Wednesday, April 7

Courting Pandora

[Courting Pandora]
The first adventurer was a nuisance. I am sure he acted against his mother's, his wife's, and the council of old men's strict orders when he did it; but it was he that found where the mammoths die and where after a thousand years of use there was still enough ivory to equip the entire tribe with weapons. Such is the ultimate outline of the adventurer; society's benefactor as well as pest.

— William Bolitho, Twelve Against the Gods
[as quoted in The Gripping Hand by Niven and Pournelle]

There are adventurers among us who are on the brink of creating artificial life.
"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. The more powerful technology you unleash, the more careful you have to be."

Kotulak notes more than 100 laboratories study processes involved in the creation of life, and scientists say for the first time that they have just about all the pieces they need to begin making inanimate chemicals come alive. "The ability to make new forms of life from scratch--molecular living systems from chemicals we get from a chemical supply store--is going to have a profound impact on society, much of it positive, but some of it potentially negative," said Mark Bedau, editor-in-chief of the Artificial Life Journal . . . .
Potentially negative indeed. I'm not implying that artificial life will infringe upon natural life like a genesis device run amok, but I am concerned that our ability to tinker may well dangerously ahead of our knowledge of what may happen. Even considering the leaps in DNA mapping over the past decade, we are only beginning to grasp the intricacies of genetic behavior.
In some sort of crude sense, which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.

— J. Robert Oppenheimer

As these scientists [and the ones working in nanotech — a topic for another day] once again court Pandora, we can only hope they remember . . . .