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Feb 18, 2008

Using Lasers to Detect Diseases via Breath

Posted by in categories: biological, chemistry

Today, the University of Colorado at Boulder made an announcement regarding a very promising technology:

Known as optical frequency comb spectroscopy, the technique is powerful enough to sort through all the molecules in human breath and sensitive enough to distinguish rare molecules that may be biomarkers for specific diseases

Combined with other rapid-response technologies, this could be part of the detection side of a BioShield, a technological immune system for humanity.

The optical frequency comb is a very precise laser for measuring different colors, or frequencies, of light, said Ye. Each comb line, or “tooth,” is tuned to a distinct frequency of a particular molecule’s vibration or rotation, and the entire comb covers a broad spectral range — much like a rainbow of colors — that can identify thousands of different molecules.

Continue reading “Using Lasers to Detect Diseases via Breath” »

Feb 16, 2008

Safeguarding Humanity

Posted by in categories: existential risks, futurism

I was born into a world in which no individual or group claimed to own the mission embodied in the Lifeboat Foundation’s two-word motto. Government agencies, charitable organizations, universities, hospitals, religious institutions — all might have laid claim to some peace of the puzzle. But safeguarding humanity? That was out of everyone’s scope. It would have been a plausible motto only for comic-book organizations such as the Justice League or the Guardians of the Universe.

Take the United Nations, conceived in the midst of the Second World War and brought into its own after the war’s conclusion. The UN Charter states that the United Nations exists:

  • to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and
  • to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and
  • to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and
  • to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom

All of these are noble, and incredibly important, aims. But even the United Nations manages to name only one existential risk, warfare, which it is pledged to help prevent. Anyone reading this can probably cite a half dozen more.

It is both exciting and daunting to live in an age in which a group like the Lifeboat Foundation can exist outside of the realm of fantasy. It’s exciting because our awareness of possibility is so much greater than it was even a generation or two ago. And it is daunting for exactly the same reason. We can envision plausible triumphs for humanity that really do transcend our wildest dreams, or at least our most glorious fantasies as articulated a few decades ago. Likewise, that worst of all possible outcomes — the sudden and utter disappearance of our civilization, or of our species, or of life itself — now presents itself as the end result of not just one possible calamity, but of many.

Continue reading “Safeguarding Humanity” »

Feb 8, 2008

How long did you want that space elevator cable?

Posted by in categories: chemistry, geopolitics, nanotechnology, space

Many of you have recently read that a research team at the University of Illinois led by Min-Feng Yu has developed a process to grow nanowires of unlimited length. The same process also allows for the construction of complex, three-dimensional nanoscale structures. If this is news to you, please refer to the links below.

It’s easy to let this news item slip past before its implications have a chance to sink in.

Professor Yu and his team have shown us a glimpse of how to make nanowire based materials that will, once the technology is developed more fully, allow for at least two very significant enhancements in materials science.

1. Nanowires that will be as long as we want them to be. The only limitations that seem to be indicated are the size of the “ink” reservoir and the size of spool that the nanowires are wound on. Scale up the ink supply and the scale up size of the spool and we’ll soon be making cables and fabric. Make the cables long enough and braid enough of them them together and the Space Elevator Games may become even more exciting to watch.

Continue reading “How long did you want that space elevator cable?” »

Feb 3, 2008

Spending Effectively

Posted by in categories: finance, futurism, lifeboat

Last year, the Singularity Institute raised over $500,000. The World Transhumanist Association raised $50,000. The Lifeboat Foundation set a new record for the single largest donation. The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology’s finances are combined with those of World Care, a related organization, so the public can’t get precise figures. But overall, it’s safe to say, we’ve been doing fairly well. Most not-for-profit organizations aren’t funded adequately; it’s rare for charities, even internationally famous ones, to have a large full-time staff, a physical headquarters, etc.

The important question is, now that we’ve accumulated all of this money, what are we going to spend it on? It’s possible, theoretically, to put it all into Treasury bonds and forget about it for thirty years, but that would be an enormous waste of expected utility. In technology development, the earlier the money is spent (in general), the larger the effect will be. Spending $1M on a technology in the formative stages has a huge impact, probably doubling the overall budget or more. Spending $1M on a technology in the mature stages won’t even be noticed. We have plenty of case studies: Radios. TVs. Computers. Internet. Telephones. Cars. Startups.

The opposite danger is overfunding the project, commonly called “throwing money at the problem”. Hiring a lot of new people without thinking about how they will help is one common symptom. Having bloated layers of middle management is another. To an outside observer, it probably seems like we’re reaching this stage already. Hiring a Vice President In Charge Of Being In Charge doesn’t just waste money; it causes the entire organization to lose focus and distracts everyone from the ultimate goal.

I would suggest a top-down approach: start with the goal, figure out what you need, and get it. The opposite approach is to look for things that might be useful, get them, then see how you can complete a project with the stuff you’ve acquired. NASA is an interesting case study, as they followed the first strategy for a number of years, then switched to the second one.

Continue reading “Spending Effectively” »

Jan 31, 2008

Promising Anti-Radiation Drug Based on Carbon Nanotubes

Posted by in categories: defense, military, nanotechnology, nuclear weapons

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) gave a $540,000 grant to researchers from Rice University to do a fast-tracked 9-month study on a new anti-radiation drug based on carbon nanotubes:

“More than half of those who suffer acute radiation injury die within 30 days, not from the initial radioactive particles themselves but from the devastation they cause in the immune system, the gastrointestinal tract and other parts of the body,” said James Tour, Rice’s Chao Professor of Chemistry, director of Rice’s Carbon Nanotechnology Laboratory (CNL) and principal investigator on the grant. “Ideally, we’d like to develop a drug that can be administered within 12 hours of exposure and prevent deaths from what are currently fatal exposure doses of ionizing radiation.” […]

The new study was commissioned after preliminary tests found the drug was greater than 5,000 times more effective at reducing the effects of acute radiation injury than the most effective drugs currently available. […]

The drug is based on single-walled carbon nanotubes, hollow cylinders of pure carbon that are about as wide as a strand of DNA. To form NTH, Rice scientists coat nanotubes with two common food preservatives — the antioxidant compounds butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) — and derivatives of those compounds.

