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March 29, 2004

Dr. Frankenstein's Amoeba

A natural first reaction to news that scientists "are finally ready to try their hand at creating life" is to declare the endeavor dangerous and immoral. That, I think, has more to do with the scientists' use of language that makes what they're doing sound more interesting than it really is and the media's tendency to couch things in terms of controversy.

It seems that for the foreseeable future, by "life," we're still talking very basic organisms. One would be somewhat less fearful, I imagine, if scientists announced that a new technology coming out of the botany field had developed a plant from which a self-healing fabric could be made. And even that sort of advance remains somewhat distant. The leap to "live" products would still merit extremely close scrutiny, but from a practical point of view, a large swath of the innovations would hardly be notably organic. This, however, is worth a nervous laugh:

"It's certainly true that we are tinkering with something very powerful here," said artificial-life researcher Steen Rasmussen of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

"But there's no difference between what we do here and what humans have always done when we invented fire, transistors and ways to split the atom," he said. "The more powerful technology you unleash, the more careful you have to be."

"No difference" must be a counter-intuitive technical term, because I can think of plenty of differences between fire and nuclear technology, and presenting "life" technology as the next stage in that trend makes me think that perhaps all such research ought to be conducted on Mars.

ADDENDUM (for comic book geeks):
Putting the peril in "apparel." One memory that comes to mind whenever I hear about the apparel applications for these superadvanced new technologies is from the Marvel Comics Secret Wars. In that 1984 series, Spiderman's costume is destroyed, and an alien machine gives him new threads that can do all sorts of fancy tricks, like transforming appearance and responding to his mental commands. As we all know, that particular costume didn't turn out very well...

Posted by Justin Katz at March 29, 2004 11:07 PM