Creating Life?

Artificial Life?Geneticist Craig Venter is at it again.  Not content with shotgun-sequencing the human genome, Venter has recently speculated that designer bacteria might be the first wave in a process of converting other planets into human habitations.  This speculation of course, piggybacks on Venter’s recent fame as the creator of the first synthetic life-formA recent video by the New York Times, however, raises a pertinent question: ‘What exactly is life?’  Did Venter and his team actually create ‘artificial-life’? –or is his bacterial cell more of a Frankenstein’s monster than anything truly living?

This question has a long history in biology and philosophy.  It’s inexorably tied up with questions about the essence of life, and indeed of humanity.  Lucky for us though, we can skip tricky metaphysical questions about souls, élan vitals, and the like, and focus on something far more specific and parochial.  Just what is needed – what are the nuts and bolts required – for life?

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The way of modern science

Four days ago scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute, a private institute for gene research, announced that they have managed to create life from scratch! A synthetic cell was created that started its life on a computer screen. The resulting genome was put into a bacterium and took over, changing the bacterium to its own specifications. The resulting cell was called Synthia. All that in itself would raise enough ethical questions. Some have declared these new findings as an opening of Pandora’s box and wish it to never have happened, while others believe it to be the start of a new era in genetics and as a breakthrough in and for human history. The synthetic cell can lead to new possibilities like disease prevention and new cures, but also to ethical nightmares like made-to-order babies or clones and therefore to the question what a single life is actually worth? Continue reading “The way of modern science”

Caring Robots

90px-2008_Taipei_IT_Month_Day2_Taipei_City_Government_Intelligent_Housekeeping_RobotBack in 1966 Joseph Weizenbaum created “ELIZA”, a relatively simple computer program which was meant to simulate a psychotherapist. The program worked largely by rephrasing a patient’s statements as questions which were then posed back to the patient. Many subjects reported preferring ELIZA to their human therapists, and some continued to value ELIZA’s therapy even after Wiezenbaum revealed ELIZA’s workings. (You can read a transcript of ELIZA in action here.)

Things have moved on somewhat since ELIZA’s day. Maja Matarić, a Professor of Computer Science at the University of Southern California, has developed Robots that can provide advice and therapy to patients who have suffered strokes, or who suffer from Alzheimer’s. The Robot can monitor the patient’s movement as they perform a regime of physical therapy, using a combination of laser scanners and cameras, and provide encouragement and advice. But even more impressively, the robot can monitor how introverted or extroverted the patient is, and tailor the tone of their advice giving accordingly. One stroke patient reported much preferring the robot’s advice and encouragement to that of her husband . . .

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