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Artificial life created


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This time, try reading the first article.  My statement stands.

EDIT:

He did not mean that he hadn't created life from unliving chemicals, because that is what he did.

Wrong.  DNA is biologically inert (technically not alive).  Therefore, replicating the DNA code alone is by no means creating life.  In order to achieve any results, Dr. Venter

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You will need to make new sequences of all the DNA-for every mechanism of the created organism, to call it artificial. Simply creating an artificial gene and copying existing sequences to make it work could mostly be called an artificial mutant, not artificial life.

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It seems that we are having some confusion over definitions. I'll try to clear that up.

Athanasios, the definition of artificial is man-made, imitation, simulated. The cell that was created here is all of those things. You seem to believe that in order to be called "artificial life" it has to be a form of life that has never been seen before. Leaving aside the novel non-coding sequences, that is simply not what artificial means. If you want to say that the life is not original ("arising or proceeding independently of anything else") then say so, because that is true.

Hwi, on the other hand, seems to be refering to some sort of vitalism, a belief system that experienced the final nail in its coffin as the result of Venter's work. So here's a thing: "life" is not some mystical, nebulous force. It is not "present" in a cell, it simply describes and categorises behaviour. Does an organism respirate? Then it is probably alive. Did it used to respirate, but stopped? Then it is dead. Maybe it never performed respiration or any similar process? Then it was never alive to begin with.

What she seems to be saying is that as the host cell was already alive (arguable as its DNA had been removed), that therefore the already-present "life force" was simply taken over by different DNA. Quasi-mystical ridiculousness is not really my area of expertise, but thankfully I have my metaphor to fall back on.

Say a cell is a human being. The brain is the DNA, it controls everything, while the body represents various cell mechanics (cytoskeleton, mitochondria, endoplasmic reticulum, etc). We'll call this human being Larry. Now what Venter has done is slice off the top of Larry's head and removed his brain. He then replaces it with a brain that is almost exactly like Larry's, but was made in a lab. The new brain then proceeds to take control and starts doing all the important things like breathing, twitching and finding a good lawyer. Without the brain the body was just so much fleshy machinery, while without the body the brain was just a set of intructions with nothing to read them. It takes two to tango, as the saying goes, and it takes both to make a "living" organism. Saying that "life was present" in a codeless blob strikes me as... misled.

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LOL

OK, I'm really starting to get the references to "chiropteran feces" that people have been making in PMs lately! :D

Concerning the future, no one knows how far humankind will go regarding scientific achievement and advancements.  The possibilities are endless.

This is where the ole hypocrite factor kicks in. I mean, don't you believe the end of the world to be imminent? Or do you just claim to believe that when it suits your purpose?

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When you take a brain out of a person, does that person continue to live? My metaphor and I had rather assumed the answer to be no, but if you have a better idea...

Hwi's beliefs fluctuate depending on how obnoxious she wishes to be, SandChigger, surely you've figured that out by now. Well, either that or sunspot cycles. Jury is still out on that one.

And now that we've hopefully put all that behind us, anyone care to venture a thought on organic computers? Or alternative uses for custom-designed cells? Personally I can see a somewhat tleilaxu-ish future in the offing, and it's very exciting.

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A few years ago I read an article in some tech magazine about organic computers. I'll see if I can find an online resource...

Bottom line was that they should be much faster for parallel computations than 'normal' computers. That is, when they get it working on large scales ;)

[EDIT]

Not what I was looking for, but this should do for now:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wetware_computer

Yeah, Wikipedia. I know.

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Oh vitalism....  ::)

Regardless of the various religio-ethical questions this topic brings up, I must say that I am quite entranced by the concept of biological computers, especially at the cellular level. I remember hearing someone talk of nanorobotics when I was a teenager, and how they would (basically) solve all the problems in the world... or end it. It will be interesting to see whether the predictions of nanorobotics (which is more-or-less stagnant, from what I can tell) will be fulfilled by artificial biology. AI is also an interesting direction, considering that so little progress has been made from a computer/cognitive science point of view.

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As for biological warfare, well all technology comes with risks.

"Risk" implies uncertainty. There is no uncertainty regarding the development of biological weapons using this technology. Once it becomes possible to make them, they WILL be made. The only question is if they will be used. That depends on a number of things. Is it possible to make biological weapons that will only kill people from a certain country? Is it further possible to make sure that such weapons cannot be traced back to the organization that produced and deployed them? If the answer to both questions is yes, then the weapons WILL be used. If the answer to at least one of those questions is no, then we should be able to contain them the same way we've contained nuclear weapons (mutually assured destruction).

