2001

Glass surfaces on which live nerve cells can grow and wire themselves to electrodes may help scientists to develop better implants, prosthetics and biosensors.

University of Illinois researchers led by Bruce Wheeler harvested brain cells from developing rat embryos and separated them both chemically and mechanically.

Using a lithographic method called microstamping, they then printed a pattern on the surface of a petri dish in polylysine, an artificial polymer used for cell cultures. “The microstamp works the same as a conventional rubber stamp except that the ink is polylysine and the patterns produced are measured in micrometers, or the same size as the cells themselves,” Bruce Wheeler says.

The scientists then poured the brain cells onto the patterned surface, where the cells attached to the artificial polymer. “Within a few days, the cells send out processes that explore the environment, preferring areas that have intact polylysine,” Wheeler notes. “The cells soon mature and begin sending electrical signals.”

Chips Merge Human Cells and Silicon

Original news item

Boston Globe, June 26, 2001

A colony of liver cells on a tiny wafer of silicon could detect a surprise biological attack or test the toxicity of new drugs.

Developed by Linda Griffith, associate professor of bioengineering and chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the liver chip, which combines advances in miniaturized manufacturing with breakthroughs in cell biology, is part of an engineering revolution: the mingling of cells and electronics to create machines with living components.

In laboratories across the country, innovations such as toxin-tracking bacteria mounted on chips and a robotic arm directed by monkey brain waves are blurring the line between what is alive and what is a machine.

“We hope to someday build the human body on a chip,” said Griffith.

It’s alive! Brain cells and silicon learn to get along

Original news item

Popular Science, October 21,. 2001

Scientists have created the world’s first living silicon circuit. They coated the chip with a special protein, then sucked snail neurons out of a solution and blew them onto the chip. Next, they squirted an electric pulse into the cell and watched it travel through a simple network: two connections made up of living cells, and two etched into the chip.

Electronic Mind Over Gray Matter

Original news item, November 24, 2001

Researchers are developing nanocrystals, or quantum dots, that can connect with individual neurons. This will allow for new bioelectronic devices, from brain implants, therapies and prosthetics to neural computers.

“You may be able to make a substrate, put nerve cells on those, grow them and then put semiconductor dots on different nerve cells–and then use those nerve cells as a computer,” said Brian Korgel of the University of Texas at Austin.

Semiconductors get on our nerves

Original news item

Nature, November 14, 2001

Scientists at the University of Texas are using a sliver of protein to connect neurons and tiny crystals of semiconductors called quantum dots.

This cross between biology and electronics could have useful applications, including the manufacture of prosthetics operated directly by a user’s nerve impulses and sensors that detect tiny quantities of neurotoxins. It could also help to study how real brains work.

Scientists Turn Stem Cells Into Brain Cells

Original news item

Reuters, November 30, 2001

Researchers have found reliable ways to coax human embryonic stem cells into becoming brain cells.

Writing in the journal Nature Biotechnology, the researchers at University of Wisconsin, Hadassah University Hospital and Monash University said they coaxed the stem cells into becoming the three types of brain cells–astrocytes, oligodendrocytes and mature neurons.

They transplanted the cells–in one instance, half a million–into the brains of newborn mice and saw them spread throughout the brains, take up residence and, evidently, start working.

Virtual Reality

Arthur C. Clarke teleports to L.A.

Original news item, November 15, 2001

Sir Arthur C. Clarke, author of “2001, a Space Odyssey,” was teleported from his home in Sri Lanka to the Arthur C. Clarke 2001 Gala on November 15 in Los Angeles, sponsored by The Space Frontier Foundation.

Travel restrictions prevented Mr. Clarke from actually attending but Teleportec’s technology allowed him to join the party and interact with the audience as if he were actually there. The Teleportec system “teleports” a person to appear in a 3-dimensional setting with eye-to-eye contact with all participants in a conference room.

“This technology is the way of the future,” said Clarke.

