In mid-January 2020, it was reported that scientists created the first “living robot” which represents a new class of biological artefact in the form of a “programmable organism” according to headlines in the Independent and Wired. Elsewhere, the ability of these new entities to “walk” was highlighted by the Guardian, opening up possibilities for potential advances of the technology for “drug delivery” and “toxic waste clean-up” as highlighted by Science Daily, all of which invites new “opportunities and risks” according to Forbes.
The work itself bears the title “A scalable pipeline for designing reconfigurable organisms”, hence, it should be noted that the authors have already established ambitions of scalability and rapid manufacturing from the outset. However, the paper casts the concrete accomplishments alongside promises of automation and scalability of the design pipeline, which forecloses the opportunity for a measured and proportionate public discussion that might challenge the basic presuppositions of the research programme itself by scrambling and refocussing the attention of commentators and the public to the more speculative claims made by the authors. Hence, ethical considerations are effectively neutralised and relegated to an afterthought while research programmes such as these proceed unhindered by scrutiny at the appropriate conceptual levels.
In this brief comment, I aim to draw attention to a few underlying conceptual and metaphysical themes by directly engaging the substantive claims of the authors to answer questions such as in what sense does this novel entity qualify as living?
First, the novelty of the work is in the pairing of two otherwise distinct areas of research, namely machine learning and evolutionary computation, and stem cell technology, which have both been the subject of significant ethical discussion in recent years. First, a machine learning technique based on an evolutionary algorithm is used to produce novel designs for the biological artefacts, followed by supercomputer simulations of the prospective designs in artificial worlds to select for certain characteristics, and finally given actualisation in the physical world using the “stuff” of life itself using cells derived from a certain frog species based on stem cell technology.
Hence, in order to bring the artefacts into actualisation, one of the key stages involves a manual process of cleaving of the cells into novel formations. These agglomerations of cells constitute unitary entities, which have been called “xenobots” to account for their strange origins and the fact that they exhibit novel behaviours that are not associated with the organs or organisms from which the cells have been derived.
These novel entities exhibit some rudimentary movement for a few days until the cells eventually perish. This movement has been described as “walking” and the authors have described it as “exploring” its aqueous environment. However, is this an appropriate description for an insensate agglomeration of cells – is it exploring or merely moving haphazardly?
Here it is worth noting that the cells in this case are cardiomyocytes (heart cells) derived from a species of frog. Each heart cell produces its own movement and together emanate “contractile waves”, and by virtue of the self-organising properties of the cells the overall agglomeration of cells exhibits “emergent spontaneous coordination” among the individual cells to produce “coherent, phase-matched contractions”. In other words, the bundle of cells has some aggregate movement based on the way passive and beating cells have been layered together, which is hardly surprising. Hence, it is important to note that any features of life, such as movement and self-healing, that this new type of entity possesses are derived from processes that are already part of the living cells from which it is composed.
Hence, rather than representing an entirely new living system, the type of life it possesses is jumpstarted from fertilised eggs of an already existing living system, that is, it is the product of biological bootstrapping.
The Guardian article on the work speculates that, “Xenobots might be built with blood vessels, nervous systems and sensory cells, to form rudimentary eyes. By building them out of mammalian cells, they could live on dry land.” However, the original research paper and the supplementary material only goes so far as to speculate about the possibility of scaling toward the inclusion of “organ systems”, the possibility of equipping them with “reproductive systems” and “metabolic engineering” to expand their lifespans.
It is in relation to this possibility of investing future versions with biological structures possessed by sentient lifeforms that the question of the moral significance has arisen, in particular, is there some threshold in the complexity and variety of biological features at which point these entities qualify as moral patients, and therefore must be treated in a way that is subject to moral principles and evaluations? That is, by continuing to augment the xenobots with additional biological structures and systems, would there be a point at which their moral status becomes a serious question, especially if they begin to exhibit complex, autonomous behaviours?
There is, however, an underlying moral issue that is neglected by this line of thought, which arises from the fact that the cells are already in the chain of life and taken from sacrificial host organisms, thus favouring the artificial assemblages over existing life as given in nature.
Besides the moral and ethical considerations related to these new entities, it may be argued that as novel biological artefacts, they raise interesting ontological issues about how to categorise them between the living and unliving, the organic and inorganic or indeed between the natural and artificial. These new entities thus represent examples of what may be described paradoxically as “artificial nature”, a paradox also expressed by the term “artificial life” (AL), the name of the research field itself
Unlike other areas of the life sciences, AL seeks to understand the processes of life by simulating the conditions of its emergence and development computationally. Hence, rather than seeking to understand the phenomena of life as they are found in nature, as is the case in most other areas of the life sciences, typically by reductive decomposition of complex living systems and analysis, AL seeks to understand life from the standpoint of being its maker. Hence, there is a significant epistemological issue to be addressed in the pursuit of “maker’s knowledge”, since it is not life as-it-is that is known, but that which we ourselves have made.
The question of life itself remains a mystery and the rhetoric accompanying such work appears to impart powers to scientists that they do not actually possess, namely, the power to bring new forms of life into existence. From a theological perspective, power over the creation of life resides entirely with God. The concept of life is of central importance and mentioned throughout the Qur’ān, most prominently in the name of God as “The Living and Everlasting” and in ascribing the creation of the phenomena of life and death to God. Furthermore, there are several instances in the Qur’ān where the act of bringing something to life occurs through the hands of Prophets. In particular, Ibrahim, alaihi-Salām, asks God to show him how the dead are brought back to life, and it is mentioned that Isa, alaihi-Salām, brings a statuette of a bird to life by way of his breath, with the permission of God.
In the case of AL, the soul itself is reconceived of as an informational entity. More specifically in the case of xenobots, different designs are given an information representation to be simulated in an artificial world, which is inherently stripped of any quality that does not admit quantification, such as colour, odour, purpose, meaning, and most importantly life. This informational cast of being is then re-inscribed onto the stuff of life itself, and thus described as a “living system” or a “novel lifeform”. Hence, the part of the new entity that is truly living is negated and re-purposed (i.e. re-programmed) according to ends determined by the scientists to become something as, “orthogonal as possible to existing species, yet capable of being built from existing cell types.”
Scientists are always seeking to open new frontiers for discovery in our present life, and indeed mind, have become the frontiers for expansion. Such expansion entails a concomitant expansion in the range of ethical and moral consideration, since, in contrast to pre-modern times, human actions now set in motion chains of events with their outcomes in the distant future and now frequently involve interfering in processes that are not fully understood. However, unintended consequences are explicitly sought after in the field of AL since a measure of success and progress in the field is based on the extent to which AL creations exhibit unpredicted behaviours.
Knowledge in modern science is not concerned with the contemplation of the essences of things but power over them, and the form of power operative in this case is the power of control and domination over living matter. Speaking to the Wired correspondent, one of the authors describes how the cells produce complex behaviours and raises the question, “And most importantly, how we can control it.”