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Jan 29, 2008

Cheap (tens of dollars) genetic lab on a chip systems could help with pandemic control

Posted by in categories: biological, defense, existential risks, futurism, lifeboat

Cross posted from Next big future

Since a journal article was submitted to the Royal Society of Chemistry, the U of Alberta researchers have already made the processor and unit smaller and have brought the cost of building a portable unit for genetic testing down to about $100 Cdn. In addition, these systems are also portable and even faster (they take only minutes). Backhouse, Elliott and McMullin are now demonstrating prototypes of a USB key-like system that may ultimately be as inexpensive as standard USB memory keys that are in common use – only tens of dollars. It can help with pandemic control and detecting and control tainted water supplies.

This development fits in with my belief that there should be widespread inexpensive blood, biomarker and genetic tests to help catch disease early and to develop an understanding of biomarker changes to track disease and aging development. We can also create adaptive clinical trials to shorten the development and approval process for new medical procedures


The device is now much smaller than size of a shoe-box (USB stick size) with the optics and supporting electronics filling the space around the microchip

Continue reading “Cheap (tens of dollars) genetic lab on a chip systems could help with pandemic control” »

Jan 28, 2008

Some Progress on Universal Influenza Vaccine

Posted by in categories: biological, biotech/medical

According to ScienceDaily:

The British-American biotech company Acambis reports the successful conclusion of Phase I trials of the universal flu vaccine in humans. The universal influenza vaccine has been pioneered by researchers from VIB and Ghent University. This vaccine is intended to provide protection against all ‘A’ strains of the virus that causes human influenza, including pandemic strains. Therefore, this vaccine will not need to be renewed annually.

InfluenzaWhat would make this new vaccine different from the ones already available is that it would target M2e, a conserved region of influenza “A” strains. Since that part doesn’t constantly mutate and about 2/3 of seasonal epidemics and all pandemics are due to type “A” strains, it could be a very efficient weapon against repeats of the “Spanish Flu” (1918−1919) that killed at least 50 million people worldwide. Only the future will tell if phase II and III trials are successful.

You can learn more about the Lifeboat Foundation BioShield program here.

Jan 25, 2008

On the brink of Synthetic Life: DNA synthesis has increased twenty times to full bacteria size

Posted by in categories: biological, biotech/medical, defense, existential risks, futurism, lifeboat, military, nanotechnology

Reposted from Next Big Future which was advancednano.

A 582,970 base pair sequence of DNA has been synthesized.

It’s the first time a genome the size of a bacterium has chemically been synthesized that’s about 20 times longer than [any DNA molecule] synthesized before.

This is a huge increase in capability. It has broad implications for DNA nanotechnology and synthetic biology.

Continue reading “On the brink of Synthetic Life: DNA synthesis has increased twenty times to full bacteria size” »

Jan 24, 2008

Is 2007 TU24 A Wake Up Call?

Posted by in categories: asteroid/comet impacts, existential risks, space

On January 29th, 2008 Near Earth Object 2007 TU24 will intersect Earth’s orbit at the startlingly close proximity of only 0.0038AU — or 1.4 lunar distances from our own planet. According to the resources I reviewed this NEO represents the closest known approach to earth until 2027 — that is of course assuming no more surprises like 2007 TU24 which itself wasn’t discovered until October 11th of 2007.

It seems to me that this is an assumption we can’t afford to make. It appears that 2007 TU24 is not going to strike the planet however it is possible that it will pass through a portion of earth’s magnetosphere. The repercussions of this transit can’t at this time be predicted with any certainty though they apparently range from no effect whatsoever to potentially catastrophic changes to weather, tectonic plate movement, the oceans and more.

Some might say that we’ve no need to be concerned — that this kind of near miss (and lets be frank here — in the vastness of even our solar system 1.4 lunar distances from earth is a near miss) is a freak occurrence. Don’t be so sure. Just one day later — that’s right, on January 30th it was thought possible — one might even say reasonably likely — that another asteroid will strike our second nearest celestial neighbor, Mars.

Recent updates based upon more detailed information about the path of asteroid 2007 WD5 have concluded that the odds of an impact occurring have now dropped to one in ten thousand making an impact exceptionally unlikely. However, it should be evident that our ability to identify objects less than 100 meters across is insufficient to provide us with enough time to do anything aside from evacuating the regions likely to be impacted by a collision with an incoming NEO.

Continue reading “Is 2007 TU24 A Wake Up Call?” »

Jan 22, 2008

Cell phone sensors detect radiation to thwart nuclear terrorism

Posted by in categories: defense, existential risks, nuclear weapons

PhysOrg.com is reporting that researchers at Purdue University are working to develop a system that would use a network of cell phones to track radiation in an effort to prevent terrorist attacks with dirty bombs or nuclear weapons. Tiny solid-state radiation sensors are already commercially available and the additional circuitry would not add significant bulk to portable electronic products.

The researchers tested the system and demonstrated that it is capable of detecting a weak radiation source 15 feet from the sensors. A fully developed system could cover a nation with millions of cell phones equipped with radiation sensors able to detect even light residues of radioactive material. Because cell phones already contain global positioning locators, the network of phones would serve as a large scale tracking system that would require no intervention from individual users.