Biological engineering is deliberate human intervention on the biological level (e.g. implanting a gene) aimed at modifying an organism’s shape, capabilities, needs, or desires, in order to realize some preconceived cultural idea.
Scientists are currently experimenting with genetically engineered cows whose milk contains lysostaphin, a biochemical that attacks the bacteria responsible for the disease.[i] The pork industry, which has suffered from falling sales because consumers are wary of the unhealthy fats in ham and bacon, has hopes for a still-experimental line of pigs implanted with genetic material from a worm. The new genes cause the pigs to turn bad omega 6 fatty acid into its healthy cousin, omega 3.
The next generation of genetic engineering will make pigs with good fat look like child’s play. Geneticists have managed not merely to extend six-fold the average life expectancy of worms, but also to engineer genius mice that display much improved memory and learning skills.
But geneticists do not only want to transform living lineages. They aim to revive extinct creatures as well. And not just dinosaurs, as in Jurassic Park. A team of Russian, Japanese and Korean scientists has recently mapped the genome of ancient mammoths, found frozen in the Siberian ice. They now plan to take a fertilized egg-cell of a present-day elephant, replace the elephantine DNA with a reconstructed mammoth DNA, and implant the egg in the womb of an elephant. After about 22 months, they expect the first mammoth in 5,000 years to be born.
There is another new technology which could change the laws of life: cyborg engineering. Cyborgs are beings that combine organic and inorganic parts, such as a human with bionic hands. In a sense, nearly all of us are bionic these days, since our natural senses and functions are supplemented by devices such as eyeglasses, pacemakers, orthotics, and even computers and cell phones (which relieve our brains of some of their data storage and processing burdens). We stand poised on the brink of becoming true cyborgs, of having inorganic features that are inseparable from our bodies, features that modify our abilities, desires, personalities, and identities.
Sapiens, too, are being turned into cyborgs. The newest generation of hearing aids are sometimes referred to as “bionic ears.” The device consists of an implant that absorbs sound through a microphone located in the outer part of the ear. The implant filters the sounds, identifies human voices, and translates them into electric signals that are sent directly to the central auditory nerve and from there to the brain
The third way to change the laws of life is to engineer completely inorganic beings. The most obvious examples are computer programs that can undergo independent evolution.
Recent advances in machine learning already enable present-day computer programs to evolve by themselves. Though the program is initially coded by human engineers, it can subsequently acquire new information on its own, teach itself new skills, and gain insights that go beyond those of its human creators. The computer program is therefore free to evolve in directions its makers could never have envisaged.
Such computer programs can learn to play chess, to drive cars, to diagnose diseases and to invest money in the stock-market. In all these fields they might increasingly outperform oldfashioned humans, but will have to compete against each other. They will thus confront new forms of evolutionary pressures. As a thousand computer programs invest money in the stock-market, each adopting different strategies, many will go bust but some will become billionaires. In the process, they will evolve remarkable skills that humans can neither rival nor understand. Such a program could not explain its investment strategy to a Sapiens, for the same reason that a Sapiens could not explain Wall Street to a chimpanzee. Many of us might eventually work for such programs, which will decide not only where to invest money, but also whom to hire for a particular job, whom to give a mortgage to, and whom to send to prison.
Are these living creatures? It depends on what you mean by “living creatures.” They have certainly been produced by a new evolutionary process, completely independent of the laws and limitations of organic evolution.
Imagine another possibility—suppose you could back up your brain to a portable hard drive and then run it on your laptop. Would your laptop be able to think and feel just like a Sapiens? If so, would it be you or someone else? What if computer programmers could create an entirely new but digital mind, composed of computer code, complete with a sense of self, consciousness, and memory? If you ran the program on your computer, would it be a person? If you deleted it could you be charged with murder?
We might soon have the answer to such questions. The Human Brain Project, founded in 2005, hopes to recreate a complete human brain inside a computer, with electronic circuits in the computer emulating neural networks in the brain. The project’s director has claimed that, if funded properly, within a decade or two we could have an artificial human brain inside a computer that could talk and behave very much as a human does. If successful, that would mean that after four billion years of milling around inside the small world of organic compounds, life will suddenly break out into the vastness of the inorganic realm, ready to take up shapes beyond our wildest dreams. Not all scholars agree that the mind works in a manner analogous to today’s digital computers—and if it doesn’t, present-day computers would not be able to simulate it. Yet it would be foolish to categorically dismiss the possibility before giving it a try. In 2013 the project received a grant of €1 billion from the European Union.