Forget Artificial Intelligence; Think Artificial Life

If you are a science fiction fan, you are probably aware of one of the genre’s oddest dichotomies. A lot of science fiction is concerned about if a robot, alien, or whatever is a person. However — sometimes in the same story — finding life is as easy as asking the science officer with a fancy tricorder. If you go to Mars and meet Marvin, it is pretty clear he’s alive, but faced with a bunch of organic molecules, the task is a bit harder. Now it is going to get harder still because Cornell scientists have created a material that has an artificial metabolism and checks quite a few boxes of what we associate with life. You can read the entire paper if you want more detail.

Three of the things people look for to classify something as alive is that it has a metabolism, self-arranges, and reproduces. There are other characteristics, depending on who you ask, but those three are pretty crucial.

The material is a biomaterial that emerges from its building blocks and arranges itself – first into polymers and eventually tiny shapes. Starting from a 55-nucleotide base seed sequence, the DNA molecules were multiplied to create tiny chains of repeating DNA.

The material was placed in a flow of chemicals — the equivalent of food for the synthetic beast — the DNA synthesized its own new strands, with the front end of the material growing and the tail end degrading simultaneously. The effect is that the “creature” moves against the flow like a slime mold does.

If you’ve just invented fake life and it will move, what do you do? Race them against each other, of course. That’s exactly what they did — you can’t make this stuff up.

Although the material uses instructions coded with DNA, it is still pretty crude, only lasting a few generations for now. The material also doesn’t respond to stimulus — another key indicator of life. Of course, because it is DNA-based, it is possible that they’ll succeed in making it do so or that it could mutate on its own. You can only wonder if life started with simple building blocks like this untold number of years ago.

We’ve seen DNA computation lately. We’ve even seen tiny voltmeters, too. Maybe DNA will be the next generation’s silicon.

19 thoughts on “Forget Artificial Intelligence; Think Artificial Life

  1. “The effect is that the “creature” moves against the flow like a slime mold does.”

    Er, or like a glacier, although glaciers are limited in their movement “toward the flow” by gravity. But they definitely break down at the other end. If this DNA material were on an inclined low-friction substrate and the flow was downward, it’d probably behave like a glacier, growing upward against the flow until its weight overcame friction and it slid down the incline.

  2. I’d make the argument that the proto-organism is responding to stimulus, albeit in a very simple way. Growing in the direction of flow IS a reaction to the environment. It could even be argued that it is a positive trait, as the wee beastie is moving towards a “food source”.

    It would be interesting to see if additional modes could be developed, or even some level of evolution or mutation achieved through modification of the DNA set.

    Identifying life by base characterization has fascinated me since I read The Andromeda Strain as a kid.

  3. This seems more like bio-engineering than creating artificial life. I mean, they built up a piece of DNA (the basic building block of all natural life) using natural organic molecules. What they did is cool and interesting, but not what I would call artificial.

    1. I had the same thoughts. It’s not creating life, it’s taking parts of a live organism and creating a new, artificial organism from it.

      For the experiments they used RepliPHI™ Phi29 DNA Polymerase, which is extracted from B. subtilis phage phi29 – the smallest bacteriophage that’s been found so far with double-strand DNA. It is interesting that it follows certain growth patterns, but this seems pretty normal to me – generating new components where the nutrients are richest.

      The article is pretty interesting to me, though. I’m not really a bio guy, and just spent some time researching the experiments and components.

      I guess you do have to draw a line somewhere, though, to call something a new creation. At the ‘building DNA from the available blocks’ point, the ‘start with nucleotide molecules’, or the individual elements…

      It reminds me of an old joke about the scientist who meets God and says ‘hey, I can create life too’… God says ‘Show me’. The scientist says ‘OK, starting with Carbon, Nitro…’ – God cuts him off with ‘Oh, no, those are my atoms. Go make your own’.

