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Posts Tagged ‘artificial life

“God help us — for art is long, and life so short”*…

 

The creation of a homunculus, an artificially made miniature human, from an 1899 edition of Goethe’s Faust

Making life artificially wasn’t as big a deal for the ancients as it is for us. Anyone was supposed to be able to do it with the right recipe, just like baking bread. The Roman poet Virgil described a method for making synthetic bees, a practice known as bougonia, which involved beating a poor calf to death, blocking its nose and mouth, and leaving the carcass on a bed of thyme and cinnamon sticks. “Creatures fashioned wonderfully appear,” he wrote, “first void of limbs, but soon awhir with wings.”

This was, of course, simply an expression of the general belief in spontaneous generation: the idea that living things might arise from nothing within a fertile matrix of decaying matter. Roughly 300 years earlier, Aristotle, in his book On the Generation of Animals, explained how this process yielded vermin, such as insects and mice. No one doubted it was possible, and no one feared it either (apart from the inconvenience); one wasn’t “playing God” by making new life this way.

The furor that has sometimes accompanied the new science of synthetic biology—the attempt to reengineer living organisms as if they were machines for us to tinker with, or even to build them from scratch from the component parts—stems from a decidedly modern construct, a “reverence for life.” In the past, fears about this kind of technological hubris were reserved mostly for proposals to make humans by artificial means—or as the Greeks would have said, by techne, art…

Philip Ball digs into myth, history, and science to untangle the roots of our fears of artificial life: “Man Made: A History of Synthetic Life.”

* Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust: Part One

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As we marvel that “it’s alive!,” we might send carefully-coded birthday greetings to John McCarthy; he was born on this date in 1927.  An eminent computer and cognitive scientist– he was awarded both the Turning Prize and the National Medal of Science– McCarthy coined the phrase “artificial Intelligence” to describe the field of which he was a founder.

It was McCarthy’s 1979 article, “Ascribing Mental Qualities to Machines” (in which he wrote, “Machines as simple as thermostats can be said to have beliefs, and having beliefs seems to be a characteristic of most machines capable of problem solving performance”) that provoked John Searle‘s 1980 disagreement in the form of his famous Chinese Room Argument… provoking a broad debate that continues to this day.

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I for one welcome our new computer overlords…

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In the aftermath of Watson’s triumph over humanity’s best, your correspondent thought it wise to remind readers (and himself) that this is not the first time that we mortals have faced the onslaught of astounding new technology.

The good folks at Dark Roasted Blend have compiled a nifty through-the-ages recap of attempts to create “life” in new-fangled ways; from Leonardo’s “robot” and John Dee’s “flying beetle” to an “steam-powered hiker” and an “electric milk man” from Victorian England, there’s quite a selection in “Amazing Automatons: Ancient Robots & Victorian Androids.”

It’s all fascinating; but the sweet spot is surely the selection of creations from the 18th (and early 19th) centuries, when the then-highly-developed crafts of metal working and watchmaking were turned to automata.  Consider, for example…

Jacques Vaucason created numerous working figures, including a flute player, which actually played the instrument, in 1738, plus this duck from 1739. The gilded copper bird could sit, stand, splash around in water, quack and even give the impression of eating food and digesting it.

Pierre Jaquet-Doz created three automata, The Writer, The Draughtsman and The Musician, which are still considered scientific marvels today. The Draughtsman is capable of producing four distinct pictures, while the Writer dips his pen in the ink and can write as many as forty letters. The Musician’s fingers actually play the organ and the figure ends her performance with a bow.

More, at Dark Roasted Blend.

As we remind ourselves to re-read Kevin Kelly’s excellent What Technology Wants and then to retake the Turing Test, we might stage a dramatic memorial dramatist and scenic innovator James Morrison Steele (“Steele”) MacKaye; he died on this date in 1894.  He opened the Madison Square Theatre in 1879, where he created a huge elevator with two stages stacked one on top of the other so that elaborate furnishings could be changed quickly between scenes. MacKaye was the first to light a New York theatre– the Lyceum, which he founded in 1884– entirely by electricity. And he invented and installed overhead and indirect stage lighting, movable stage wagons, artificial ventilation, the disappearing orchestra pit, and folding seats. In all, MacKaye patented over a hundred inventions, mostly for the improvement of theatrical production and its experience.

Steele MacKaye

Emergent-cy…

Scripps Research Institute biologist Gerald Joyce (pictured above) and his colleague Tracey Lincoln have built an “immortal molecule.”  They have synthesized RNA enzymes – ribonucleic acid enzymes also known as ribozymes – that replicate themselves without the help of any proteins or other cellular components.  And since these simple nucleic acids can act as catalysts, the process can continue indefinitely.

As Cosmos reports,

The ultimate goal is to create genetic systems that behave like life, and are for all intents “life” as we know it, but arose without using biological systems.

“The aim is to create systems that have inventive capabilities, that can develop novel solutions to challenges posed by the environment. But that we don’t have yet,” [Joyce] said.

“What we do have is a self-sustained chemical system that undergoes Darwinian evolution. They are synthetic genetic systems, and they are evolving. But they’re not living because they don’t yet show the capacity to invent a whole cloth of functions. The idea is to give them enough information wherewithal [genetic building blocks] so they can start inventing their own solutions rather than just optimizing existing solutions,” he added.

Joyce said it was not practical to synthesize the more complex DNA-based life we know from scratch; it’s too complex and probably beyond today’s science. But it is conceivable to start with a much more basic form of life-like molecules based on RNA, and use evolution to build on them.

Many scientists believe that early life was based on RNA and predated the arrival of life based on deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and proteins. RNA, which can both store information like DNA as well as act as an enzyme like proteins, may have supported pre-cellular life.

A leading proponent of this so-called “RNA world” hypothesis, Joyce believes that RNA-based catalysis and information storage may have been the first step in the evolution of cellular life.

Read the whole story here.

As we search our closets for those chemistry sets, we might celebrate the emergence of a technology that took on a life of its own and changed… well, everything:  this date in 1455 is the traditionally-given date of the publication of the Gutenberg Bible, the first Western book printed from movable type.  The Jikji— the world’s oldest known extant movable metal type printed book– was published in Korea in 1377.  Bi Sheng created the first known moveable type– out of wood– in China in 1040.

The Library of Congress’ copy

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