April 19th, 2007
We won't discover the first alien lifeforms out amongst the stars, says Dr. Alan Goldstein. We will create them in our own laboratories.
Goldstein is a professor of bio-materials at Alfred University (currently on leave). He writes about nanotechnology and biotechnology for Salon and other publications. Goldstein recently conceived of The A-Prize, which is “awarded to the person or organization responsible for creating an Animat/Artificial lifeform with an emphasis on the safety of the researchers, public, and environment OR the person or organization who shows that an Animat/Artificial life form has been created." Goldstein's concept has been brought to life under the sponsorship of The Lifeboat Foundation.
So if you know about any Artificial Life forms, you can now win $26,300. (Or you may want to hold out until the cash winnings increase.)
I interviewed Dr. Goldstein over two episodes of NeoFiles
To listen the full interviews in MP3, click here and here.
See video here.
RU SIRIUS: You've convinced the Lifeboat Foundation to offer an A-prize for creating an "Animat" — or as I read it — for noticing that one exists. So what's an Animat and why are you offering a prize for making one?
ALAN GOLDSTEIN: Well, The X Prize was offered to induce people to achieve space flight. The capitalist concept is that private enterprise can do it better and more cheaply than the government. But there was another purpose – to make people consider the possibility that going into space wasn't actually that hard. Private people and private companies could get it together and make a vehicle and get into space.
So we designed the A-Prize to make people aware that creating synthetic lifeforms is not that hard either. Many people in many labs are working on it right now, and it will probably occur in the near future. So the A-Prize is broken up into two parts. You can win the A-Prize by being the first person or scientific group to invent a synthetic lifeform, or you can win the A-Prize by blowing the whistle on a person or group that has invented a synthetic lifeform. Many researches are afraid to be associated with the creation of a synthetic lifeform. So they might be making it, but they're not going to tell you. It could go unnoticed, and it probably will go unnoticed.
RU: And by your definition, an Animat is an artificial organism.
AG: In the article "I, Nanobot", I define lifeforms. And the central idea there is that a lifeform is any entity capable of executing a sequence of chemical or physical activities that result in the perpetuation or propagation of itself.
Why bother to define the difference between a biological lifeform and an artificial lifeform? So we will know one when we see one. It's like SETI, right? We're scanning outer space for signs of intelligent life, but who's scanning inner space? Who's watching for the invention of the first self-replicating, non-biological molecule? The answer is: no one. So the person who invents it might report it and they might not report it. If it's invented inside of a bio-defense laboratory, they probably won't report it.
RU: There are two things — there's secrecy, and there's also the possibility that somebody might not even think of it in those terms, and you think it's important enough to...
AG: Exactly! They're not looking for it. So it's really very simple. If you can accomplish everything you need to accomplish to go through your life cycle and the information for all of your activities can be stored in DNA and/or RNA, you are biological. In other words, if all of the code for your life processes can be stored in DNA — our genetic material – or RNA, the genetic material for some viruses and other organisms... you're biological. If you use any other form of chemistry to get through your life cycle, even one step of your life cycle, then you're something that has not been on earth for four billion years.
You know, most people think that DNA is the basis of life. In my opinion, that's not the correct way to look at it. DNA is the chemical programming language that evolution selected, so it's a chemical programming language that biological life forms use to replicate. But there's nothing special about DNA. It just won that particular evolutionary race.
RU: In the A-Prize statement, you write, "Considerable advancement in synthetic biology has been made recently." Can you point at anything particularly?
AG: In Berkeley last year, there was a synthetic biology meeting. It was called Synthetic Biology 2.0. Now, Synthetic Biology is supposed to be where we build biological life forms from the ground up. So we make the DNA. We make the genome, essentially — one base at a time. It's synthetic because we build it one molecule at a time, but in the end, we have a biological lifeform that works the way biological lifeforms (like us) do. But if you go to the website for Synthetic Biology, you will see that their logo is a single bacteria cell full of lasers and nano-wires and all kinds of synthetic, non-biological materials. So they've already violated their own definition in their logo. These people are so confused that they don't even know what they're talking about now!
RU: Let's back up a bit. The first discussions of Artificial Life that I was aware of popped up in the late 1980s. And at that time, people were really talking about stuff that was happening digitally on computers. They were talking about digital stuff that could imitate the way life evolves.
AG: That's the key to the problem! Nearly all the people interested in artificial and synthetic life come out of systems engineering and AI research. They don't understand that it's about the chemistry. Again, biological life is not based on DNA. DNA is just a particular chemical programming language that we happen to use. So when other chemical programming languages become available for replication, we will have non-biological lifeforms. And a non-biological lifeform, as I define it, is an artificial lifeform. Or an alien lifeform – we're actually talking about creating an alien lifeform. So the first alien lifeform will not come from the stars, right? It will come from ourselves. We will make it!
