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ragingloli's avatar

What are the obstacles to overcome to genetically engineer a biological radio communication system?

Asked by ragingloli (41616points) July 18th, 2014

Imagine if you had an organ in your brain that allowed you to communicate with someone else via radio waves.
It would basically be telepathy.
What are some of the material problems that would prevent such an organ from working?
And why has radio communication not evolved in the animal kingdom, while bioluminescence, electricity and sonar have?

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24 Answers

zenvelo's avatar

Even if you have a transmitter, you need a receiver and an antenna. That implies a tuner, and one needs to be able to select a specific transmission from all those around you, otherwise walking down the street in Manhattan would be overwhelming. And real telepathy would need to be able to transmit over distance.

LostInParadise's avatar

This raises two interesting questions:.

Is it possible to create an RLC circuit for wave transmission/receptioin from organic compounds?.

Is it necessary to use organic materials? Are there any instances where plants or animals are able to use something internal that is not made of carbon based components? Humans are able to insert various useful non-carbon devices into their bodies like artificial limbs and pacemakers, but does this happen anywhere in nature?

elbanditoroso's avatar

Are you talking about completely internally self contained? I think the primary problem would be that the human body doesn’t create enough electricity internally to broadcast very far at all. If you can overcome the power generation issue, tuners and such are secondary,

ragingloli's avatar

Birds use mineral deposits in their beaks in order to use earth’s magnetic field for navigation.

majorrich's avatar

Probably making the cells very heat resistant to take the power needed to achieve any usable distance.

jerv's avatar

My first thought is the power requirements would be rather annoying. I don’t know that the average biological creature could generate enough power to get a radio range of more than a few millimeters unless it was a burst transmission that had a long recharge time. Inverse Square is a bitch!

LuckyGuy's avatar

I like the way you think!

Let’s play with the physics for a moment. Maybe that will help answer the question.
I’ll start with a humanoid shaped being since I have some data at my fingertips.

The antenna stage is no problem. We are already good antennas for a range of frequencies.
Our existing biological processes can generate 100W easily. Our brain takes 15W now. An additional 250mW for communication within a km range should be plenty of power with no modifications for the additional heat dissipation. Consider an FRS radio as an example.

I have a problem with minimum feature size. Typical RF and digital processing use CMOS or other technologies on the order of 200nm. They are actually down to 25nm with experimental parts significantly smaller. We build many units, test, and throw away the defective parts. That might be a good idea for some humans too! Test and discard is not practical or acceptable – yet.
Typical cells are considerably larger. Blood cells are 6 to 8 microns. We can stuff 500 circuit elements of 100 nm size in the cross section of a blood cell. We can stack them too. Given a minimum feature size of 6 micorns the organ would need to be huge to contain the necessary functions, encoding and decoding, security, protection from unauthorized access. Again using the estimate of an FRS radio with 100 nm spcing the volume would be 70^3 times = 343000 larger in volume and mass. i just checked. The chip die I have weighs 0.03g. If we increase that by 343000 we get 10 kg. Still doable. But now we must contend with circuit race conditions. For an organ of that size it would take a full ns for the signal to move from one end of the organ to the other. The existing circuits do it in less than 6 ps.
Would this force us to think before we speak?
Maybe we can make a hybrid. Read minds with an improved scanning device and retransmit through a silicon based communicator. That would be the best of both worlds.

Bill1939's avatar

Pure fantasy perhaps: If particles can be entangled, invisibly connected despite the distance, why not minds. Assuming we are all part of one mental universe, the reason we cannot experience the mind of another is that we are tuned into our own wave length. Few others share that frequency. It is a pleasure when you find one.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

If sharing thought with radio waves is “basically telepathy”, then so is written and spoken language, light signals, hand signals, a nod, a wave, etc… We’re still sharing thought regardless. The medium used to accomplish it doesn’t matter… The matter doesn’t matter. The meaning does.

Radio waves can be compromised with noise, just like voice communication can be compromised with noise.

That’s the biggest conceptual “obstacle” to overcome. Quantum entanglement would allow instant real time communication, over any distance, without the noise.

