Tuesday, May 25, 2010
Artificial Life v. Artificial Knees
Ever since the announcement (here) on May 20 that The J. Craig Venter Institute had produced a synthetic genome and inserted it into an already living bacterium to replace its homegrown DNA, news stories have reported this event as the creation of artificial life and then, quite rapidly, without missing a beat, you might say, moved right on to a discussion about the rights and wrongs of letting Venter patent such “life.” Here I simply want to note that replacing some element of a living organism is not exactly news. What Venter and his team have done—and what is news—is to replace a very complex element of a bacterium, namely the coding that defines the chemicals that make up the bacterium’s working parts. The DNA, although synthesized from chemicals, still has the same information as the original code—plus some “watermarks” to show the intervention. DNA is chemically coded information; if it’s missing something the bacterium needs, the bacterium dies. DNA isn’t life; it is a tool of life. So is a knee. Millions of people go about their business with artificial knees, not least my partner for life. The artificial life issue has everything in common with the artificial intelligence issue; there, as yet, we don’t even have good imitations. I reserve my astonishment and wonder for that time (should it ever actually arrive) when scientists in sealed suits are locked into clean-rooms filled with appropriate inorganic chemicals in thousands and thousands of bottles and proceed to produce an actual living bacterium from scratch—thus from the inorganic chemicals. Sealed suits? Yes. We wouldn’t want them surreptitiously to borrow an actual living cell from their own bodies in the process. Better yet, why not lock artificially intelligent robots into that room instead of humans? That would be the perfect test. We’re getting smart enough to tinker with life. To make it from scratch is something else.