The title could also have been ‘Matter Conversions – Artificial Life and Matter as Communication’, but that would not quite have reflected the spirit of the manner in which this topic is generally presented. I found evidence on two occasions this week – not that artificial life should be made gloomy and scary, but sometimes, the overwhelming cheerfulness with which it is talked about is more scary than the creation of a post apocalyptic scenario.
Anyway, on Tuesday I went to the Dana Centre in London, which is at the back (and part) of the Science Museum, to see some presentations and join discussions around the boundaries of natural and artificial life. The event was called ‘Techno Bodies – Hybrid Life?’ Four themes ran through the evening: ageing, robotics, cybernetics and biomedical engineering. Unfortunately, you could only go to two of the four presentations, and the ones I ended up in were by the Bristol Robotics Laboratory and the Institute of Biomedical Engineering.
The Bristol people demonstrated one of their recently developed Eco Bots and talked about how to create ‘artificial predators’ that might one day perform environmentally friendly pest control in fields. The robots would catch the damaging bugs and snails and convert their inherent energy with the help of microbial fuel cells – so no need to recharge them. Alternatively, so called ‘robot gardeners’ could live in your garden and forage on the weeds they have been programmed to target. According to the researchers, they would even generate beneficial waste products (fertilizer) or ‘robot poo’! A question that came up was why the researchers wanted to create an artificial hedgehog if there were real ones that can do the job. The answer was that hedgehogs do not reliably patrol the fields in great enough numbers to guarantee pest control. Another person asked whether these robots could be designed to digest oil, sewage or other hazardous substances in the environment – and could even perform repairs on leaking pipes and tanks. The researchers answered that they could indeed imagine the development of ‘sewer bots’ or ‘landfill bots’.
The people working in biomedical engineering presented their digital plaster which monitors a person’s heart rate, for example. The two presenters brought up an interesting issue: where does medicine end and life-style start? While they are developing their plasters with people in critical conditions in mind, they also know of projects such as the Nike+ /Apple i-pod collaboration to monitor your exercise, phones with temperature sensors and people’s demands to get to know themselves better with home DNA testing kits. Another issue that was raised by the audience was data protection.
Just today, I found another interesting report on natural/artificial life boundary crossings: the New York Times’ Scientists Take New Step Toward Man-Made Life. Basically, it is about the making of bacteria DNA.
The somewhat sensational quotes that immediately caught my attention were:
‘…the design of organisms to perform particular tasks, such as making biofuels. Synthetic biologists envision being able one day to design an organism on a computer, press the “print” button to have the necessary DNA made, and then put that DNA into a cell to produce a custom-made creature’
‘The team also added some DNA segments to the genome to serve as “watermarks,” allowing scientists to distinguish the synthetic genome from the natural one. That raises new possibilities of using microbes as a method of communication. Dr. Venter said the watermarks contain coded messages. Sleuths will have to determine the amino acid sequence coded for by the watermarks, in order to decipher the message. “It’s a fun thing that has a practical application,” he said.’
Computer-designed organisms? Microbes as a method of communication? Matter is mutable in wondrous ways…