Man and Machine

Man and machine has fascinated mankind for a long time. Making man more like a machine and a machine like man are irresistible goals for many people. 20th Century technology, computers, and genetics have brought us closer to this goal. Computer simulations of life forms, artificial intelligence, robotics are all testimony to these efforts. Predictions are that within decades, the merging of man and machine will be reality. This is not about prosthetic implants, but smart sensors and computer chips that seemingly integrate with electrical activity of the brain. But how close are we to these scenarios? The artificial intelligence community has long been enthusiastic about the computer model of the brain, however, artificial intelligence has not progressed as fast and as well as many predicted in the 1960s and 70s. The likely reason? The brain is no computer and life is not a machine. Simulations, as impressive as they have become, are not the real thing.

Artificial life is the attempt to create lifelike creatures by mimicking the natural structure and function of organisms or part of organisms. The ultimate goal is to create a synthetic, living cell. To be considered alive, such a cell has to self-replicate and adhere to Darwinian evolution. Note that current robot technology mimicking function of living organisms, including their intelligent behavior (artificial intelligence) are clearly not alive in any sense of the word. The attempt to synthesize a living cell are paralleled by the understanding of the origin of life, so called prebiotic evolution of life from inorganic matter. However, a synthetic cell need not replicate the mechanism of life's origin. 

What is natural, what artificial? Chemistry and Biology, seen as opposites - one natural, the other synthetic - are really two faces of the same coin. This is a broad subject and is relevant for the food industry with its supplements and additives to enhance color, taste, consistency, and even physical well-being. It is also relevant for agriculture using natural or synthetic fertilizer and pesticides. It is important for medicine, using natural extracts vs. synthetic drugs. And finally, it is important for some novel technologies trying to engineer cells and synthetic organisms. One such technology is nantotechnology, which deals with the manufacturing of objects at the nanometer scale. The nanometer describes physical dimensions of large molecules as they are found in all living cells (macromolecules). Thus, nanotechnology is sometimes thought to promise a breakthrough in the technological mimicking of life. Utopian machines like nanobots are unlikely to ever be made in the laboratory. Nature already has evolved molecular motors and miniature electrical circuitry. The latter is the most promising field in nanotechnology, where computer technology is expected to reach the molecular limits for its circuits and transistors. 

Selected commentaries:

Why the future doesn't need us
Visions 21:  The Future of Technology

The future from neo-Darwinian machines

Automatic Design and Manufacture of Robotic Life Forms

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