        1. Things like this have always amazed me and interested me in the potential ways life could come about.
          Like, imagine a considerably more energetic planet but still with flowing liquid of some kind. We already know from that one extremophile that life can use higher elements in the same group like arsenic instead of phosphorous.
          Now imagine that with DNA in general. Life tends to evolve to the most optimal energy levels – whatever takes least effort and maximum survivability.
          A higher energy planet could allow for vastly more complex “DNA” like system to come about.
          We’ve even made some artificial DNA with a metal backbone, which could be possible with some crazy exotic chemistry on said higher energy planet.
          You could maybe even find creatures actually legit capable of breathing fire! We’re at the ignition-temperatures for various materials. But, equally, life would generally also evolve being fireproof so it’d level out over time like the toxins race did with species on our world. (and is still happening now)
          Such a world would look like hell to us, but it’d be an average day for them.

          On the intelligence side, some intelligent species could be vastly more capable due to the extra energy around.
          Humans are horribly limited due to our redundant biology and legacy systems that don’t really apply much in the civilized world today. If you were to strip out a lot of the junk in our brains, they’d be quite a bit smaller.
          But you could use that extra space by making all sensory input absolutely discrete as currently even the brain timeslices to an extent. It was found out fairly recently that focusing too much on certain senses hinders others quite dramatically.
          It’s the reason illusionists and magicians are capable of pulling off some tricks by making you focus intensely on some things with misdirection. They finally figured out why that worked. Focusing too much on say, something visual can almost make you deaf, but more in the sense that your brain doesn’t really process it to the extent it normally does, no pattern recognition, it doesn’t pick out any useful information and make you go “oh hey this interests me lets listen in!”, it just “goes in one ear and out the other” as they say lol
          The massive influx of high-energy foods over the past thousand odd years is causing some evolutionary changes in us though, quite big ones. What we will look like in a thousand more is anyones guess, but I can tell you one thing, our ability to survive in the wild will fall off quite sharply as it does since our bodies will be more demanding. Maybe our senses will specialize more and increase in fidelity. Bigger noses again to cool our increasingly power-hungry brains.
          There will come a point in the future, with graphene or similar processor substrate, where the core-counts of CPUs will allow for far more computation than the human brain can and still be smaller, but definitely use way more power.
          If an animal evolved a brain that capable in the wild, it’d die very quickly lol, even humans struggle in the wild as it is, at best we could manage 1.5 billion pre-industrialization because we dropped like flies at a simple scratch or then-common failed births.
          In the case of us, we’ll probably end up augmenting our bodies with tech by a century, never mind thousand years!
          Once a species gets so advanced, natural biology stops being a driving force, and more “I wonder what videogame character I can have FUN times with today! Let’s 3D print it!”
          But on a planet with so much extra energy around, it’s not so much of a problem. Whether a species would evolve a higher intelligence to make up for that or not is also another question. So many possible avenues it could go. Until we actually get some proper artificial life growing on its own for millions of generations, then we’ll know. I think it is best to do it virtually than physically, though.
          X generations in, reproduce the survivor for real and see if it confirms the virtual model.
          We’ve been able to create some amazing novel materials using material simulators in recent years pretty damn successfully. Chemistry simulators are finally at a stage where they are actually really useful. Biology will be the next big boom in simulation. Can’t wait!

  4. Don’t we have artificial life moving abundantly amongst us ?
    In Australia we a facilty that breeds an abundance called Parliament House. It is fed by the ill informed scribbling of the national media outlets :-)

    From what I’ve seen every other nation has a similar incubator

  5. Yet another case of the absolute obsession with DNA and RNA. Life requires harnessing an energy gradient to drive its actions. A bunch of replicating nucleic acids is nifty, but doesn’t necessarily actually do anything.
    Would be more impressed with a synthetic/artificial metabolism – some set of enzymes that could reproduce themselves from a soup of simpler molecules, including something that could exploit latent potential energy within that soup. Because THAT would have properties somewhere between simple fire and actual life. Accidental inclusion of extraneous molecules could occasionally expand the system, constituting inheritance and mutation. Get that far, and evolution is underway, PRE-DNA.
    And then if it happened to acquire an information-dense component like RNA, and that conferred an advantage, the rest would follow.
    Show me the enzymes =)

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