Synthespians more prevalent in future films

Original news item

Wired News, August 16, 2001

Newly developed computer tools are allowing filmmakers to add synthespians (virtual actors) into the action. New technology for digitally modeling hair, cloth, skin and muscles will make digital humans even more prevalent and indistinguishable from the flesh-and-blood kind over the next year.

Pixel-perfect people

Original news item, April 27, 2001

Creators of two of the summer’s most highly anticipated movies have used supercomputers to achieve the closest animated films have ever come to replicating human life.

The two divas who star in Shrek, which opens May 18, and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, opening July 13, are digitally generated.

Virtually There: Three-dimensional tele-immersion may eventually bring the world to your desk

Original news item

Scientific American, March 26, 2001

Tele-immersion is a new medium for human interaction that creates the illusion that you’re in the same physical space as other people, who might be thousands of miles away.

Developed by a team headed by VR pioneer Jaron Lanier for the Internet2 research consortium, tele-immersion technology uses head tracking, a “sea of cameras,” and banks of computers to generate dynamic 3-D models of scenes. Data between locations is transmitted by ultra-high-speed (155 megabits per second and up) Internet connections.

Lanier believes tele-immersion will be a viable subtitute for business travel in 10 years.

First FDA-approved robotic bypass operation

Original news item

Time, May 31, 2001

The first FDA-approved robotic heart surgery bas been performed at Ohio State University Medical Center in Columbus.

Using a 3-D display with a ten-times magnified view, surgeons remotely controlled a telerobotic arm to perform the bypass operation. The robotic arm ensures higher precision, smaller incision, and faster recovery. Trials are under way to robotically repair heart valves, place pacemaker wires, stabilize irregular heartbeats, and perform fetal-heart surgery.

Brain reverse engineering

How neurons communicate to ‘wire’ developing brain

Original news item

September 14, 2001

Researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas have discovered a biochemical pathway that helps describe how neurons in the brain and spinal cord form their connections. Further study into the new data, published in Nature, could lead to discoveries in nerve regrowth and regeneration.

The entire circuitry of the brain and nervous system is controlled by this pathfinding, which leads to the formation of intricate and highly precise connections.

“I like to view the brain as the amazing organic supercomputer,” Henkemeyer said. “But what’s most amazing is that, unlike the supercomputers that humans assemble with their hands, neural networks, which are much more complicated than any man-made computer, self-wire during embryonic and postnatal development. That’s the big mystery – trying to figure out how the nervous system self-wires.”

The research is an extension of the earlier description of “reverse” signaling. The current study describes in detail the biochemical signal transduction cascades that ephrins can transduce into their cell.


Scientists Track Down Human Longevity Genes

Original news item

Reuters, August 27, 2001

An analysis of the DNA of exceptionally long-lived siblings has enabled scientists to find the location of genes that appear to give certain people the ability to live to age 100 and beyond, according to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers found a region in human Chromosome 4 that contains between 100 and 500 genes. They believe the region contains one, or at most a few, longevity-related genes.

The researchers hope to find the precise gene or genes responsible for longevity within six months to a year.

Researchers said a subtle genetic variation–called a single nucleotide polymorphism–appears to be at work, rather than a genetic mutation like those that cause hereditary diseases.

Scientists hope to figure out the biochemical pathways that the responsible gene or genes impact in order to foster longevity. This could lead to the development of drugs that imitate the action of longevity genes, the researchers said.

Louis Kunkel of Children’s Hospital in Boston said only a small number of genes influence longevity in lower organisms–just a few genes need to be altered to give a longer life span to round worms and fruit flies–and that now appears to be true in humans.

Microbots navigate veins to fight disease

Original news item

New Scientist, June 13, 2001

Micromachines using tiny spinning screws to swim along veins, ferrying drugs to infected tissues, or to kill off tumors have been developed by Kazushi Ishiyama at Tohoku University in Japan.

The “Fantastic Voyage” style micromachines, which are precursors to nanobots, use cylindrical magnets inside a tiny cylinder measuring 8 millimetres long and less than a millimeter in diameter, and are propelled by a rotating magnetic field.