LuckyGuy's avatar

Note: By selecting FRS I was necessarily making the assumption that the required data rate and fidelity would be similar to current speech. 80 kb/s. If we want to transmit still images or video we would need a data rate 100 to 1000 times faster. That would generate more heat which would increase the power to about 500mW. Still doable.
Short hair would be become very popular.

ragingloli's avatar

The organ just has to act as a transceiver.
The human brain has enough processing power to calculate and simulate an intelligence in real time, plus handling all the hardware operation and processing the signals coming from the visual, auditory, thermal, haptic and equilibrioceptive sensors. I am quite confident it can handle the signal processing for a radio organ, too, with only a trivial increase in size, if any.

LostInParadise's avatar

The reason why animals have not evolved to do radio transmission may be that the evolutionary cost is too high. Evolution is an opportunistic process. Eyes could evolve because even a slight light sensing capability has an evolutionary advantage in leading an animal to daylight. There may not be a way in which a biologically based transmitter could evolve with useful advantages at the preliminary stages.

Espiritus_Corvus's avatar

@ragingloli @LuckyGuy So, are you saying that theoretically it is possible for some distance with what we have now, but the human would have 22 extra pounds of internal hardware and possibly a misshapen head? What’s with the short hair?

LuckyGuy's avatar

@ragingloli. Compared to an FM radio, the existing brain does a poor job of filtering out the desired signal from hundreds of others of equal signal strength. If you have 4 equally loud conversations going on in a room we need to work very hard to focus on only one. If we had 100 or a 1000 the cacophony would drown out the one conversation. An FM radio can do this filtering with ease. Also for privacy we need to somehow chop it up and make it undecipherable to others while leaving it readable for only our intended target. That takes much more overhead and speed than our brains handle today. Back in the day we could make a radio with just a battery a crystal and a wire. That offered no security. We need much more processing capability today.

@Espiritus_Corvus My estimate is based upon existing radio and the overhead required for filtering, privacy, security and transmission power and the assumption that the minimum feature size of a biotransistor would be the size of a blood cell.

The short hair is to help dissipate the extra 500mW out of 15 Watts we dissipate today.

LuckyGuy's avatar

@LostInParadise brings up a good point. What would be the evolutionary pressure? Maybe better investing and stock market skills? Better military communications? Better Emergency Service communications?

@ragingloli You give the human brain more credit than it deserves. We are able to watch TV because an electronic device puts the info in a form we can handle – one channel. The cable modem receives all the information from hundreds of channels simultaneously and then filters and dumbs it down to one channel for humans to consume. We can’t watch hundreds of channels at the same time – like a $4 RF demod chip can.
I like the idea of a embedded electronic processor that handles the filtering and selection. The filter would be upgradable to avoid obsolescence.

ragingloli's avatar

The human brain does a much better job at singling out other conversations in the room, than any computer to date. The same is true for recognising shapes and objects in the incoming image. Not only based on frequency or strength, but context. Separating different radio signals would be no different.

LuckyGuy's avatar

We can do a few conversations but not when there are hundreds at equal strength. And how would we handle the security/privacy issue? Right now humans are incapable of that. Everyone hears everyone else. That would be dangerous if our minds were being read.

ragingloli's avatar

I am not concerned about security. Human speech is not encrypted either.
Also, there will not be hundreds of signals of equal strength.
Signal strength attenuates with distance, so you can filter out those that are too weak.
And just like voices, each individual will have its own, nearly unique signal that you can “listen” for and elevate its importance.

LuckyGuy's avatar

I figured to make it a really worthwhile option the organ would need to communicate up to about 1 km. That would include thousands of individuals. To prevent one loudmouth from dominating all conversations the receiver would use an AGC to make them all the same strength. Now THAT would be an extra organ I could use.

We already have simple communication via speech and hearing. Why work on something that doesn’t offer more functionality? Thus…. 1 km range, ability to process 1000s of conversations plus images and video.

I like this thought experiment. But you already knew that. I sent it to you on SSB 1.8MHz via a 80 meter long wire dipole shooting over the pole. Digital sign. password is “fluther”.

ragingloli's avatar

It would be a form of communication that is obscured from a potential predator.
It also moves at the speed of light instead of the speed of sound, and is less affected by environmental factors. Quite useful in a loud storm.

ARE_you_kidding_me's avatar

there is a debate that this actually is not only possible but a reality.

