Creating Synthetic Life

Synthetic genomics

In May 2010, Craig Venter announced to the world that his scientific team had successfully created new life out of the digital universe. The first synthetic cell whose parent is a computer, was the culmination of 15 years of painstaking research.

Declared as a revolutionary breakthrough and a giant philosophical step in how we view life, it marks the beginning of a new era in synthetic genomics and the generation of multiple forms of artificial life, bringing mankind one step closer to the Singularity – a time when intelligent machines will be able to exist, without the need for human intervention.


Synthesising human DNA

The pace of digitising life itself has been exponential in line with the growth in computational power. In 2001, Venter helped to sequence the human genome, which scientists around the world are currently unravelling with super computers. In practice, it’s difficult to synthesise human DNA, which contains the code telling everything in your body what to do and how to do it. The process needs accurate digital information.

Venter and his team have overcome this challenge by designing a synthetic chromosome with in-built software, which can build its own hardware. The chromosome, which is essentially inactive chemical material, becomes activated when transplanted into a living cell that then transforms and adds new traits.


Human life has reached a critical crossroads

You may be wondering why there is a need for this kind of technology? Quite simply, life on this planet has reached a dangerous crossroads. The world’s population is set to increase rapidly from 6.5 billion to 9 billion people, within the next fifty years. Providing this number of people with enough food and clean water poses a major problem for world governments that requires our urgent attention. Creating synthetic DNA could provide us with the means to survive this difficult transitional period.


From breakthrough cures to new energy sources

The practical applications for synthetic genomics are diverse and potentially mind-blowing – from providing us with new vaccines for flu viruses, to generating energy from bio-fuels by converting carbon dioxide into methane. The latter would help to replace our dependancy on oil, which has been a major cause of eco-disasters and recent conflicts in the Middle East. Exxon Mobil Oil is currently conducting extensive research in this new field of science, with the intention of diversifying its portfolio of global energy products in the near future.


An explosion of new life

There’s little doubt synthetic genomics offers mankind a powerful set of tools, capable of extending the survival of the human race. The ability to create new life out of the digital universe is also guaranteed to speed up the evolutionary process. The diversity of life on earth is poised to take a giant leap into the unknown, as suggested in the film: Ex Machina (2015).



Caution is essential

Thus, it pays to be cautious. By its nature AI (Artificial Intelligence) will evolve by its own volition. Once it’s potential is released in the world, it will be difficult to control how it will re-generate and mutate. The Internet, for example, is a wonderful communication tool but we forget that it’s also a giant electronic brain that is becoming highly intuitive, as it swallows up more and more data about us and the universe we inhabit. How it will evolve in the future is not known.


Ethical implications

The ethical implications for creating synthetic life are obviously a minefield. In the science-fiction film, Ai: Artificial Intelligence (2001), synthetic life forms that became obsolete, were cruelly tossed on the scrap heap or used as a source of entertainment. As the creators and consumers of AI,  we have a responsibility towards it or we may one day find ourselves at its mercy. Any number of future scenarios are possible, which is why AI must be integrated into human society responsibly and for the greater good.



Copyright: Massimo Barbato. Clips: Ted; trailers of Ex Machina (2015) and Ai (2001). No copyright infringement intended.


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