The Human Condition (4): Work
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New Lifeforms

The Guardian reports that a group of researchers are poised at the brink of creating “new life”:

Craig Venter, the controversial DNA researcher involved in the race to decipher the human genetic code, has built a synthetic chromosome out of laboratory chemicals and is poised to announce the creation of the first new artificial life form on Earth. Mr Venter told the Guardian he thought this landmark would be "a very important philosophical step in the history of our species. We are going from reading our genetic code to the ability to write it. That gives us the hypothetical ability to do things never contemplated before". 

Before we discuss the ethics of this matter, it is necessary to clarify the science. Firstly, it is vitally important to appreciate that scientists do not yet understand every aspect of how DNA builds an organism, nor are they collectively convinced that DNA alone is sufficient to engineer life-forms. It will some day be possible to create “designer lifeforms”, and to program DNA (and whatever epigenetic mechanisms are also required to make life) – but that is not what is going on here.

There is a parallel to be made with software engineering and hacking. A software engineer designs and implements an application from the ground up. A hacker takes an existing application and alters its functionality. We are a long way shy of true genetic engineering – rather, we are gene hackers. The synthetic chromosome is a manually sequenced DNA strand copied from the bacterium Mycoplasma genitalium, but edited to remove “junk DNA”. This should work. But it is a lot less than the creation of a designer lifeform in its full extent. 

Nonetheless, what is being proposed does have great potential for biotechnology. It could be used to create bacteria that convert dangerous waste products into harmless chemicals. It could also be used to create bacteria that would be fatal to a specific ethnic group. As with much of technology, the opportunities are accompanied by risks. Perhaps the biggest risk is: if the hacked organisms can breed, which is the intent in most useful biotech, we face all the problems of introducing foreign organisms, coupled with the risks in hacking something we only understand in broad strokes. Remember what happened with rabbits in Australia, or kudzu in the United States… Our track record with transplanting lifeforms from one biome to another is poor, and the risks with new lifeforms is potentially higher.

The question has to be: do we want to go down this road? (Or rather, do we want to go down this road now?)

Comments

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I think this sort of science is probably *essential* to the long-term survival of our species and this planet as we recognise it now.

But I agree there are risks... When you say our track record with introducing species is "poor" I think you are grossly understating the facts.

Even if every single human was aware and motivated to stop a species being introduced somewhere it wasn't meant to be, we would still find it hard, and this is nowhere near the case now.

So, doom-laden though this sort of breakthrough can be - I still see it as a good thing as we at least need the *chance* to make this planet a survivable habitat for us and the other inhabitants.

Go New Life!

I think the more interesting issue is in the creation of new minds and kinds of minds with AGI, where bottom-up approaches are being carried out. And what becomes of IP law when you can own a mind? (in the form o patented processes or copyrighted code).

I agree that this technology is essential and yet it could and probably will lead to some catastrophic events. The sad thing is that it's only essential because humans are too psychologically immature to live in harmony with the ecosystem and each other. If we weren't polluting and over populating the planet and we weren't exploiting each other then NO we wouldn't necessarily need this technology.

I'm still quite upbeat about it though, because so far we've always managed to keep the scales tilted towards "do good", even accepting all the scientific blunders and misuse along the way.

Hopefully, at some point in the future science will, perhaps accidentally, improve the quality of life (energy + food + education) for the entire population to the point that people begin to understand how to live together properly and to better aim their scientific research. Oh dear, that sounds very StarTreky indeed - nah, that'll never happen ;)

Thanks for the comments! It's interesting to see a cautious optimism here - coupled with an upbeat fatalism. :)

Patrick: I don't see new minds coming in my lifetime, personally; the technology just doesn't seem to be there, whereas the bow wave of the biotech is just about on the edge of new life forms. There's going to have to be some kind of serious review about what can be patented at some point!

Personally, I dislike the way we are writing salvation histories through science these days: "the science will save us!" We'd stand a much better chance if we'd just organise and save ourselves!

Thanks again for the comments!

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