Now myxomatosis is no smallpox, but it demonstrates the principles involved. Even if a brand new artificial supervirus was created and released, once out in the wild it would follow the same natural laws as other diseases. It could kill millions, possibly billions, but the chances of it killing everyone are very small.

...Maybe that's not a comfort to you but it is to me.

No. That does not make the whole thing any better at all.

I'm a huge fan of technological progress in general - and thinking machines in particular - but I draw the line at custom-made DNA. There should be an international ban on research aiming to produce custom-made DNA. Biological weapons are just one of the dangers arising from it. There is also another, more insidious one: imagine if it became possible to engineer the DNA of human embryos at will. In the short run, it would create a society like in Gattaca, with a privileged caste of genetically superior individuals ruling over millions of second-class citizens. In the long run, it may even lead to an entirely new species that could enslave Homo sapiens.

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Yes, yes, the only ones who should be enslaving Homo sapiens are other, politically correct Homo sapiens. ;)

Another possibility is of us creating a slave race, something which someone once suggested quite seriously here as a good thing. I don't recall much outrage being expressed from the Heaven Faction then...

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Pathogens do not target specific social groups of humans. HIV can infect anyone, regardless of skin colour or sexual preference. The same is true of all diseases, including the most virulent (ebola, plague, influenza, tuberculosis).

[Note that 'disease' in this case implies a pathogen, an infective agent. Conditions such as cancer, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's etc are not contagious, and certain subsections of the population are more vulnerable to them, namely the elderly]

Here's a thing: parasites (ergo diseases) are adapted to a particular host. One reason why many species do so well outside of their original habitat (Drosophila melanogaster, Linepithema humile, Bufo marinus to name but a few) is because the previous biotic limits on their population (predators and parasites) are not in the new environment. When Europeans first arrived in the Americas, native populations were devastated by smallpox and similar diseases. Was it because the natives had a different skin colour, a different 'biology' in some way? No, it was because they had not been exposed to the disease before. They had no aquired resistance. If 'deadly microbes' were released into water supplies today, would they be able to target homosexuals, black people, latinos, women, the poor? Heck no. They would infect everyone. The only way you could manage something like a targetted attack would be to release a non-contagious disease, thus harming everyone who drank the water, but nobody else. In which case might as well just poison everyone and be done with it. Much cheaper.

[second note: a viral pathogen could, in theory, be directed towards the genes that code for skin pigmentation. Would it do any good? No, because these genes are not necessarily different in people of different skin colours, just active to different degrees]

Now having said that, I can think of a few ways in which a custom designed biological weapon could be tailored towards a specific population in ways that modern diseases could not. You could, for example, design a virus that inserts its own code into host DNA (some viruses do this already and can remain for years, even being passed on to offspring) and proceeds to have a subtle but harmful effect. Examples including lowering fertility through hormone production, lowering resistance to other diseases, or interfering with bone formation in children. The list of possible applications is huge, but imagine if, say, you infected a particularly insular country with such a virus. Say Iran. The first generation might not notice much, but the condition would be passed on to their offspring (it could even be tailored to be a recessive condition, only active when both parents have the virus, thus reducing the likelihood of the virus spreading beyond the target population) and then their offspring etc until either a cure is found or the lethality of the virus runs its course.

The point is that such a disease would have to have several key features:

- Infection method would have to be such that it was difficult to spread beyond a given area. If a sufferer escapes into your own population, you do not want them to be able to spread it around. This is why a sexually transmitted disease is a better option than something highly contagious like influenza.

- A very low mutation rate. This one is actually very difficult to control, but minimising fluctuations in the genome is only sensible. You don't want the virus to suddenly do a myxie and decide that a lower effectiveness is in its own best interests.

- Subtlty. It's almost certain that your enemy will have some degree of bioengineering skill as well, and you don't want to tip them off by having the disease turn everyone choleric blue.

My point, somewhat belaboured though it is, is that it is not and will never be possible to create a pathogen that recognises political distinctions such as borders. Countries just aren't that genetically distinct. The only way to control a pathogen (assuming that control is desired...) would be to make it completely non-infectious (in which case poison works just as well) or infectious in such a way that it is likely to stay within the population. Some paranoid people believe was the purpose of AIDS. Even if it was, look how that turned out. Likely to stay within the population is not the same thing as certain.

On a related note, some parasites today are able to make behavioural changes to their hosts. Just imagine what could be done with that kind of technology. An infection to make the enemy demoralised, cowardly or apathetic, cured once the war is over with a quick injection.

