Unabashed Heterophobe (paulnolan) wrote in ontd_political,
Unabashed Heterophobe

So, artificial life is here, courtesy of Craig Venter. Time to remix humankind…

OK, time to revise those nightmare visions of the future. Rather than being laser-gunned in the lungs by robotic shock troopers, we'll be absorbed by undulating blob monsters – all because a group of scientists in Maryland have created artificial life in a laboratory. What surprised me most about the news was that it was surprise news. I thought artificial life had been mastered years ago, when Sega created Sonic the Hedgehog. But apparently he didn't count.

Instead we're meant to be excited by a pair of thing-a-zoids which, placed side-by-side in the photographs, look less like the dawn of a new scientific era and more like a pair of giant googly eyeballs, as though Nookie Bear is staring at you from inside a burqa. The underwhelming bio-glob in question is, we're told, "based on a bacterium that causes mastitis in goats", which might make an amusingly wry on-screen sub-heading at the start of the next Transformers movie, but doesn't do much to make the breakthrough any more thrilling.

That's possibly because the breakthrough itself is impossible to understand unless you're a geneticist. Here's what happened: the scientists created a computer simulation of the goat bug thingy, then fed the code into a genetic synthesizer. You know, a genetic synthesizer. It looks like a George Foreman grill, but in white, and with twice as many winking lights on the top. They fed it into that. Probably using a USB stick. Anyway, the DNA grill heated up and went beep and "produced short strands of the bug's DNA", which I imagine were an absolute bugger to pick up with tweezers. Said strands were then "stitched together" by some bits of yeast and E coli, which eventually knitted the strand into a complete million-letter-long DNA sequence, which you're probably incorrectly picturing right now.

So far, so baffling. Then it gets weirder. To "watermark" their artificial bug, the geneticists spliced a James Joyce quotation into the DNA sequence. The unsuspecting genome now has the phrase "to live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life" written through it like letters in a stick of rock. In other words, it's the world's most pretentious bacterium. After Quentin Letts.

This raises the question of whether it's possible to shove an entire book into the genetic synthesizer and create a new life form. I'd be quite interested in seeing what would pop out if you fed it one of Jordan's novels. It might result in a lifeform more sophisticated than Jordan herself, even if it was just a burping elbow with eyelashes.

Incidentally, the DNA sequence also includes an email address, presumably so you know who to contact if you discover a bacterium wandering about in the street without its owner present.

Anyway, leaving aside the immense philosophical and spiritual considerations, the most pressing concern about artificial life is the prospect of sinister man-made lifeforms being used for nefarious means. Even Craig Venter himself, who oversaw the experiments, describes it as a "dual-use technology", which is a brilliantly non-specific way of saying "good or evil". On the one hand, energy companies could create an organism which converts CO2 into power, thereby solving climate change and the energy crisis. And on the other, North Korea could unleash an army of sabre-toothed jackdaws. Or we could accidentally create a kind of whispering, intelligent mud that rises up and smothers us to death in our sleep. Literally all of the above can but won't happen.

If we survive long enough to perfect the life-creation process, we'll have zany new animals to look forward to. Entire zoos will be dedicated to ridiculous remixed animals: 100-legged cat centipedes, crocodiles with breasts, ladybirds the size of a church. Ever wondered what happens when you cross a cow with a shark? Wonder no more at the charkinarium.

Disney could breed a real Mickey Mouse, a real Donald Duck, and a real whatever-Goofy-is to greet kids in their amusement parks – genuine walking, breathing mascots, with their own lungs and digestive systems and everything. Your kids won't know whether to laugh or cry. Although ultimately "cry" is probably the likeliest option, since given the size of Mickey's head he'll probably break his own neck when he bends down to shake their hand.

I'd create an animal that excretes meat, just to give vegetarians pause for thought. Ethically, what's the problem with eating a sausage, if it's been harmlessly pooed out by an animal? To sweeten the pill yet further, what if you put pleasure receptors in the animal's colon, so it actively enjoys the sausage-creation process – enjoys it to such a degree that it chases you down the street, yelping in orgasmic delight and producing a string of pan-ready chipolatas? If you think that's disgusting, I'd just like to point out that it's far less revolting than killing a pig with a bolt gun then mashing it up into sausagemeat.

And we could remix humankind too, removing all the rubbish bits we're cursed with, like the appendix, or empathy. It'd be fun to create a race of people without memories, pain receptors, or shame cells, then populate a pleasure-island with them: a hyper-decadent, consequence-free paradise where you can spend a fortnight's holiday having sex with everyone you see, or deliberately ramming your car into them, or both – like a real-life 3D Grand Theft Auto. It'd be just like being an oligarch.

All in all, a brave new world full of sweating, belching horror lies just over our collective horizon. But don't be scared. Consider yourself lucky to be alive just as we've worked out precisely how special that's not.

Source: Charlie Brooker @ The Guardian
Tags: science

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