Archive for artificial life

Space Race: Round the Moon in Recycled Rockets, Spotting Rogue Asteroids, Dodging Alien Malware

by David Solomonoff

Detail, Amazing Stories cover, Malcom H. Smith, 1948

Space.com reports “Space tourists may soon be able to pay their own way to the moon onboard old Russian spacecraft retrofitted by a company based in the British Isles.

“The spaceflight firm Excalibur Almaz estimates that it can sell about 30 seats between 2015 and 2025, for $150 million each, aboard moon-bound missions on a Salyut-class space station driven by electric hall-effect thrusters.

In another private spaceflight initiative, the nonprofit B612 Foundation announced a campaign to fund and launch a space telescope to hunt for potential killer asteroids — a campaign they portrayed as a cosmic civic improvement project.

Former NASA astronaut Ed Lu, the foundation’s chairman and CEO, estimated that hundreds of millions of dollars would have to be raised to fund the project, but said he was “confident we can do this.”

William S. Burroughs said that “language is a virus from outer space.” At io9, George Dvorsky speculates at another type of danger from space – malware from an ET civilization:

…We should probably be more than a little bit wary of receiving a signal from a civilization that’s radically more advanced than our own.

When we spoke to SETI-Berkeley’s Andrew Siemion, he admitted that SETI is aware of this particular risk, and that they’ve given the issue some thought. When we asked Siemion about the possibility of inadvertently receiving or downloading a virus, he stressed that the possibility is extraordinarily low, but not impossible.

“Our instruments are connected to computers, and like any computers, they can be reprogrammed,” he warned.

Like Siemion, Milan Cirkovic also believes that the risk of acquiring something nasty from an ETI is very real. But he’s a bit more worried. Alien invaders won’t attack us with their spaceships, he argues – instead, they’ll come in the form of pieces of information. And they may be capable of infiltrating and damaging or subverting our computing networks, in a manner that’s similar to the computer viruses we’re all too familiar with.

“If we discard anthropocentric malice, it seems that the most probable response is that they have evolved autonomously in a network of an advanced civilization – which may or may not persist to this day.” If this is the case, speculated Cirkovic, these extraterrestrial viruses would probably just replicate themselves and subvert our resources to further transmit themselves across the Galaxy. In other words, the virus may or may not be under the control of any extraterrestrial civilization – it could be an advanced AI that’s out of control and replicating itself by taking over the broadcast capabilities of each civilization it touches.

After the end of the Cold War it seemed like the Space Race was dead, replaced by a much more Earth-bound and risk-adverse attitude. Humanity’s first encounter with an ET could be the accidental introduction of a terrestrial biological virus into an alien biosphere via a contaminated unmanned probe – or even a human-generated computer virus. But the rewards always outweighed the risks – both in terms of knowledge and resources to be gained – and the self-actualization from taking on big challenges. The fact that space exploration is back in the news reflects a return to a heroic and transformative vision of humanity as much as it does technical accomplishment.

 

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Brit Boffins Ponder Bioethics of Brain Manipulation

by David Solomonoff

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics today launched a consultation on the ethics of new types of technologies that ‘intervene’ in the brain, such as brain-computer interfaces, deep brain stimulation, and neural stem cell therapy.

Often developed for treatment of conditions including Parkinson’s disease, depression and stroke, they could also be used in military applications to develop weapons or vehicles that are controlled remotely by brain signals. Commercial possibilities in the gaming industry include computer games controlled by people’s thoughts.

“These challenge us to think carefully about fundamental questions to do with the brain: what makes us human, what makes us an individual, and how and why do we think and behave in the way we do,” Thomas Baldwin, Chair of the Council’s study and Professor of Philosophy at the University of York.

“For example if brain-computer interfaces are used to control military aircraft or weapons from far away, who takes ultimate responsibility for the actions? Could this be blurring the line between man and machine?” he said.

 

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Prospect of alien life in test tube lurches forward abruptly

by David Solomonoff

In July, the NY Times reported:

Generations of scientists, children and science fiction fans have grown up presuming that humanity’s first encounter with alien life will happen in a red sand dune on Mars, or in an enigmatic radio signal from some obscure star.

But it could soon happen right here on Earth, according to a handful of chemists and biologists who are using the tools of modern genetics to try to generate the Frankensteinian spark that will jump the gap separating the inanimate and the animate. The day is coming, they say, when chemicals in a test tube will come to life.

https://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/28/science/28life.html?_r=4&ref=science&pagewanted=all

At the time of the article the prospect of easily creating artificial life forms seemed possible, but difficult and distant. But on Monday, The University of Nottingham issued a press release describing a research project to “develop an in vivo biological cell-equivalent of a computer operating system … in such a way that a given group of cells could be seamlessly re-programmed to perform any function without needing to modifying its hardware.”

… a “re-programmable cell” could revolutionise synthetic biology and would pave the way for scientists to create completely new and useful forms of life using a relatively hassle-free approach.

Professor Natalio Krasnogor of the University’s School of Computer Science, who leads the Interdisciplinary Computing and Complex Systems Research Group, said: “We are looking at creating a cell’s equivalent to a computer operating system – an ambitious goal leading to a fundamental breakthrough that will ultimately, allow us to rapidly prototype, implement and deploy living entities that are completely new and do not appear in nature, adapting them so they perform new useful functions.”

The game-changing technology could substantially accelerate Synthetic Biology research and development, which has been linked to myriad applications – from the creation of new sources of food and environmental solutions to a host of new medical breakthroughs such as drugs tailored to individual patients and the growth of new organs for transplant patients.

https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/news/pressreleases/2011/november/easily-re-programmable-cells-could-be-key-in-creation-of-new-life-forms.aspx

In essence, the idea is to create a general purpose system for creating artificial life-forms which could revolutionize synthetic biology the way the general purpose computer did for computing and 3-D printing promises to do for manufacturing.

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