Hi, I'm Tim Tyler - and today I'll be discussing the idea that
synthetic life is here already.
Evolution has been trying to improve on existing organisms for
billions of years - and in modern times some humans have taken up the
task - using breeding programs and genetic engineering to improve on
the traits of a variety of creatures.
However, there are limits on what can conveniently be done using
incremental improvements to existing organisms, so some have
taken to performing more radical redesigns.
Synthesising living organisms from scratch has been a dream for
centuries - and has been promoted in modern times by people such as
Chris Langton, and Eric Drexler:
[Eric Drexler footage]
However, it has long been recognised that there are down-sides to the
Mary Shelley's 1818 novel, Frankenstein vividly dramatised
some of the risks of the enterprise.
In particular creating organisms with a lot of power, seems potentially
problematical - if the creatures come to elude the control of their
One of the problems is self-replicating agents getting out of control.
Here is Bill Joy describing the problem:
[Bill Joy footage]
It is concerns such as these that led to Eric Drexler back-tracking on
his original vision:
[Eric Drexler footage]
One idea that seems to be widespread is that you can avoid problems by
preventing the machines from reproducing. If you don't give the
machines the power of self-reproduction, and make them dependent on
humans manufacturing them, then they are more likely to act as
beneficial symbionts - and less likely to act as parasites or
There are a few things to note here:
One is that growth is almost as problematical as
self-reproduction. As has been noted by Steve Omohundro,
sufficiently powerful systems are likely to want to expand to to
occupy more space/time - and take in more resources - in order to
better meet their goals - and this presents almost exactly
the same set of hazards to other creatures in the environment that
self-reproduction does. It isn't just self-reproduction that
you need to look out for.
The next is the idea that this is a scenario is going to occur at some
point in the future. In my view, the new replicators are here
already - and have been here for thousands of years. We have
new replicators in novel substrates copying themselves all over the
planet now - and they are swarming in incredible numbers.
Their phenotypes are having an enormous impact on the planetary
ecosystem - heating the planet up, making it glow at night, and
causing the current mass extinction. Synthetic living organisms
invading our ecosystem is not some event that we have to watch out for
in the future - but rather it's a ubiquitous phenomenon here
and now. The new replicators surround us, are inside us - and make us
what we are. Were it not for them, we would still be beasts -
Lastly there is the idea that forcing the new organisms to be
dependent on humans for reproduction will somehow stop them from
taking over control of the planet.
Human control over machine reproduction would indeed create a
desirable, mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship between the two
parties. However, just because you are in a mutually beneficial
symbiotic relationship, that doesn't mean both parties are benefitting
Today, we depend on memes - and we don't want to get rid of
them - they are good for us. We can't just decide to ditch ideas like
language - we value what they offer us too much. The result
is good for us - but also good for the memes, which grow in
numbers as a result. It's the same with machines - we don't
want to throw our mobile phones away - we value what they give us
Nucleic replicators and memes coexist in the same ecosystem, and
ultimately compete for the same space and the same resources. If the
memes get a bigger fitness boost out of the symbiosis than
the nuclear genes do, then they will increase in numbers relative to
those genes - and so come to represent an increasing fraction of the
biosphere by weight. That describes what has been happening so far.
If the new replicators continue to get more out of
the symbiosis than the nucleic genes do, a likely outtcome is a
society numerically dominated by intelligent machines - which are much
better at propagating memes than humans are.
In such a scenario, there may still a mutually-beneficial
symbiotic relationship between the parties involved - and those humans
that opt to continue the symbiosis with the machines might still do
systematically better than those who attempt to put an end to the
affair. However, humans as a whole are not doing terribly well.
Bill Joy describes this kind of scenario as follows:
[Bill Joy footage]
You might say that the road to a world dominated by intelligent machines
is paved with corporate profits.
At each step, the memes offer the nuclear replicators a kind of
Faustian bargain, which gives them short-term benefits, but at the
price long-term ruin.
So, to summarise, preventing machine self-reproduction in the future
seems like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. The
self-replicating entities that are most likely to dominate future
ecosystems are already here; they are reproducing in an uninhibited
and unrestrained fashion; and we can't stop them - because we don't