How far have silicon life forms come, compared to our own carbon-based selves?
Is humanity likely to go too far in creating nature and ultimately harm itself? Peter Cochrane looks at some of the progress that's been made and safeguards that are needed. Mother Nature engineers everything bottom up. She works at atomic, molecular, cellular and reproductive levels, with evolution taking a very slow hand in generation-by-generation change. Conversely, we start from bulk materials and work down towards the atoms and invoke massive change in a very short time, and by design we are far more disruptive than genetics. Only now we also have the ability to modify the bottom up approach, by building an atom at a time using nanotechnology and by adjusting the gene structure of biological entities and thereby the direction of evolution. Alarmists have painted a picture of our ultimate collapse brought about by interfering with what they consider to be God's creation. I prefer a more optimistic view that can be explained as follows: If we were take a sheet of rubber and stretch it out across the entire area of a room and scatter a handful of very heavy ball bearings onto the sheet to produce a distribution of deep depressions, we can think of these as existence areas for life. Over a period of two billion years Mother Nature has tried to create life across the entire sheet of possibilities and in the vast majority of locations she has failed. Through a slow trial and error evolutionary process she has created life forms that are stable and well behaved, all represented by the depressions created by the ball bearings. Of course some of the ball bearings have been removed from our sheet. They are the countless millions of life forms that have disappeared over the last 500 million years since the Cambrian Explosion. But we can create new opportunities by placing even more ball bearings on the sheet. Will our manufactured life forms be a threat to us or will they be benign? I think it's almost a racing certainty that they will be both benign and short-lived. This is certainly born out by the biological weapons programmes that have had to resort to naturally occurring organisms for long-term agents and have experienced considerable difficulties creating any long-term lethality. Artificially created germ warfare agents are difficult to produce and sustain and tend to be short-lived. The converse is true of naturally occurring agents such as smallpox and anthrax. But the former is a significant risk to humanity while the later poses almost a zero threat. So here we are, the new boys on the block, having worked miracles in a very short time, while Mother Nature has taken two billion years to create an astonishingly life rich planet. I think she still has my vote in the overall scheme of things for thoroughness as she has taken time to explore all the avenues on the evolutionary tree. We, on the other hand, are being far more focused. Silicon life is the exception in all this. For reasons to do with the boundary conditions for life creation, silicon life could not have sprung from the naturally occurring environment and conditions on planet earth. Not that is, until we arrived. That is not to say that silicon life could not have been created on some other planet given the right conditions but we have been the hand that created silicon life capable of evolving solutions to problems that mathematics and humans cannot solve. We have created artificial schemas where species' lifetimes are accelerated to see millions of carbon years become hours of silicon time. This is powerful stuff that most find acceptable until they see it manifested in some anthropomorphic behaviour or form. Carbon-life inspired software now controls elevators, power plants, telephone networks and defence and security systems. It is embodied in computer games and more. It is now in prospect of becoming the dominant mode for software creation for the majority of our support and logistics functions. It is fast, efficient, continually adaptable and, very often, the only solution available. Should we fear it? I think not. Should we be careful? Oh yes. Silicon life will find it difficult to outclass us in the broad sense but it is already taking us out of the loop for specific problem and control solutions. We could not control a car engine, a power or manufacturing facility second by second, or even play the ultimate game of chess for example, but machines already do. One reason is the realisable storage and logic density that is currently far greater in carbon than silicon. A second is the fact that none of the life forms created so far has had an environment in which it could compete and be supported in the long term. This is a matter of complexity and connectivity of the whole, which may be solved in the next decade or two. My guess is that the turning point will be when artificial life spontaneously erupts in networks without our helping hand. For me, all of this will be a true turning point. I don't really fear the recreation of that scene from the movie Terminator, with those chilling words: "All stealth bombers are upgraded with neural processors, becoming fully unmanned. Skynet begins to learn at a geometric rate. It becomes self-aware at 2:14am Eastern Time, August 29." And the rest, as they say, is history! What happened to Azimov's Laws of Robotics? What happened to modelling and simulation? What happened to the imagination of those working on the programme? How did they get it all so badly wrong? However, there is one slight worry I do have. Today we never invoke Azimov's Laws. From the dumbest to the smartest of robotically operated plants the machines are not programmed to protect us. And we have no equivalent laws for AI and AL. So don't worry, I don't think anything will go wrong, go wrong, go… This column was uncomfortably typed on my Apple G4 laptop outside a Bangkok coffee shop at 35C and 85 per cent humidity, with sweat dripping from my fingers! It was then despatched, very slowly, to silicon.com on my 2.5G mobile phone. What do you think? You can contact Peter by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Peter Cochrane is a co-founder of ConceptLabs CA, where he acts as a mentor, advisor, consultant and business angel to a wide range of companies. He is the former CTO and Head of Research at BT, as part of a career at the telco spanning 38 years. He holds a number of prominent posts as a technologist, entrepreneur, writer and humanist, and is the UK's first Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and Technology. For more about Peter, see: www.cochrane.org.uk. For all Peter's columns for silicon.com, see: www.silicon.com/petercochrane.