Virtual science

digital logic into stem cells

The subjection of today’s science to computers and software has become a turn point in human history. Scientists investigate the invisible of the universe, translated into digital files; just think of remote astrophysics’ objects, or extremely small scale genes or biological processes, which you may calculate and see only on computer screens. Eyes and hands have lost their capabilities in scientific research. Once based on observation and manual experimentation, contemporary investigation models and programs its objects on the screens. It paradoxically follows a process of dematerialization, not dealing anymore with matter and energies, but mainly with data which have been translated into binary and fake colors codes to be seen and interpreted on the cathodic screens. And such a virtual science obtains an evident instrumental efficiency! Modern experimental science was manipulating electrons and magnetic fields. For now on, it is manipulating algorithms. Science is more and more dealing with hybrids of computing and life: for instance what we call bioinformatics, and what we could call astroinformatics, virtual genetics, etc. Contemporary sciences have no other choice than investigating, thinking and building their models with computers’ languages and computing. And reciprocally, we speak eventually of computer viral contamination. We investigate the world as if its creator had been a Great Computer Scientist. Such a dominant metaphor is not worse than interpreting the world in relation with spirits, as a living organism, or as a mechanism, such as a clock, as we did in the past. But let’s forget about God computing the world since its origin. And let’s better take in account the vision of our scientific researchers, who program and configure our worlds’ contemporary interpretation. They link, they imagine, they create the objects, which they investigate! Scientific laws may be compared with algorithms. Finally, we should speak today not only of scientific interpretation, but also of scientific programming, in the sense that we create computing objects, we generate digital files and program their behaviours and interactions not only to build our knowledge, but also to model the world itself.

Synthetic stem-cells

In the past, it was usual to state that we would never be able to artificially recreate life. Nevertheless, the very serious journal Science has announced in January 2008, that the Craig Venter Institute in Maryland (USA) has succeeded to create the synthetic genome of a bacterium. It is true that were recreating the Mycoplasma genitalium, the smallest one we know. But still, it was stated that this autonomous synthetic organism, is able to grow and reproduce itself. Can we legitimately speak of artificial life? Or of synthetic life? Or simply of life? Is there any difference? The scale of complexity between a bacterium and a human being appears for sure as a huge gap; but not as a radical one. Just as a difference of degree, not of nature. According to this step ahead, we may ask the question if digital science will once be able to create a synthetic human being, or at least a first human stem-cell, able to reproduce, multiply and give birth to a human being, the answer does not necessarily sound anymore definitively negative.
Synthetic cells may soon replace those famous stem-cells, and natural flesh tissues, bringing the long lasting ethical debate about the use of embryos to an end. But such a new step will immediately initiate again a new big social debate, which fascinates today’s artists and philosophers. The question is about the right of M. Craig Venter to obtain the intellectual propriety of its results and therefore life patents. This eventuality rises a series of radically new questions, including the possibility of genetic cut-and-paste. Virtual genetics open the way to eugenics, to producing replacement synthetic organs, to reactivating the DNA of dead animals and humans, to creating new species, chimeras, even androids used as slaves or soldiers, etc. Who will be in position to declare that such sideslips, erring ways, cheatings or madness will never happen? In the field of economics, it has become frequent to see computing used for creating fake accounts, for acrobatic speculation, introducing virtual amounts of money or shares which are mixed with real ones and work really, creating big confusion and financial bankrupts. We could quote here the scandals of Barings Bank in Hong Kong, of the huge corporation Enron in the US, of the bank Société Générale in France, and many other such examples of what I call iconomics - imaginary economics -, made possible by the power and flexibility of computing. It has become fully possible to create digital files of fake molecules or galaxies, which you may mix with “real ones” (those which we already know). Science has become technoscience, making impossible to separate science from its computing technologies and algorithms. We have not forgotten the scandal of a leading South-Korean investigator who had modified digitally its results to announce important discoveries in the field of stem-cells (2006). But can we be sure that we always may detect rapidly enough such misconducts? Are we sure that these frauds will always finally be harmless, never getting instrumental onto reality? We may be confronted to serious challenges or dangerous viral blackmail in the future.

Modeling the world in laboratory/computer

It is not surprising therefore that contemporary artists get fascinated by the imagination and creative power of such new possibilities. Artificial intelligence, memory and life have become central themes for scientific arts, especially in bioart. If once in the future, not so far ahead now, men are getting able to create some kind of synthetic or artificial life forms in their laboratories/computers, it may be the beginning of a vertiginous anthropological revolution. Thanks to digital technologies and its powers, science is today getting more imaginative and creative than art. The human species may become the avant-garde brain and engine of the evolution of life. Such an idea may seem as meaningful as the Copernic revolution in the past, as radical but more excessive, dealing this time not only with human modesty, but with ambitious self-awareness, not anymore with astronomy, but with biology and life. God is dead, said the western philosopher Nietzsche. Well! Let’s agree, But for now on, we may think that humanity is becoming the creator of itself. The question is: can we trust the wisdom of mankind developing such a fabulous digital imagination? How shall we control eventual mad science or scientific possible criminality?
Hervé Fischer

* Electricial engineer Ron Weiss, whose background is in computer science, has been collaborating with biologists to program digital logic into stem cells. The goal is to enable the cells to “fix” disease. (photo by Denise Applewhite)

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