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Designer babies and intelligent robots: how new life is challenging humankind

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IT IS HIGH TIME that we start thinking about how we define life, according to a group of Lund University researchers. An army of intelligent robots is growing in front of us, but also opportunities to alter people’s DNA, create super babies and, perhaps, to encounter life in space.

“Human beings have always dreamed of playing God. With the help of new technology, we are able to reduce unnecessary suffering. At the same time, what we create rarely turns out the way we expect, and history shows that we are bad at making choices”, say the researchers.

The researchers argue that this definition is central to the exploration of new forms of life. It has to do with the ethical/moral, legal and practical issues that we as individuals and communities may face.

The definition of life, however, is not entirely clear. For example, reproduction and metabolism are often considered criteria for the concept of living. However, there are living beings, e.g. mules, which are not able to reproduce, and certain non-living entities, e.g. fire, have a form of metabolism. Viruses – which many biologists do not consider as living – can also reproduce under the right conditions. Meanwhile, although consciousness is not a criterion for life, we consider it a necessary in order to be perceived as fully alive human beings.

“The more we dig into what defines life, the more we realise that the current definitions reflect different fields of research and disciplines. Some definitions of life focus on dynamic systems and cells, others focus on integrated systems”, says evolutionary biologist Jessica Abbott.

Through its work, the research team wants to find common denominators of the various definitions, while being aware that the concept of life itself may be turned on its head in the future.

“Say we find life in space, the criteria we use today might no longer be applicable. We don’t know which characteristics are in fact central to the concept of life”, says Jessica Abbott.

THE AIM IS TO CREATE a common language for researchers – which may be used as a basis for ethical, legal and practical approaches. In the group’s work, initiated by Lund University philosopher Erik Persson, the researchers are influenced by philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s family resemblance theory, which is about finding similarities rather than distinct definitions between different things (in his case, similarities between different games, for example).

The group argues that it is high time to start thinking about what life is – and could be – as we will be faced with difficult issues concerning responsibilities, obligations and ethics.

“If something is perceived as intelligent, it also comes with responsibilities and obligations. If a machine is perceived as human, we must also reflect on who will be held responsible if the machine kills or injures someone else”, says Jessica Abbott.

Other issues on which we as individuals and societies must take a stand, according to the research team, are whether it is morally right to change human beings through genetic engineering, how synthetic life is to be developed, what is to be preserved and what is to be discarded, and how we as a species are to relate to systems with life goals that are entirely different from our own.  

Many people want to recreate new life, but the system for doing it is too shaky.

Jessica Abbott believes that within 10 years, we will perhaps be able to create synthetic life in the form of cells that can reproduce. But she also says that this is currently not possible as we simply do not know what functions all the genes in our cells have. Craig Venter – the researcher who, in 2010, created the first synthetic cell by copying a genome of a bacterium and transferring it to a cell – was not able to design the genome of a minimal cell (the genome of the original mass was not designed but copied, and the genome was anything but minimal, containing more than one million DNA bases). In his attempts he was not able to identify 149 genes which can be found in human beings, among other living creatures – and which are essential to life.

Likewise, Jessica Abbott does not believe it is possible to regenerate extinct species, such as dinosaurs or hominidae like Neanderthals, at least not in the near future, despite attempts to get chicken embryos to develop reptile noses rather than beaks, and inserting mammoth genes into elephant embryos.

“Many people want to recreate new life, but the system for doing it is too shaky, as we don’t know what all the genes are for. You might ask yourself whether it is right to recreate an extinct species just for the fun of it, because you can”, she says.

Jessica Abbott says that what can be done today, however – with the same technique used to try and recreate dinosaurs and mammoths – is to modify genes, with the help of a genetic tool called CRISPR that is able to cut and paste genes.

Is anyone out there? Recently, seven exoplanets were discovered, three of which have favourable conditions for water oceans in which life could occur. Illustration: NASA/JPL
Is anyone out there? Recently, seven exoplanets were discovered, three of which have favourable conditions for water oceans in which life could occur. Illustration: NASA/JPL

The method can be used, for example, to genetically modify embryos by eliminating genes carrying mutations and serious diseases. Attempts on human non-viable embryos have already been made in China with mixed results.

Philosopher and medical ethicist Mats Johansson finds it hard to believe that this type of research will not be continued, although it is perhaps more likely that the developments will initially take place in foetal diagnostics.