Imagine that I create a self-replicating silicon molecule that is a clot buster. It works just like some of the blood thinners that people take, but it is self-catalytic. When it binds to a biomolecule, it assumes a replicative form and makes a copy of itself. So it can be only one molecule — 45 atoms. But because it is self-replicating, it's a silicon-based life form. So if you're only interested in systems, in things that are complex enough to be AI, the fact that a self-replicating molecular entity that is not biological is a lifeform would slip right by you! You wouldn't even notice it. Why would you? You're not looking for it.
RU: The people behind the X Prize offered the prize because they actually want people to build vehicles that will go into space. Is the A-Prize really about raising public awareness or are you actually interested in seeing somebody create an Animat?
AG: It's inexorable. Artificial life forms will be generated. People are working on them right now. So the question is, should they be generated in secret? Should they be generated randomly? Should they be generated by whoever has enough money to generate them? Or should we formulate an organized, coherent set of definitions and guidelines, and work within those, just like we did with recombinant DNA? I'm not against this research — I do this research. But it needs to be regulated. And right now, it is completely unregulated.
RU: Well, why do you do the research? What can be accomplished by Animats?
AG: Well, it's just another form of chemistry, right? Until it begins to self-replicate, it's just an interesting way to build things. Molecular manufacturing and molecular self-assembly are the manufacturing systems of the future. There is a new industrial revolution coming – the molecular manufacturing revolution. And if we don't get on board, someone else will do it. It's not going to go away because America doesn't participate or because Alan Goldstein doesn't participate.
RU: So you're basically talking about the same sorts of promises and dangers that people have been talking about in terms of nanotechnology.
AG: Nanotechnology has become a completely meaningless term. What is really happening now is molecular engineering.
RU: Well, that's what Eric Drexler meant by nanotechnology.
AG: I advise calling it what it is: molecular engineering. And if you start mixing molecules from living organisms with molecules from non-living organisms, you create molecular hybrid entities. And if these things have the ability to self-replicate, what have you made? And if we don't have a set of definition, what do we even call it?
RU: One prize is for creating a safe Animat. How can you tell?
AG: The purpose of the A-Prize Is to draw attention to this question and then develop coherent guidelines under which to proceed. I was on the National Research Council Committee that reviewed the National Nanotechnology Initiative. It was a Congressionally mandated review of our government's nanotech program. We published the report on December 8. It became public property and sank without a trace. And one of the reasons why it sank is that it was completely sanitized. If you look at the section called "Responsible Development," it's just a bunch of fluff. There's nothing in there. All of the hard recommendations that I made essentially got lost in the editing process.
The bottom line is that molecular engineering is viewed by many as the next industrial revolution. So to certain people in government and in industry, responsible development of nanotechnology means we can't afford to lose the nanotechnology war. We can't let China beat us to the next industrial revolution. We can't let Korea beat us to the next industrial revolution. If we get beaten, we're irresponsible. We've lost our leadership. That's what responsible development means to these people. They're not worried about safety. In their minds, chemical safety plus biotechnology safety equals nanotechnology safety. But that's not true.
RU: So why is this development a threat to life?
AG: Because the behavior of an entity that is capable of using non-biological mechanisms of replication can't be predicted. We have experience with biohazards, which are biological organisms that are dangerous. And we have experience with chemical hazards. But we have no experience with Animats. So it's the apex of hubris for us to sit here and say, "Well, we know how this thing's going to behave." Because we have no bloody idea how this thing's going to behave.
RU: Do you have a vision of how things could go awry? There seem to be many science fictional possibilities.
AG: No, no — it can be very simple. For example, the most probable scenario is a viral nano-biotech weapon that goes out of control. Imagine a viral weapon that has added to it the capability to coat itself with diatom-like silica structures that would make it highly aerosolizable, and then to disperse it. And then, make it also highly resistant to chemical corrosion – to digestive acids. We've never seen a virus that can coat itself in spiky glass nano-particles. And no matter what anybody says inside the government or in industry, we don't know how to deal with that. And yet, that could be made — right here, right now. A large enough facility – a major pharmaceutical company or DARPA or the DOD could make it right now if they wanted to.
RU: Say I get an animat — what advantages might I wind up having?
AG: These synthetic forms of chemistry — the products of nanotechnology, if you want — will start off as therapies that let you live longer and healthier. But once these forms of chemistry are in your body, they can talk to your body in the language of chemistry. And they can learn. I mean, with genetically modified crops, people fear that the DNA we put in is going to learn a new trick. And the people that make GMOs say, "No, we taught this gene. This gene is only like a gene that's in the second grade." Or, "This gene has been intentionally blinded."