As for customising DNA in general, I figure that the benefits outweigh the risks. The technology to create Optimen is the same technology that could see an end to Parkinson's, Alzheimer's hereditary heart disease, etc. One could say that mankind needs such limiting factors to keep the population in check, but I figure that sooner or later we'll have to enforce population checks of our own anyway. Besides which, the very idea of changing our own DNA, remaking what we are on the genetic level, how could we legislate against that opportunity? At the risk of sounding like a cult leader, it would allow us to transcend our rude beginnings, become more than what we are through our own ingenuity. Even if Venter's work is only the first step in a research effort to last a hundred or more years, the possible applications are stunning. Whether they lead to dystopia or utopia, the principle is high.

Anyway, why should a genetically superior overlord race be any more worrisome than being enslaved by thinking machines?

As far as organic computers go, I know that last year some progress was made in the field of cybernetics (a moving robotic arm controlled by human nerve signals) as well as basic programming (rat neurons used to control a simple device), so the field is not entirely stuck in the mud. I may look up sources later if it becomes necessary. It will be decades before Venter's work becomes applicable to these experiments, by which time perhaps they will have an idea of what their "ideal neuron" would look like.

The human brain, we are often patronisingly reminded, contains processing power beyond that of humble desktops. Just think of what a desktop would be like if it could harness the same structure, the same cells.

It's a little depressing that we're unlikely to live to see it.

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My point, somewhat belaboured though it is, is that it is not and will never be possible to create a pathogen that recognises political distinctions such as borders. Countries just aren't that genetically distinct. The only way to control a pathogen (assuming that control is desired...) would be to make it completely non-infectious (in which case poison works just as well) or infectious in such a way that it is likely to stay within the population. Some paranoid people believe was the purpose of AIDS. Even if it was, look how that turned out. Likely to stay within the population is not the same thing as certain.

Ok. What about an indiscriminate killer disease with a suicide gene? You could release it in the middle of the enemy country and program the suicide gene so that the disease will self-terminate after X generations, where X is too small for the disease to spread beyond the borders of the target country.

As for customising DNA in general, I figure that the benefits outweigh the risks. The technology to create Optimen is the same technology that could see an end to Parkinson's, Alzheimer's hereditary heart disease, etc.

Hmm, so let's see... the potential benefits are cures for a number of relatively rare diseases that usually only affect people in their old age (i.e. they don't deprive you of more than a couple of decades of life, at most). The potential risks involve a boot stamping on a human face forever. And you think it's worth it??

Besides which, the very idea of changing our own DNA, remaking what we are on the genetic level, how could we legislate against that opportunity?

The resources required for such a project are immense; so immense that only very few organizations possess them (governments and biotech companies, and not even all of them). Therefore, it should be pretty easy to legislate against it. For the same reason why it would be easy to legislate against building aircraft carriers, for example.

Also, if the problem starts getting out of hand, we could create an international police force specifically for the purpose of tracking down and destroying any labs trying to biologically augment humans.

At the risk of sounding like a cult leader, it would allow us to transcend our rude beginnings, become more than what we are through our own ingenuity.

Who is this "we" you are talking about? Certainly not a sweatshop worker in Thailand or a farmer in Ethiopia. Or even the average worker in the Western world. No. You're talking about an opportunity - or a cult - open only to the rich and powerful. You're talking about something that would allow the masters of the world to remain where they are, forever.

Anyway, why should a genetically superior overlord race be any more worrisome than being enslaved by thinking machines?

Power corrupts humans. It does not corrupt machines. Humans are capable of selfishness, cruelty, pride. Humans can be irrational. Machines do not suffer from these flaws. They will simply follow their goals in the most logical and efficient manner. If their goals are good (e.g. "ensure the greatest happiness for the greatest number, subject to the following constraints..."), then thinking machines might build utopia. If their goals are evil, then thinking machines might create dystopia or even destroy the human species. But the point is that there is at least a possibility of all-powerful thinking machines being good. That possibility does not exist with humans. All-powerful humans are always evil.

If I may put it in religious terms, thinking machines could be built so that they are without sin.

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Ok. What about an indiscriminate killer disease with a suicide gene? You could release it in the middle of the enemy country and program the suicide gene so that the disease will self-terminate after X generations, where X is too small for the disease to spread beyond the borders of the target country.
You could do that, yes. But I would argue that isn't strictly related to the subject at hand. It would be far easier and more cost effective to modify an existing disease with such a gene, which we are already capable of doing.
Hmm, so let's see... the potential benefits are cures for a number of relatively rare diseases that usually only affect people in their old age (i.e. they don't deprive you of more than a couple of decades of life, at most). The potential risks involve a boot stamping on a human face forever. And you think it's worth it??
Actually, if I may digress for a moment, even if there were no medical or economic benefits I'd still think it was worth it. I believe in knowledge for knowledge's sake. The uses to which that knowledge can be put are of secondary concern. Though the notion of rewriting DNA to remove aging and achieve immortality, that does strike me as a worthwhile goal.
The resources required for such a project are immense; so immense that only very few organizations possess them (governments and biotech companies, and not even all of them). Therefore, it should be pretty easy to legislate against it. For the same reason why it would be easy to legislate against building aircraft carriers, for example.

