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Notes From The Field Blog




Notes on the Future of Life

Posted: 12/27/2012
Posted By: Robert D. Hinkle, PhD

Beaver

Technology Marches On

In mid-June this year, it was announced that a technology firm had created an artificial DNA-like structure that could self-replicate, creating what has been described as an artificial bacteria. Never before in the history of mankind has non-living matter been able to duplicate itself — that's been the sole propriety of life itself. From tiny single-celled organisms to the massive blue whale, and all species in between, the measure of life has been the ability of cells to self-replicate. One scientist quipped, "It's the first species we've had on the planet whose parent is a computer."

It takes little imagination to surmise that this is only the tiniest first step in the creation of technological life forms. The nanobots from the last quarter century's science fiction are real and in play in industry and experimental medicine today. By the end of this century, a time your children's children will populate, it is forecasted that technology will grow a thousand times in magnitude compared with what we can know and do today. Today's technology embodied in your cell phone will be reduced to the size of a red blood cell by mid-century, and the technologies in play by 2099 — including artificial life — are said to be unimaginable today.

Consider the Beaver

Some time ago, on a warm autumn night in Vermont, I sat on the shore of a newly created pond and watched a family of beavers at work. Starting just before dark, the two adults and three juveniles were constantly in motion, disappearing in different directions then returning with a fresh-cut stick, limb of tasty leaves, or holding a chest full of mud or a stone to reinforce the dam. While there seemed to be no discernable pattern to their behavior, it seemed that everyone had a job, and productivity was high. It was pretty interesting behavior for wild beasts, animals without measureable intelligence or a sense of the recognition of space or time, or even knowing of their own existence. By 11 p.m. or so, the frenzy seemed to gradually slow, and the juveniles disappeared back into the lodge. With the aid of a starlight scope, I watched in near total darkness as the two adults climbed out of the water on the crest of the dam, waddled over and touched noses as if in recognition, then shuffled around until they slid their broad tails beneath them and sat erect, shoulder to shoulder, facing opposite directions, and started to talk. I have to admit that my language skills in translating beaver grunts and squeals are poor at best. I understand a little porcupine, but that's another story. Regardless, they were clearly communicating with each other through a non-random series of sounds. And then they started to groom. On each hind foot, the two inner claws have split toenails that serve as combs, and are used to clean and oil fur. Well-fed beavers tend toward large plumpness, and it becomes difficult to groom oneself under those conditions. A bonded pair of beavers sits together and take turns grooming each other, reinforcing the pair bond and keeping healthy, clean and waterproof at the same time.

Watching and listening that night, and many nights afterward, changed my carefully crafted scientific detachment toward what I was taught were "lesser beasts." What passes for measured intelligence is an artificial construct of the species doing the measuring, in the terms that species defines itself as intelligence. In my years of beaver study I saw many acts of what we would define as problem solving, sharing, caring, mourning, bravery and others. It became clear why the First People considered beavers to be a lost tribe of humankind.

I imagine that self-replicating technological devices will take form and become more and more complex, because we are like children, and delight in the new and unusual. Under greater and lesser laws and outlaws, artificial forms will blossom in form, size and utility as this century passes. We will of course discover great breakthroughs and try our best to clean up the unfortunate unintended consequences as the pace of technological growth proceeds geometrically, hurling us into the next century.

And yet, dear friends, I would predict that no matter in whatever forms artificial DNA-like structures combine in complexity and grow and expand out into whatever might be left of nature by century's end, there will never be a single one that will haul itself, weary from work, out of a wilderness pond on a warm summer's night under a sky filled with sparkling silver stars and speak a language spoken for tens of thousands of years, understandable only to beavers, then contentedly and carefully grooming its mate until both were clean and warm. And there will never be an artificial life form sitting under those same stars at that same wilderness pond, watching two bonded creatures formerly knows as "lesser forms of life" who can see and know and hope and love and care and feel and realize that other living things can too.





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