Unraveling the mysteries of life


Credit: ESA/NASA/Hubble

Time, space and matter were created 13.7 billion years ago, when the Big Bang occurred. This pale, blue planet, so termed by Carl Sagan, our earth, came into existence about 4.5 billion years ago. Life originated on earth about 3.8 billion years ago. Our species, the home sapiens, came much later at about 0.2 million years while recorded history is merely 6000 years old.

However in the last 60 years or so, man has started to unravel many secrets of his own existence. There have been extremely rapid advances in science and mankind is now grappling with very profound aspects of life from intelligence, perception, aging all the way to death itself.

Moving forward to the next 60 years, there are several areas of research, which will have an extraordinary impact on our lives as we move forward.

Cracking the puzzle of Intelligence: From autonomous vehicles which use machine learning algorithms, to IBM’s Watson capable of understanding natural language, Artificial Intelligence (AI), has made significant strides in the last 2 decades. Studies of how the human mind functions are now contributing to paradigm shifts in AI and in computing in general.


Computing technology these days are beginning to mimic the parallel aspect of the human brain, enabling algorithms to perform complex tasks like facial recognition, pattern matching and classifying data very rapidly. Companies like Qualcomm, Intel and IBM are creating chips that simulate the neural networking of the brain

Decoding perception:  In a recent invention, described in Science 2.0, a prosthetic limb was created that could actually provide the sense of touch by stimulating the regions of the brain that dealt with the sense of touch. The researchers had identified the neural activity that occurs when grasping or feeling an object and successfully induced these patterns in the brain. Also researchers at Harvard University have created the first noninvasive brain-to-brain interface (BBI) between a human and a rat.

By simply by thinking the appropriate thought, the BBI allows the human to control the rat’s tail. The huge advances in the field of brain-computer interfaces, allow thoughts to be detected and “understood” by a sensor attached to a computer. Given these advances, fully functional artificial limbs and organs that perfectly mimic real organs may not be that far off.

Nanobots to the rescue: Great strides have been made in nanotechnology which will soon revolutionize many different fields. Some of the prominent applications include stain and wrinkle resistant clothing, tougher material for use in automobile bodies and more efficient ways to capture, transfer and store energy.

One extremely important application of nanotechnology is in the field of medicine where nanobots can make repairs at a cellular level. Application in medicine will bring a huge change in the way we detect and treat damage to human body.  With nanobots it is possible to deliver drugs, heat and other substances to targeted cells, such cancerous or diseased cells. Nanobots are also being used to study the extremely complex neural pathways to the brain to determine the electro-chemical activity in the context of sensations or feelings.  Understanding the neural activity of the brain will enable both the development of artificial limbs and the creation of chips inspired by the biological brain capable of performing complex tasks easily.

Death be not proud: Besides working on reversing the aging process, work is also being carried out to understand the processes governing death with the hope of trying to halt and reverse it (see “Will we ever bring the dead back to life?”) . Physicians and scientists who specialize in resuscitation techniques have discovered that when a person is ‘freshly’ dead, the brain isn’t yet irreversibly, damaged yet. To be really dead the all the cells of the body and the brain have to be dead. Researchers have now understood that death occurs more on a sliding scale than at a single, solitary moment. In other words, we often do not die all at once. Even if the heart has stopped, due to sudden cardiac arrest, the body can remain alive for hours.

Cells and organs die at different rates, a process that can take hours or even days depending upon circumstances. Attempts are being made to prevent damage to cells, by designing drugs that target the cells’ energy source, the mitochondria and also by blocking the enzymes that induce cell death. This ability to reverse death makes more sense when a person is suddenly snatched away due to cardiac arrest, or head concussion than when death occurs due to aging.

Towards another big bang? With the advances in AI, brain-to-brain interface, our ability to reverse aging and actually halting death, it is likely that our life expectancy will go northward by another 30 -50 years. This may be a logical outcome as long duration space travel becomes a real possibility in the future.

Futurist, Ray Kurzweil, predicts that in another 2 decades by the year 2045, mankind will reach a point of ‘technological singularity’ when non-biological intelligence will transcend biological intelligence. Technology, according to Kurzweil, would have advanced beyond our ability to comprehend it. Would this be the next big bang?

Regardless, with all these advances it appears that in the future “truth will be stranger than fiction” as we know of it today!

Disclaimer: This article represents the author’s viewpoint only and doesn’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions. Tinniam V. Ganesh is a Cloud Architect at IBM India. You can write to him at [email protected] and read his blog “Giga thoughts…


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