“I believe it will begin with the removal of serious diseases but that the development will later accelerate in all areas where genetic engineering can be used.”

WHEN IT COMES TO THE DISCOVERY OF EXTRA-TERRESTIAL LIFE, history of ideas scholar David Dunér argues that we will never be sure of whether we are completely alone in space. That is because we are unable to explore all planets in our universe, due to the immense distances in time and space.

However, we might find life closer to us in space, in our own solar system. Using mass spectrometers, the US space administration NASA has discovered an abundance of hydrogen molecules in water columns that shot up from the Saturn moon called Enceladus, which shows that methane could also be formed in the ocean under its surface of ice. Recently, seven new exoplanets – planets outside our own solar system – were discovered including three which have favourable conditions for water oceans in which life could occur.

“We’ll probably never hold an alien’s hand. Although the nearest exoplanets are only 4.2 light years away, we probably won’t be able to visit them anytime soon. But we could study them remotely and intercept space through radio waves”, says David Dunér.

As for artificial intelligence, AI, we see tremendous progress. In Japan, a research team has developed an android named Erica that can interact with people, answer when spoken to, and describe its hopes and dreams. In Japan, geminoids (androids which resemble specific people) are also used as shop assistants, television hosts and actors. The Tesla company in the US has developed self-driving cars, Apple uses AI for its digital assistant Siri, and the AlphaGo software has beaten one of the world champions in the board game GO.

However, the group argues that it remains to be seen whether AI will ever be considered a living being, and it is difficult to predict its future development.

Cognitive scientist Christan Balkenius argues that the AI must be able to reproduce, or be designed to be capable of repairing itself, in order to be considered a living being. And it must be able to learn new things, beyond the systems with which it has been pre-programmed. According to him, the Turing test which took place in 2014 – in which a person could not determine whether they were speaking to a chatbot, and which is said to be proof of intelligence – is not enough.

Beaten by an algorithm: the AlphaGo software recently defeated Chinese Go master Ke Jie at Go, a complex board game.
Beaten by an algorithm: the AlphaGo software recently defeated Chinese Go master Ke Jie at Go, a complex board game. Image: Herman Hiddema CC BY-SA 3.0

Contrary to, for example, visionary Elon Musk who started the company OpenAI which focuses on developing friendly and safe AI, Balkenius argues that we will not develop robots with their own will and their own goals, as it would simply be foolish.

“It’s better to create machines that do not have a consciousness; that are only there to help us.”

Mats Johansson, on the other hand, predicts a future where AI will become our best friends, and where robots will be a natural part of our relationships. However, such a development does not require them to have a consciousness, but only to be capable of serving as companions without having their own human psychology.

“Imagine a robot that never gets tired of you, that acts as if you are always interesting and funny. That is always there”, he says.

Whether robots will ever develop their own emotions or consciousness is a difficult question. Mats Johansson believes that if they do, it is perhaps more likely that they will be seen as living beings.

However, both he and Christian Balkenius stress that regardless of whether AI will be defined as living or not, human beings must learn to relate to robots and smart systems to a greater extent in the future.

Say we build a robot that can make paper clips. If this is the robot’s only goal, the robot might literally stop at nothing in order to continue to make paper clips.

But how can new life forms affect us? According to the researchers, one of the major risks in creating or discovering new life is the loss of control. How can we be sure we can control what we create, and is it even possible to control new forms of life?

One example of the challenges of controlling life is antibiotic resistance, says Jessica Abbott. Scientists believed that bacteria would behave in a certain way, but they did not – and now many bacteria are resistant to antibiotics.

Another example – focusing on existing life – concerns the rabbits that humans brought with them to Australia. These rabbits multiplied in large numbers as they did not have any natural enemies, and they destroy vast amount of crops each year. This has led to an attempt to eradicate rabbits as a species in the country.

“When it comes to the creation of organisms, it is important to think about what needs to be preserved and how new species can affect existing life. Do we have an obligation to preserve species?” asks Jessica Abbott.

She argues that it seems that the more humanity has been involved in the change, the less responsibility we seem to feel.

“We don’t hesitate to eradicate rabbits in Australia, which by now may have developed their own genetic species. What responsibility will we take if we create a new form of life? If it doesn’t turn out the way we wanted?”

According to Jessica Abbott, it is fundamentally problematic to speculate about life, as life rarely does what we expect.