The bottom line is that DNA is a smart molecule. It's a smart material. It is capable of talking to the rest of the DNA, and talking to protein and other molecules in the cell, and maybe learning new things. With DNA we call that a mutation.
RU: So aside from getting rid of blood clots, suppose I wanted to make something really strange and amazing happen inside my body. Is there any potential there that you can think of? Can I grow a third arm?
AG: You know, I talked to a guy from UCSF that's doing what's called deep brain stimulation. They put electrodes deep inside your brain. And he's a wonderful person who is helping people that are in a lot of pain. But if they put electrical stimulation in the wrong place, then you can get other effects. Maybe you can induce depression or make someone hyperactive. Maybe if they put it in the right place, you could have a perpetual orgasm.
Once we learn where these connections are, we won't want to do anything as crude as putting electrodes in there. We will want to go in and bridge these circuits with carbon nanotubes or something like that. Right now you can tailor carbon nano-tubes to specifically block certain types of ion channels in the cell.
RU: How do you get that into the brain?
AG: You can have people breath it. Or you put in genes that will encode the bio-synthesis of carbon nano-tubes, which I'm sure will be happening in the near future.
Now, think about a bio-weapon that's a combination of nano/bio material. It gets into your body and the first thing it does is it runs a quick PCR assay on your DNA. It checks out genotype — finds out your ethnicity. If you have one of its targeted ethnicities, it releases carbon nano-tubes that block the neurotransmitter ion channels in the pacemaker cells of your heart. Bang. Instant heart attack. And our body doesn't know what to do with carbon nano-tubes. We have no natural defense against it. They're too big to be taken up by macrophages. If you haven't seen them before, you won't have antibodies against them.
RU: So this could be put into an aerosol spray….
AG: Right. Then you put the silicon coating on the surface...
RU: Then it just gets all the white people or all the Arabs or whatever…
AG: Yeah. Exactly. How about a bio-nanotech weapon that just makes your enemy so suicidally depressed they kill themselves?
RU: I think it's called "American Idol."
AG: Given the enormous potential for controlling the chemistry of biology with non-biological chemistry, it's inconceivable that people will not build these things.
RU: I thought it was kind of funny that Stewart Brand's Long Now Foundation sponsored a lecture by Vernor Vinge titled "What if the Singularity Doesn't Happen?" And 99% of the American people probably don't know what the fuck the singularity is and then a substantial segment of the scientific community thinks its bullshit. But for this one group, it's like a total stretch to imagine that it might not happen.
AG: The only Singularity that matters is the carbon barrier. Do you know what Ray Kurzweil's biggest problem is?
RU: That he blinks his eyes when he speaks…
AG: He still can't get outside the box enough to stop thinking like a human. And his Singularity is based on the idea that, even though we are no longer human beings, we will still want human things. That's a mistake. As we become more integrated with our technology, our psychology is going to change. So the idea that humans as we know them are going to hang around long enough for his type of Singularity to occur is specious. The real Singularity is breaking the carbon barrier. The day that we create a life form that requires a non-biological form of chemistry to propagate is the day that biological evolution changes forever.
RU: It would be pretty hard to develop a fiction narrative with nothing anthropomorphic about it. Can you think of anybody who's done that?
AG: Yes. James Tiptree Jr. wrote a beautiful story called "Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death," where she inhabited an insect mind, I think, very well. Read that story. I think she does a great job.
RU: So do you have any thoughts about what the Animat might want? Or about what we — in combination with the Animat — might desire?
AG: What if I was able to put a small form of self-replicating chemistry into you that homed to your epidermal cells and started generating photovoltaic energy for you; feeding it to your cells so that you could in effect harness the energy of the sun so you would feel better. You'd have more energy. You'd be a more high-powered individual.
Not only is that going to change the way your body metabolizes energy; it's going to change the way you feel. It's going to change the way you think. And if you start adding all of these non-biological enhancements over time, they will have a cumulative effect. This is something like a mutation. You don't see a biological mutation immediately. It has to be selected for. I use heat resistance as an example. Say some organism at the top of the Sierras gets a mutation in a crucial enzyme that allows it to operate in the Mojave. It doesn't say "Whee! I've got a great mutation! I'm going to run down to the Mojave and start propagating!" Over a few generations, it spreads down the side of the mountain and ends up in the Mojave. You don't see it until it gets there. You say, "Oh, there's a heat-tolerant version!" But you've got to backtrack to the original mutation to know when that actually happened.
So if we're not looking for molecular events — the implantation of synthetic chemistry into biological organisms — we're not going to know it when it happens.
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