Monday, December 06, 2021

What Could Go Wrong With Engineered Life Forms?


That question left the hypothetical realm for reality when Michael Levin, director of the Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology at Tufts University, and Josh Bongard, professor of computer science at the University of Vermont, teamed together to turn frog stem cells into robots.  During the robots' seven-day lifetime, they can move, collect small particles into piles, and even reproduce after a fashion.  Developed with the essential assistance of an artificial-intelligence supercomputer, the new entities—called "xenobots" after the Latin name of the frog species from which the cells were taken—are the first step in a long-anticipated field that has up to now existed only in the realms of dystopian science fiction.


Starting with knowledge of what frog skin and cardiac cells can do, the scientists tried billions of different combinations of cells in the computer to see which ones could do interesting things.  The computer eventually came up with recipes for the assembly of hundreds of cells, which the scientists then carried out in the laboratory in a finicky process like assembling microscopic Legos, only the Legos are incubated frog stem cells.  The resulting robots did indeed move around, carry small objects in custom-designed pouches, and a Pac-Man-shaped version could even reproduce, spitting out a smaller version of itself every now and then. 


Asked about the ethical implications of their research, Levin said, "When we start to mess around with complex systems that we don't understand, we're going to get unintended consequences."  Bomgard added, "There's all of this innate creativity in life. . . . We want to understand that more deeply—and how we can direct and push it toward new forms."


Levin and Bomgard are working scientists, not philosophers, so when they talk out of school, so to speak, addressing not the technicalities of AI-driven biological multicell-organism fabrication, but the wider implications of their work, they tend to say things that are not particularly profound or original.  Anyone who has had trouble driving an unfamiliar rental car has learned that messing around with complex systems that we don't understand can have unintended consequences.  The question is not whether unintended consequences will happen—they will—but what you do about them if they do, and how you keep the bad ones from hurting yourself or others.


What Bomgard said encapsulates three streams of philosophy and religion that have been flowing since prehistoric times.  The first stream is the wonder one feels at the awesome abundance and variety of life on Earth.  "Innate creativity" implies that it's simply there somehow, a brute fact of existence that Bomgard uses the passive voice for ("There is . . . creativity.")  This ignores the fact that in every other area of human endeavor—music, art, literature, and science itself—creativity appears to arise only from human intelligence.  The elaborate architecture of termite nests, in which somehow thousands of individually unintelligent creatures cooperate to build sophisticated towers and walls, is sometimes called "creative," but is more realistically categorized as instinct.  No termite colony has ever built a Corinthian column.  It takes human ingenuity to do that.


No reasonable scientist can deny that there is a creative spirit or principle in life, but the universally-observed prohibition on talking about God in this connection forces them simply to say it's out there without saying where it came from.  But a failure to acknowledge the source of all that creativity may lead to something worse than unintended consequences later on.


The second great stream of philosophy is the human desire to know, as Aristotle points out in the first words of his Metaphysics:  "All men by nature desire to know."  Bomgard echoes this when he says "We want to understand that more deeply," meaning the creativity of life.  Up to the time of Sir Francis Bacon, philosophers sought wisdom as the highest secular good.  But since Bacon, the unadulterated desire simply to know something has been subordinated most of the time to the third great stream of philosophical inquiry:  how can we use this knowledge to, in Bacon's words, "better man's estate"? 


In more prosaic terms, the difference between the two streams is the distinction between pure and applied science, although the distinction is often more hypothetical than real.  Ask any mathematician who has spent years pursuing a theory simply because it was beautiful and interesting, and then turns around to discover that the National Security Agency has made it an essential part of their latest encryption technology.  The fact is, pure science can turn into applied science at any time, and a lot of applied science has accidentally led to advances in pure science as well.


But that ignores the question of intent, which is the critical question that so far has remained unanswered, at least by Levin and Bomgard.  I will admit that the first thing I thought of when I read about what they were doing is a phrase first used by Eric Drexler in his 1986 book Engines of Creation, a half-science and half-fiction speculation on the future of nanotechnology.  Gray goo is what the world would turn into if we managed to develop a type of bacteria that could live and multiply by consuming almost anything.  Readers will recognize the xenobot as possibly a first necessary step in making gray goo.


Levin and Bomgard say there is no chance their modified frog embryo cells will escape the lab, as they can't live outside the specially prepared soup that they were incubated in, and when they die they are as harmless as the thousands of skin cells each of us shed from our bodies every day.  Well, maybe so.  But the same curiosity and "if we can do it, we must do it" attitude that drove these researchers to make their xenobots can (I don't say will) lead to the kind of disasters that we've seen in the last couple of years.  We may never know whether COVID-19 originated in a lab accident in Wuhan or by natural means.  But even the remote possibility that it was man-made should make us all take very hard and long looks at efforts to manipulate living things in a way that could lead to harm, even if it is accidental.


Sources:  CNN carried the article "World's first living robots can now reproduce, scientists say" by Katie Hunt on Nov. 29, 2021 at  I also referred to the University of Vermont press release on the research at, and the Wikipedia article on gray goo.


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