Reason for a New Age

Technologies that are Going to Change the World – Massive Molecular Simulation

Posted by publius2point0 on 2010/11/13


In the early days of computing, there was a strong sense that Artificial Intelligence would be a reality in the near future — say before the year 2000. Obviously, that’s been nowhere close to reality as it turned out. People have continued to work in the field developing doodads that use clever cheats to mimic “intelligent” behavior, probably with some expectation that they are on a course which will lead them eventually to true artificial intelligence.

Personally, as a programmer, I think that they are barking up the wrong tree. While we may one day create artificial intelligence out of algorithms, we will almost certainly grow an artificial life form first.

You see, the world is formed out of molecules which simply act according to chemical formula that have been intimately researched and chronicled. If I can create a virtual molecule, complete with gravitational and magnetic forces, chemical bonding, excitation, etc. and have it react to all of my other virtual molecules, then I can play out all of my tests just as accurately inside of a computer as I can in real life. The advantage of the computer, however, is that there are no issues of scale. In the real world, working at the molecular level is, for a human, very difficult. For one thing, we’re much larger than a molecule and our tools for dealing at that level are limited. But there’s the greater problem that the real world is 3D. If you want to change the insides of a fish, there’s no way to do that except by cutting the fish open. If you want to look inside a fish, you have to use a clever scanner that weighs several tons, won’t work in water, and which has a limited resolution. But with virtual molecules and virtual fish, you can work at any scale you want because it’s all just data laid out in a linear fashion in memory.

To create a fish from scratch would be difficult. Our scanning implements like X-ray and CAT scanners are limited in their resolution. Sensors which can view things at the molecular level may or may not be safe to use on life (I don’t know), but I’m fairly certain that they aren’t built for deconstructing something of that size.

Fish don’t start their own lives as fish, however. Life like a human or a fish starts out as the merging of an egg with a secondary bundle of genetic data. And while these are still huge by the standards of a molecular scale, they are far more simple than a full living creature. For all I know, it’s possible that we already understand the structure of these parts that we could define virtual examples already. But certainly, this would be how we create our first virtual life: In the same way that real life begins.

We don’t have to understand how DNA operates to be turned into a living creature. We don’t have to understand how the human brain works. So long as we can build a virtual seed which matches the reality, that seed will grow and turn into a full working, thinking creature all on its own by simple virtue of the fact that chemistry is chemistry. So long as our chemical reactions all occur just as they should in real life, then everything will play through exactly as they do in real life. You just need to get everything set up in that initial state.

Why do this? As pointed out, the magic of it is that we don’t have to know how everything works to make this happen. Compounding this with the fact that we have complete freedom to observe each and every molecule moving and changing in real time, then for the first time we can see exactly how everything does happen. By laboriously tracking the creation of the brain, we can learn how the brain operates, perfectly. With no barrier to working on a molecular scale, we can modify or inject any changes that we wish and perform tests to see what result that has. The freedom to tinker about with a real, living body at the molecular scale in full 3D, complete with an “Undo” button is everything a biochemist could ever wish for. Our ability to understand genetics and the brain will go from their current, paltry state, to complete and full understanding within a decade or two.

In Virtual Reality, I commented on the possibility of gene therapy cocktails which cause the body to grow computer parts internally. Massive molecular simulation is going to be the first step towards making such a thing reality. The human body is constantly rebuilding itself according to some plan that it understands but which we don’t. As soon as we understand this whole process, our ability to precisely target and change anything about our physiology is likely to be entirely possible. Besides injections that cause us our body to form cybernetic components, we’re also going to see an end to illness, aging, and abilities like changing our physical appearance to really anything we want, be it having purple hair naturally or looking like a dolphin. With a full and perfect understanding of genetics and the human body, there really is no limit to what we can do to ourselves.

As our ability to calculate molecular worlds grows with CPU speed and larger memory (or whatever equivalent of those two terms we will have in the future), then we begin to have the possibility of modelling the planet, the universe, or testing extreme speeds of testing. Abiogenesis will, for example, almost certainly be formally proven as a possibility within a virtual environment at some point in the future. Researchers will be able to use real world chemistry or some simplified version to set up a virtual water tank of sludge with a variety of natural chemical reactions occurring over time. Letting this play through in a very fast timescale, they’ll be able to watch and see if the random sludge builds up into self-replicating reactions, which then evolve into self-replicating creatures. Likewise, researchers in things like the atmosphere will finally be able to have a perfect, working model of the Earth that they can tinker with freely. This will allow us to develop machines or chemicals that allow perfect weather control on the surface of the Earth.

All scientific and engineering tasks rely on having a way to make changes and observe results as compared to some sort of control. With the Earth or the human body, there are still problems with our ability to accurately observe, make changes, or to have a control. With these problems surmounted by the existence of virtual analogues, our understanding in all fields of scientific endeavor will explode massively — to such an extent that I can’t even postulate what practical effects this will have on the Earth. Whether it means that the first person to develop a perfect super-virus will kill off all life in a matter of hours or that the quality of human life and capability will jump to levels that are unimaginable today is unknowable. The first genetically modified babies may cause a true, undeniably valid class separation between the natural born and the non like seen in the movie Gattaca, or it might not. Personally, I look forward to the next step in human development, but I suspect that I will die of old age just as the ability to live forever is just on the horizon. I can only imagine the possibilities and hope that it’s the better ones which win through.

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