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Artificial Life In The Test Tube – Can Artificial Intelligence Be Far Behind?

By James Donahue

Since completion of the Human Genome mapping of the human genes in 2003, scientists have been not only using the information to make great strides in medicine, but they are reaching out into two other amazing areas . . . the creation of artificial or synthetic life and machines with complex computer systems that think.

Humans are not only proving that the creator exists within us, we appear to be on the brink of creating new life forms that may someday replace us.  It is a scenario depicted by Science Fiction writers for years, but one that few thought would ever be accomplished.

Scientists around the world are on the threshold of creating a synthetic bacterium that could be genetically designed to create new drugs, make biofuel and even absorb greenhouse gas. Some have manipulated the genes within existing bacteria that makes them do this already, but it is not stopping the march among science teams to play god and build live from scratch.

Some are calling the process a “second genesis.”

At Harvard Medical School, geneticists George Church and Michael Jewett recently told a synthetic biology conference in Hong Kong that they have synthetically created part of a cell that they call a ribosome.

Church said now that they have gotten this far, he believes it is now possible for them to soon create an entire cell.

David Dreamer of California University said he believes synthetic life can and will be accomplished, although it may still be another five to ten years away. “The momentum is building,” Dreamer said. “We’re knocking at the door.”

Of course there are opponents to this kind of research. And as you might expect, it is generated from the heart of the religious community that opposed stem cell research. The argument is that we are “playing god” when we do things that “only God” should do. It has not occurred to them that the god is doing it.

The danger, as depicted in the Science Fiction stories and even Mary Shelly’s prophetic novel “Frankenstein,” has always been that when we create such things, they don’t rise up as monsters that turn against us. Even the simple cell, if allowed to multiply and grow and get out of the test tube, could become a new, incurable bacterial disease that wipes out the human race.

Scientists are very aware of this issue. In fact, New Scientists recently noted that most scientists believe such safety issues will not have to be addressed for a long time because the first organisms will probably be so primitive they will need “large-scale life support in the lab.” Or so we hope.

On the other side of the coin is the research going on in robotic technology, and another interesting research study known as the Blue Brain Project. This involves a detailed study of the genetic structure and electronic pathways of the human brain and efforts to build a computer simulation that thinks.

This is digging into yet another area of Science Fiction known as artificial intelligence. This is such a complex problem that the very concept boggles the mind, and that is not just a pun. Yet there have been strides.

Three researchers at the IBM Almaden Research Lab and the University of Nevada recently published a paper in which they claimed they used a supercomputer to simulate the thought patterns of half of a virtual mouse brain.

To do this, the team used 4,096 processers, each one using 256 megabites of memory to create the equivalent of one second in time in the brain of a mouse. To do this they created a simulated brain that had 8,000 neurons with up to 6,300 synapses. The simulation was so complex that it was only run for ten seconds and at a speed ten times slower than a mouse thinks in real life.

So how close are they to simulating a human brain? Consider that a healthy and active human brain has an estimated 100 billion neurons operating. When compared to 8,000 neurons in half of a brain of a tiny mouse, this looks like a very large mountain to climb. Yet scientists all over the world are actually working on the idea.

The best known of these endeavors is the Blue Brain Project, headed by Henry Markram, director of the Center for Neuroscience & Technology (CNC) and co-director of EPFL’s Brain Mind Institute. Portugal. The CNC also collaborates with the Portuguese government, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard Medical School.

Markram describes the Blue Brain Project as “an attempt to reverse engineer the brain, to explore how it functions and to serve as a tool for neuroscientists and medical researchers. It is not an attempt to create a brain. It is not an artificial intelligence project.” He added, however, that “we may one day achieve insights into the basic nature of intelligence and consciousness using this tool.”

The 100 billion neurons in the human brain are connected to one another by a maze of extremely thin biological “wiring” called dendrites and axons that send electrical signals throughout the brain. Various parts of the brain organize the signals into basic functional units. Each human brain thus presents itself as the most complex computer system in existence.

Instead of attempting to duplicate the brain, researchers involved in the Blue Brain Project are working on artificial intelligence to accomplish specific jobs, such as calculating numbers and other data, operating machines on the Moon or on Mars and responding to problems that may develop, and perhaps giving robots the power to follow simple orders to accomplish household or industrial tasks.

It may be a very long time before humans sit down for a serious game of chess with a robot, or worry about the robots rising up in number to take over the world.

As the research goes on, and the development of supercomputers advances, the day may come when supercomputers from participating universities all working together, will put together a network of artificial neurons that will spark intelligence. No one is quite sure what will happen, or how we will deal with it.

Said Markram: “If consciousness arises because of some critical mass of interactions, then it may be possible. But we really do not understand what consciousness actually is, so it is difficult to say.”