There are millions of species of life on earth. A small proportion has been domesticated and modified by humans over millennia. In spite of this, all life on Earth including humans is still based on the same shared biological life processes. This will change dramatically over the next century, as humans discover how life works at the most basic levels, how to replicate and manipulate it, and how to create new life forms from scratch. New life is not necessarily restricted to conventional biology, even if it is inspired by it. It might be electronic, conventionally biological but of a new design, or based on new types of synthetic biology, or any combination of these. Additionally, in the same way as biology has single celled organisms, complex multi-cellular organisms and many varieties of cooperative systems such as slime moulds, the potential scope for totally new life forms once cyberspace is added into the mix of electronics with synthetic and real biology will be enormous. For example, we could design and build a networked organism that physically spans the whole world, which exists partially in cyberspace and partially in the real physical world.
Genetic modification capabilities will increase over the coming decades as we learn more about both genetics and proteomics. One day we may be able to recreate extinct species, customise existing organisms, and design and build new organisms. These may coexist with natural organisms in the same ecosystems. Work is also going on to create artificial life in cyberspace, eventually with consciousness exceeding that of humans. It is an obvious extension to link these two domains together so that life can inhabit the organic world, cyberspace world, or span both. Having a dual existence spanning both cyberspace and the natural world will bring interesting new capabilities such as partial immortality.
Creating new life is surely one of the biggest breakthroughs mankind will ever make, and certainly raises ethical issues. Yet it is in the next few years rather than the far future that it will happen. Already, simple viruses can be assembled from DNA samples, with the genetic code available on the web. The next few years will almost certainly see the creation of the first bacterium effectively from scratch, again using off-the-shelf components and the appropriate assembly instructions. But the companies that are undertaking challenges such as this will not stop at using existing biology. The intent of at least some researchers is to develop a whole toolkit of ‘synthetic biology’, which does much the same as ‘natural’ biology, but in refined or re-engineered ways. Eventually, when we understand molecular mechanics much better, humans will inevitably re-engineer vast swathes of biology. We will have a new form of ‘nature’ a man-made version.
Synthetic nature - Replacing the rain forests
Engineers can already accomplish limited genetic modification and genetic selection of embryos. In due course, they will be able to customise many characteristics of our offspring, as well as editing and designing other species. Although today, it is considered unethical to modify human embryos for enhancement purposes, in the sufficiently far future, it may be considered irresponsible parenting not to give children the best possible genetic and proteomic start in life.
It may also become feasible to recreate extinct species by using derivatives of cloning and GM technology, provided that high quality samples of that species’ DNA are available. Later, we may be able to fill in the gaps where only incomplete samples of DNA are available. The first instance of a species brought back from extinction by such a technique seems likely before 2010. So although Jurassic Park may remain science fiction, we will one day have at least the theoretical capability to rebuild and repopulate rain forests.
But why stick with historically ‘natural’ organisms? Surely that is just a nostalgic constraint? It may become fairly routine to blend characteristics of different species to make organisms that don’t and never have existed in nature, such as Furbies for example. There could be a potentially high demand for such creatures as pets. Engineers might design both the appearance and behaviours of new organisms, from scratch, and introduce them into either existing natural systems, or even build wholly synthetic ecosystems. Even if rain forests have been totally destroyed, and their species lost, humans could design and build new ones, perhaps optimised for CO2 fixation tasks, or to be prettier or more interesting, and perpetuate life on earth, even long after humans become extinct. We may not go all the way to replacing existing nature completely, but it seems inevitable that the future organic world will be a combination of natural and synthetic life forms. Nature will certainly become even more harnessed to human goals.
‘Read-write-edit and delete’ control of nature would put humans firmly in control of future evolution. Will such power be used for the good of nature, or the good of the market? It is a sad reflection, but we will almost certainly gain the required technological knowledge and capability many years before we will have reached a level of cultural and governmental sophistication that would ensure the power is wielded with appropriate wisdom. It is like giving a powerful chemistry set to a child for its 3rd birthday!
Human reproduction - ebaybies
For less than $1000 in 2010, it will be possible to get your full genome listed on a CD. A PC could combine your listing with your friend’s listing, to produce any number of unique genetic listings of potential children. Celebrities could combine their genetic listings to produce collectable ‘ebaybies’ that they could sell on ebay, hence the name. Each of these listings is a potential future human, once we have the technology to assemble the required chromosomes. It will become possible to assemble the required DNA and implant it into a host cell to make a real embryo. In the further future, it may even be possible to simulate the likely phenotype so that parents can choose which they would like to make real, and edit their offspring’s characteristics until they are just right.Although the ‘digital conception’ could be any time soon, it won’t be possible to use the data to create a real embryo until some time after 2020. But that is not so far away.