Neural networks diagnose cancer

Original news item

Wired News, May 31, 2001

Artificial neural networks have succeeded in diagnosing cancers based on gene expression signatures for the first time, according to a National Institutes of Health study published in the June issue of Nature Medicine.

Using data from gene chips (wafers filled with DNA that are analyzed to identify which genes are expressed, or turned on), the researchers fed the neural network software 6,000 genes containing 88 types of cancer. They taught the neural system to recognize 65 of them.

The researchers then presented the computer with 25 additional cancer types that the computer hadn’t seen before to see if it could categorize them accurately. It did.

A tool based on this research could be available in less than three years, the researchers said.

Scientists Seek Ways to Rebuild the Body, Bypassing the Embryos

Original news item

New York Times, December 18, 2001

Alternatives to controversial human embryonic stem cells are being explored for creating tissue needed to repair damaged organs.

Possibilities include:

· Adult stems cells are rare, hard to isolate and purify, hard to grow in culture, and may not exist for all tissues. Some success has been achieved with umbilical cord blood and fat sources.

· Other cells are created from various sources, such as human embryos (by Anthrogenesis Corporation, which has isolated stem cells from human placentas), foreskins from circumcisions for making artificial skin for wound repair, and neurons obtained from pig fetuses by Diacrin as a treatment for people with brain diseases like Parkinson’s.

· Drugs would activate the body’s own stem cells to let the body repair itself. For example, the human protein erythropoietin, when injected, prompts the body to create new red blood cells. However, tissue growth requires not just one growth factor but a carefully orchestrated combination of them. Duplicating that with drugs may be difficult.

· Parthenogenesis (in certain species, eggs can turn into embryos without being fertilized by sperm). Some scientists are trying to use chemicals to turn unfertilized human eggs into embryos from which stem cells can be extracted. Such embryos (“parthenotes”) could never become babies, so destruction of them to make stem cells may not raise the same moral issues as destruction of embryos. Since tissue derived from parthenotes would be very similar to that of the egg donor, a woman might donate her own eggs to make tissue for herself that her body would not reject.

· De-differentiation (cellular reprogramming) aims at getting specialized body cells to revert to a primordial state, like stem cells, so they can be turned into various types of tissues. PPL Therapeutics, which cloned Dolly the sheep, is pioneering research techniques in this area.

· Transdifferentiation aims to turn a cell back to its primordial state in order to turn that primordial cell into another type of cell. Hematech has successfully reprogrammed the nuclei of fibroblasts, which are cells that produce the body’s connective tissue.

Tiny Capsules Float Downstream

Original news item

Wired News, Oct.ober 29, 2001

Tiny capsules that can be injected into the bloodstream and perform corrective tasks, using biological microelectromechanical systems (bioMEMS), have been used to cure rats with diabetes.

A University of Illinois at Chicago researcher has created a nano-scale capsule, using pores on the surface only 7 nanometers across. This is big enough to let the insulin out, but small enough to keep antibodies from entering.

If it works, the nanopore capsules could be used to treat other diseases as well. The capsules could possibly carry dopamine to treat Parkinson’s patients, or cells that secrete blood-clotting factors for hemophiliacs.

Cancer: Is a cure within reach?

Original news item

MSNBC, December 1, 2001

The field of cancer is undergoing a sea change, thanks to the genetics revolution that has uncovered many of the defects responsible for causing the disease. Using the latest molecular biology techniques to home in on cancer’s genetic roots, doctors are starting to halt precancerous growths before tumors ever develop and to target cancers that have already started to grow with a precision unimaginable just a decade ago.

Some of the new approaches:

· Gleevec shows promise against an uncommon digestive tract cancer called gastrointestinal stromal tumors. Tests of the drug are also underway in patients with lung, prostate and brain cancers.

· A genetically engineered mouthwash is being tested against pre-cancerous growths that often precede oral cancer. The treatment targets a faulty p53 gene, known as a tumor suppressor.