More Embedded Systems: Smart blood


An audience member asked Isaac Asimov, “How could you let Hollywood make such a lousy movie out of Fantastic Voyage–one of your best books?” Isaac said the guy had it backwards — he’d made a good book have a lousy movie. Decades later, we are stuck with the images of that film. We are still visualizing devices making their way through the circulatory system to zap blood clots or cancer cells.

But blood and the circulatory system are more than a means to reaching different points in the body. For me, Asimov’s descriptions of the immune system at work and his explanations the other fascinating qualities of blood remain in my imagination more than Raquel Welch in a submarine.

Last time, I talked about the underappreciated possibilities of skin for human enhancement. Blood is similarly undervalued. Think of the many roles of blood and your circulatory system:

  • Red blood cells provide oxygen to and remove carbon dioxide from every living cell in your body.
  • Platelets assist in the delivery of hormones and in healing.
  • Your blood is filled with clotting agents and growth factors and critical hormones and nourishment and pathogen eating white blood cells and antigens.

In fact, an essay could be just on its role in the immune system—and underappreciated information system that includes sensors, the ability to store information long-term, and programs that activate under threat to create defensive mechanisms.

Smart bloodOf course, the amazing power of the blood and circulatory system can be hijacked to bring disease to different parts of the body, to mediate inappropriate inflammation and allergic reactions, and even to spread pathogens from individuals to communities. (Our concerns about blood and infections are so powerful that we tend to underplay the value of benign organisms that share our bodies, helping us to keep disease causing organisms at bay, helping us to digest food, and so on.)

So what does all this have to do with human enhancement? I believe more attention to the possibilities of blood and the circulatory system could lead to benefits well beyond sending robots through tiny pipes to clean out bad actors.

We already enhance our immune systems through vaccines and immuno-modulators that are delivered intravenously. In theory, we could explore using the ability of the immune system to store information as a way to provide us with protection against psychological/social malfunctions, such as inappropriate fight or flight reactions. For example, many people would benefit from a vaccine against panic attacks. Naturally this would require interactions with other systems (perhaps, pattern recognition in the brain), but our circulatory systems already cooperate with most other systems in the body.

We already are on the way to improving the body’s ability to heal and to avoid long-term problems like scarring, but couldn’t we also use the circulatory system has a means to build extra muscle tissue or stimulate the creation of new sensing systems as needed?

One of the more interesting aspects of the circulatory system is the blood-brain barrier, which protects us from chemicals and pathogens that could damage or distort the important mechanisms of the brain. Humans have always been interested in chemicals that we would cross this protective border (such as alcohol), but the ability to modify the barrier itself–to exclude dangerous drugs or to open new pathways for brain enhancement is intriguing.

As we begin to think about blood and the circulatory system as more than a means to move tiny devices around, but instead as a knowledge system with rapid response capabilities and the intimate ability to cooperate with natural processes that already shown amazing variety and power, we have the opportunity to enhance humanity in unexpected ways.

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