One of the most significant areas of future development will be in using customised (perhaps synthetic) proteins within living cells to assemble nano-structures such as small molecular clusters or tiny electronic circuits. Meanwhile, development of molecular switches is accelerating, along with molecular sensing technology, as is of course the use of carbon nanotubes to connect components. Such bottom up assembly is often hailed as the natural replacement for today's lithography. So far however, the assembly has been presumed by most people to be done by tiny machines, not by biological cells. However, assembly of simple circuits by DNA in a test tube has already been demonstrated. Perhaps it will become feasible to do this inside living cells using customised DNA. If and when bacteria can be genetically modified to do the assembly of circuitry, it will be a major breakthrough. Once circuits are assembled, the bacteria could be disposed of, leaving the circuits. Another would be that the circuitry could actually stay inside a bacterium, and be powered by the bacterium's own biological powerhouses, the mitochondria. In a decade or two, there could well be bacteria that enclose fully functioning electronic circuits. Even though the circuitry within each cell might be limited, self organisation could link many bacteria together into useful computing, storage or sensing devices. These bacteria would self replicate quite naturally, with their computing power growing organically. It might become possible to grow very large and powerful computers in this way, without the traditional problems of power supply and heat dissipation directly taken care of by nature. Using an evolutionary design methodology, it might be possible to program large cluster for consciousness. It is a frightening thought, but in the far future, your yoghurt might be much smarter than you are!
Furthermore, once we establish that bacteria could be networked directly in such a way, it is a relatively trivial step to network them across the entire world via the internet, making global organisms. And further even to this, it then becomes possible to use on-line intelligence as part of the organism’s system, making for truly hybrid organic-electronic-software organisms. This concept of hybridising organisms to have a dual existence in both the physical and electronic world is extremely though provoking and begs the question of what limits there might be to future life, if any. They can have a wide variety of physical forms, but also an infinite variety of on-line or cyberspace forms. The cyberspace world is not physically continuous in the same way as the physical universe, either in time or space. There are many disconnected island, and things can pop in and out of existence at different times and locations for example. There are many other variables too.
Virus crossover from machine to human
It is already demonstrably possible to assemble a polio virus from off-the-shelf genes. We should expect such capability to become more powerful, more widespread and more routine, and almost certainly heavily automated. Some machines capable of modifying or assembling viruses will be networked. This raises the potential problem that a virus could be assembled by a machine under remote control, or as the result of a specially constructed computer virus. This is a potential security threat. More interesting is the possibility that smart computers could design and construct real organic viruses without being instructed to do so by humans. So apart from terrorists sending bird flu viruses across the network, we may also have another type of ‘terminator scenario’ to worry about.
Return of the Coliseum
Artificial intelligence is developing more slowly than was expected 40 years ago, but is still progressing, and it is likely that we will have conscious and intelligent machines some time around 2020. Such machine intelligence and consciousness will inevitably be very different in some ways to our own, very alien. There will be a lot of debate as to whether conscious machines are ‘alive’ too, and what their rights and responsibilities should be. We must ensure that this debate is at the highest level of human capability, since the stakes are high. Sadly, there is little evidence that human nature has changed much since Roman times, when one of the forms of public entertainment was watching people hack each other to death in gladiatorial combat. Today, we have Robot Wars, where remote controlled machines do battle. The machines are clearly just machines, so there is no debate yet about their treatment. But some future robots will have strong AI and some will be designed to look and feel just like real people, with polymer muscles covered in silicone rubber. We cannot be sure whether these will ever be used in Robot Wars. It would certainly be a great crowd-pleaser if they were human-like, with synthetic blood, the more gore the better as far as audience numbers are concerned. Many will argue that it is OK because they are ‘just machines’. But if we do permit such use of androids, even if they don’t have full consciousness, we will have stooped once again to the lowest level of human morality.
Sims 5 - Real Life
One of the most popular computer games to date is The Sims, produced by EA Games. It allows players to design and orchestrate a virtual soap opera. The player designs the environment, architects the buildings, does the interior design, designs both the appearance and personality of the characters, and then interferes at will in every aspect of their virtual lives. It is highly compelling, and has the ethical advantage of being creative rather than destructive. Of course, the characters only have a tiny amount of AI behind them today, but each upgrade brings slightly more advanced AI. We should expect that similar games in the far future could invoke characters with strong AI foundations, giving them real consciousness and intelligence. So there might be the capability of producing real conscious beings inside the game. Again this raises ethical issues. What level of consciousness or sentience should a game character be permitted before it is given some basic rights and protection against suffering? Will we even be able to measure such things by the time we can create them? Should children be able to control conscious beings? They would be like gods to the game characters. These issues are still at least a decade away, but it is time to start serious discussion about them now.
Need for thought
Humans are embarking on an exciting new journey, with the power to create new kinds of life. This is not something that should be undertaken lightly. At the moment, there is too little discussion, and far too little in the public domain. It is not something that should be decided by big biotech and a few ethicists, the whole population needs to be engaged. And it certainly shouldn’t be done in one country without discussion in the whole global community. Once synthetic life is here, its impact will be permanent, and no country should be permitted to inflict such wide reaching impact on the whole of and the ecosystem and mankind without proper consent. The ethical, legal and practical issues arising with conscious machines, synthetic biology and networked and hybrid organisms are numerous, let alone the environmental ones. It will take a long time to evaluate them sensibly and yet the technological capabilities will mostly arise over the next two decades. It is time to start discussion in earnest now.