FRINGE SCIENCE: Artificial Life’s dazzling chimera.


IN the mid-1980s Ridley Scott painted a haunting picture of artificial life – androids, patented snakes, and DIY replicants. Blade Runner is one of the seminal science fiction movies of all time and yet we as a species are only beginning to get to grips with the dilemma’s involved, since artificial life = artificial existence.  Thus, the announcement that science is on its way to creating artificial DNA in the laboratory, which could be as easily manipulated as computer code, brings to mind Harrison Ford’s chilling discovery that, like most artificial life-forms, nothing lives forever. 

Will today’s androids outlive their makers? What would sex be like with a replicant? Put aside fears of silicon-based life-forms taking over the planet or biological slaves replacing your wife, and mutant clones doing all the menial work in factories that build nothing but mutant clones. Nothing has changed. 

Aside from the socio-political concerns invariably raised as a result of gender inequality and the class system, the results of today’s laboratory experiments following on the human genome project are bound to be far weirder than we can possibly imagine. Take the prospect of intelligent razor wire, or a living glass-latice that reproduces?

 The scientific visions painted by movies such as Blade Runner, and another cult classic, The Island of Dr Moreau may turn out to be the rare exceptions. BTW the film version of H.G. Wells’ novel starred Marlon Brando in one of his last roles, cast as a modern Noah with a bizarre yet sophisticated Arc-like Island. As most technophiles will tell you, there is still a great deal of mad doctoring involved in the new science of artificial life. In a recent 10ZMTV special – The Aliens We’re Making, Dr Alan Goldstein voiced his concerns about molecular biology, in particular what he refers to as “animate non-biological chemistry.”

 “DNA is just a particular chemical programming language. When other chemical languages become available for replication we will have non-biological life-forms,” explains Goldstein. 

Before one gets carried away by the intellectual debates and existential questions raised by fringe scientists, it is a good idea to read Theodore Rozak’s The Cult of Information, A Neo-Luddite Treatise On High-Tech, Artificial Intelligence, And The True Art Of Thinking, one of the first books to take the new paradigm to task, from a critical perspective. Published in 1986, Rozak’s concerns foreshadow ethical debates about molecular genomics that hold true today. 

Here is an extract: “In 1951, microbiologists James Watson and Francis Crick announced that they had solved the master problem of modern biology. They had broken the “genetic code” hidden deepwithin the molecular structure of DNA. The very use of the word code in this context was significant. For one thing, it immediately seemed to link the discoveries of the biologists to those of the new information theorists, whose work had much to do with the “encoding” ofinformation. The word also carried with it the thrill of an espionage story and, in fact, harked back to the original use made of the computer in England: to break the German secret code during World War II.”

“No sooner had Watson and Crick published their breakthrough than the DNA molecule came to be universally seen as something like a tiny cybernetic apparatus that stored and processed microscopic bits of chemically encoded data. Supposedly, these coded messages controlled discrete physical processes in the replication of living things. Soon, the entire code of the double helix would be unscrambled and its message might be read off bit by bit like the memory store of a computer.” 

“As John Pfeiffer of MIT described the function of DNA in a 1960 television documentary on CBS, “The program’s patterns of chemical bases may be compared to patterns of holes or magnetic spots on paper tapes fed into electronic computers.”9 The DNA “program” has not turned out to be quite that simple, but in the first flush of discovery, it seemed that Wiener’s proposition had been confirmed: cybernetics and biology had found a common ground. Since its inception, the new biology has been so tightly entwined with the language and imagery of information science that it is almost impossible to imagine the field developing at all without the aid of the computer paradigm. One biologist identifies “the theoretical tool” that unlocked the chemistry of life as the new sciences associated with the development of computers. Theories of “control,” “feedback,” and “information transfer” were collated in 1948 by the American engineer and mathematician Norbert Wiener under the name of “cybernetics.” … Biochemists seized on these new concepts in order to probethe ways in which the cell controlled and regulated its own metabolism. The job of the cyberneticist, he explains,is the study of information transfer: the converting of information from one form to another—the human voice into radio waves and back into sound once more, or a complex mathematical equation into a set of punched holes on a tape, to be fed into a computer and then into a set of traces on reels of magnetic tape in the computer’s “memory store.”

“… To him, protein synthesis is just such another case. The mechanism for ensuring the exact replication of a protein chain by a new cell is that of transferring the information about the protein structure from the parent to the daughter cell.”

“One is left to wonder: could the revolution in biology have occurred if the model of the computer had not been conveniently at hand waiting to be adopted? This would not be the first time a technological metaphor served to launch a scientific breakthrough. In the seventeenth century, at the very beginning of modern science, astronomers and physicists appropriated the model of the clock to explain the mechanics of the solar system and soon taught their society to see the entire universe as a clockwork instrument.”  

“There is a fascinatingly convoluted interplay of ideas at work here. At first, the biologists borrowed from cybernetics to explain genetics as an information transfer mechanism. Here, we see the computer scientists borrowing from biology to suggest the evolutionary nature of data processing technology. Culture is like that; it often grows by metaphorical elaboration, one field of thought borrowing from another for suggestive images. But at a certain point, metaphorical elaboration becomes plain bad thinking. That point is where the metaphors stop being suggestive and are taken literally.”

Theodore Rozak, The Cult of Information, A Neo-Luddite Treatise On High-Tech, Artificial Intelligence, And The True Art Of Thinking. University Of California Press ISBN: 0-520-08584-1

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