On synthetic genomics aka 'artificial life', and dire predictions.

By now most people have read about 'Artificial Life', i.e. the transplant of a DNA sequence manufactured based on a digital blueprint into a yeast cell, which then reproduces as a yeast cell was, therefore qualifying as a life-form whose DNA was essentially programmed into it in its entirety by humans. The DNA was that of a different breed of yeast cell, plus markers. The paper, 'Creation of a Bacterial Cell Controlled by a Chemically Synthesized Genome[PDF]', was published in the journal Science.

Several interesting links on the subject: firstly, this: 'Age of Excessions Interlude: Biology, or the Drugs Win the Drug War', offers a useful perspective on how to view the advance, and its potential (non-legal) uses. Personally I think that if this tech becomes user-friendly enough to end the War on Some Drugs, many many other life-changing things will result besides that may make the WoSD and its fate a foot-note in our long-term history, assuming we get that far.

You may wonder at whether drug addicts would successfully replicate procedures created at great expense in a dedicated institute funded to the tune of millions. Well, this post on garage biotech in Silicon Valley is an interesting read for its insight into the possibilities of small-scale laboratories. In addition to this, it's worth pointing out that one of the biggest challenges faced by the Venter Institute was creating complete and error-free strands of DNA. Short sequences of DNA can be mail-ordered today. For example, in 2002 scientists mail-ordered the DNA (transcoded RNA) of the poliovirus. Back then it took two years to assemble approximately 8kb of RNA. However, prices for sequencing and synthesizing DNA have dropped exponentially, following a trend similar to Moore's law.

Also worth bringing up again in this context is 'Why the future doesn't need us', a seminal essay by Bill Joy, formerly of Sun Microsystems, examining whether or not humanity's unstoppable and exponentially increasing empowerment of individuals with information will eventually lead to catastrophe.

(Ironically, if his insights are correct, and 'info-weapons' some day enable WMD on a scale heretofore unseen, then I speculate that working 'DRM' applied to such weaponisable information could form part of a system that would stand between us and disaster.)

I was discussing this last Sunday with Bethan when I was reminded of something Brad Hicks wrote on the similar subject of economic bubbles:
The single most reliable way to predict a bubble is when the business press, passing along what mainstream economists are telling them, say that the reason you can believe that we're not in a bubble is that "new fundamentals are emerging," or in other words, "the old rules don't apply any more because (fill in the blank)."
He has a point. Likewise, if you ask someone why humanity should be considered more responsible now than (say) seventy years ago, the answer that "things are different now" is a sign that we've learnt nothing. Human nature does have some depressing constants just as it has uplifting ones, and misplaced confidence and lack of humility are some of the former.

The story of technology and hubris is one that can be found engrained in western culture. Fired brick is one of humanitys earliest technological advances, and had a transformative impact on society: moving away from stone as a construction material freed early cities from dependency on local quarries and permitted a higher rate of settlement expansion.

With this in mind, the other thing I heard three weeks ago was a talk on the story of the Tower of Babel. Make of this what you will.

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