Esedess's avatar

The main issue is in the accurate interpretation of minute electromagnetic field changes. Consider for a moment that an electromagnet is just a current circulating through a copper wire. Now consider that the human body is basically a dense threading of electric pathways. In that, we have the capacity to sense electromagnetic fields by the minor disruptions they cause in electric signals we produce to control our muscles or even just back and forth within the brain itself as we think. I’ve built a lot of electromagnets in my day, and one of the first things I was surprised to find is that you actually can sense the field if you’re paying close enough attention (so much for only having 5 senses right). If we could find the right process to direct our internal currents in such a way as amplify our electromagnetic field, then it would just be a matter of honing our senses to recognize that fields interaction with things like radio waves. That would be the truly difficult part. Imagine you feel a slight manipulation of your field in a specific way.. But how to interpret that sensation? You would basically have to come up with an entirely new language based in the sensation of such events. This sensation means _____. That one means _____. etc… To be precisely dexterous enough to manipulate your field in such a way, and receptive enough to sense such specific incoming changes would be the next step. But it starts with the recognition that it even exists at all.

I’ve actually considered this before as a fun “what if” scenario. How many times do you, apparently without prompting, suddenly think of someone, then they call you? Or you call someone and they say, “Hey I was just thinking about you!” or “I was just about to call you!”. How often do you think you hear or feel your phone vibrate, and then go to check and there’s no call, but then one comes in? If we do have any capacity in these realms, I think cell phones will be the instrument that subconsciously hones our ability to recognize the very general sensation of someone thinking about you. It’s classic conditioning. You think someone is going to call you, then they do. Positive reinforcement. You think someone is going to call you then they don’t. Negative reinforcement. All day, everyday, for years… Children born into this technological age are with this tool for basically their whole lives now. What better way to teach a race to notice such an ability than to give them each a device that shows them, in real time, “now someone is thinking specifically about you and wanting to contact you.”? Maybe in 300 years humanity will look back on the invention and widespread use of cell phones as the tool that ultimately expressed our innate ability to feel one another at a distance. It would be interesting to try to quantify the event in a study with a large group…

Like… Hey Jellies! Keep track of when you think of someone and they call/txt. The times you were right, and the times you were wrong. Be honest and diligent about keeping records on it for a month, and then we’ll pool our figures and come up with a percentage. If the times you correctly “predict” a communication is above a certain figure I think we could finally rule out the notion that “it’s just a coincidence”. lol~

Then we can all get together and write a book “Cell Phones Made Me Psychic/I Told You So”. Haaa

LuckyGuy's avatar

@Esedess GA! I have an EEG machine at my disposal. With very little practice I can peg it when I wish with a mental rush. But that is only on or off and it takes me a full half second to do it. I cannot imagine anything close to 8 bit resolution.

LuckyGuy's avatar

@ragingloli I’ve been thinking about this on and off since you asked the question! I’ll bet you have too.

Acoustic energy dissipates quickly and does not go as far as the same level of RF energy. A 1 Watt speaker is toy and depending upon the background noise will only sent a readable signal a few meters. One watt of RF energy can be picked up in the other side of the world! Heck, Voyager is talking to Earth from 10 billion km away with a 23 watts CB radio!

I agree the RF signal would be faster than an acoustic transmission and might offer an advantage for avoiding a predator. But, in the scheme of things that advantage might be very small. Assume the predator can strike at a distance of 10 meters.. Sound travels at 330m/s so the RF communication will offer a 30 ms advantage. If the creature had the capability to instantly respond to the threat at 3g it would only move s=0.5 a t2 where a = 30 m/s2 and t=0.030 sec. = 13.5 mm. Would that be significant? Probably not.
But 0.03 sec IS significant in stock market trading! It might also be an advantage in electronic warfare – or gaming.

I also thought more about the body cells that would do this. I’d make the organ filter and enrich blood so there was a higher concentration of hemoglobin which is rich in iron. I’d make a new type of blood cell that is ringed with cilia so they can rotate and induce an electrical field. The problem is we would need some permanent magnet. To cover that shortfall the creature would eat small amounts of rare earth magnet material – not unlike birds finding the right size stones to swallow 9gizzard stones) so they can better grind their food. During childhood we would take vitamins and minerals that the body would form into a magnet inside the new organ. Infants might be offered rare earth chew toys during teething.
Yep. This is doable. Let’s get moving on it. I’ll write the grant proposal.

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