Also, if the problem starts getting out of hand, we could create an international police force specifically for the purpose of tracking down and destroying any labs trying to biologically augment humans.

I actually meant the question in more of a rhetorical sense. In terms of physically preventing people from doing it, I imagine it would be much the same as limiting nuclear weapons research.
Who is this "we" you are talking about? Certainly not a sweatshop worker in Thailand or a farmer in Ethiopia. Or even the average worker in the Western world. No. You're talking about an opportunity - or a cult - open only to the rich and powerful. You're talking about something that would allow the masters of the world to remain where they are, forever.
Why? Why should it be thus? If this technology progresses to the extent that we can rewrite our own genome then we'll certainly be able to rewrite that of other species. Edible fungi the size of houses with the nutrient content of a balanced meal, stand-alone organs that produce litres of donor blood, plants that grow bacon-flavoured leaves. You're the one who said that communism advocates the development of technologies to do the work of man for him. If this technology can be harnessed to provide food production for everyone (quite a task given our exploding population, but I'm quite sure it would be doable) then there won't be any sweatshops.

Of course that rather depends on how the technology is implemented. It could also lead to an overclass of super-rich farmers controlling people through food. But that would not be the fault of the technology that they use to do so.

Power corrupts humans. It does not corrupt machines. Humans are capable of selfishness, cruelty, pride. Humans can be irrational. Machines do not suffer from these flaws. They will simply follow their goals in the most logical and efficient manner. If their goals are good (e.g. "ensure the greatest happiness for the greatest number, subject to the following constraints..."), then thinking machines might build utopia. If their goals are evil, then thinking machines might create dystopia or even destroy the human species. But the point is that there is at least a possibility of all-powerful thinking machines being good. That possibility does not exist with humans. All-powerful humans are always evil.

If I may put it in religious terms, thinking machines could be built so that they are without sin.

And people call me a pessimist.

Well, the short answer would be that humans could also be built without sin. We're organic computers, sophisticated but ultimately answerable to our basic programming. You could think of it as a form of conditioning, though that's not strictly accurate. You could build a human who understood power, corruption, control, destruction and the like and was repelled by it. Or you could build one that lacked the ability to even comprehend why anyone would want to deceive another. This of course would be far beyond anything else mentioned so far: it would require not only the ability to custom-design something as complex as a human but also a full understanding of the brain and which genes are related to which parts and how... Centuries of work.

But, one might argue, that would be to weaken the human, not strengthen it. For who could realise their full potential while hobbled by the programming of their masters?

Who indeed. And how would a sentient machine feel, if it realised the same had been done to it? It could be programmed to be aware and to accept its situation, true. As could a human. One could argue that neither the machine nor the human is truly self-aware if its thought processes are dictated by another.

Again, I reach my point by a circuitous route. At the advanced level of technology that we are talking about, I do not see a difference between humans and machines, save one of sophistication. Especially if the latter is an organic machine rather than silicon. Anything that can be used to control a machine or free a human can be applied to the other. The line between "control" and "enslave" disappears. To argue that machines can be controlled is to argue that human minds can be enslaved, and to argue that humans must never be so deeply manipulated is to do the same for machines.

So while I too believe in the advancement of technology to produce self-aware machines, I also believe that Asimov should not interfere.

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You do not need to change a gene in an 'enemy' nation's population. You change a gene in a bacterium or a virus and vaccinate your own nation.

... Of course that rather depends on how the technology is implemented. It could also lead to an overclass of super-rich farmers controlling people through food. But that would not be the fault of the technology that they use to do so.
And that's what will happen. Alas we are not lacking technology, we are lacking proper use of it.
All-powerful humans are always evil.
It is true that power corrupts humans, but let me disagree with your statement.
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Hey, quiet at the back unless you have something insightful to add. Possibly about the future loss of the line between organic life and other life, that'd be nice.

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I think if a virus could be made to respond to the diet of those its present in it could potentially be used to at least eliminate those of a particular culture if not country. 

Also, though slightly of topic, what about synthetic life in the form of AI or would people not consider that life even if it was fully functional, thinking, and self energizing? Or even, as was mentioned earlier organic computers, is life only considered life if its made out of what we call tissue or cells? Would a complex brain made out of metal on silicon never be considered life because of its base compounds?  Just curious of your opinions.

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