Both Jessica Abbott and Mats Johansson argue that genetic modification, in which we improve or change humanity, nature or crops, involves risks.

“Experimenting with human beings is not a problem itself, but I think history has shown that we are bad at making choices. We act too fast and on an insufficient basis, for instance, the application of racial biology or sterilisation laws in Sweden”, says Mats Johansson.

He is also wonders where the line will be drawn when it comes to genetic engineering. What ethical issues will we face? To what extent should different genetic properties be removed through breeding?

Mats Johansson points out that as human beings we may initiate processes without considering the consequences. As a species, we have carried out several genocides, which proves that there are no guarantees we will use the technology to make good or smart choices, he argues.

I think history has shown that we are bad at making choices.

“Today there are also many dictatorships. What will these leaders enter into their systems? What choices would we make if we had all the power? How can we know today what is good for mankind in the tomorrow?

He finds that those who know the technology are perhaps not best suited to change the world. Will the political currents in many countries today be reflected in the AI ​​systems that are invented?

Already, there are AI systems that have exhibited racial and gender bias. For example, the systems that interpret speech ​​and languages ​more often associate European names with pleasant words such as ‘gift’ and ‘glad’ as opposed to African names that are more often associated with unpleasant words.

Mats Johansson argues that there are a number of other risks associated with AI, regardless of whether they will be considered living beings or not. He mentions researcher Nick Bostrom who warns against the development of a superintelligence whose life goals could be too significantly different from our own.

“Say we build a robot that can make paper clips. If this is the robot’s only goal, the robot might literally stop at nothing in order to continue to make paper clips.”

Mats Johansson argues that such a development is more worrying than that the AI would seek power for the sake of it.

“If we develop intelligent AI, how can we make sure it is sufficiently moral? How do we teach it to make wise decisions?”

The gramophone record Voyager Golden Record was sent into space with Nasa’s two Voyager spacecraft in 1977. It contains sounds and images from life on Earth - a message in a bottle, of sorts - intended for extraterrestial life. Image: NASA/JPL
The gramophone record Voyager Golden Record was sent into space with Nasa’s two Voyager spacecraft in 1977. It contains sounds and images from life on Earth - a message in a bottle, of sorts - intended for extraterrestial life. Image: NASA/JPL

Another danger is that, as individuals, we will become more self-centred as we develop better and smarter AI. Mats Johansson believes that if we are surrounded by machines that always meet our needs and wishes, we may find it hard to see others and start thinking that we are more important than we are.

However, he does not believe that we will see a development where we become more violent as a result of us being more violent against robots (who are incapable of emotion). Already today, many people would not feel comfortable hitting a doll or a stuffed toy, which are also devoid of feelings.

The most immediate risk with AI is that we as human beings risk phasing ourselves out from the labour market, according to Mats Johansson, and Balkenius agrees. They believe that, in the long term, the development will lead to a change in all sectors.

“There is a big difference compared to say industrialisation, when many new areas of work were created. It’s not at all certain that we will keep our jobs if a robot can perform our tasks better”, says Christian Balkenius.

He argues that today it is very difficult to predict how smart systems will affect us as individuals and as a society.

We need to think about how our inventions may affect us – in every aspect.

Despite the many risks associated with new life forms, there are also endless opportunities, according to the research team.

The development of AI could have a positive impact on areas such as healthcare, homecare and household services, for example.

Mats Johansson believes that AI will eventually revolutionise our entire society, arguing that it will be possible to use robots in many different areas as they never become tired or overworked, which makes them suitable for performing tasks that are currently very physically demanding or monotonous.

He also believes that robots can be used as companions, which may have a positive impact on perceived loneliness and sadness, especially among elderly isolated individuals.

“Various types of robots, often in the form of cats or dogs, are already used in dementia care homes today to calm the elderly. In the future, I foresee a development where robots can take care of elderly people and keep them company.”

He believes that we will probably see more and more relationships between AI and people, regardless of whether AI will be defined as a living being or not. If AI evolves into learning, emotional robots, these relationships will be more complicated.

“We have to be prepared to broaden our entire worldview in terms of relationships.”

The opportunities of synthetic life are also major, according to Jessica Abbott. She, like many others, sees a development where synthetic bacteria can be used in areas such as energy and climate work. Bacteria could be developed to break down chemicals more efficiently, for example through carbon fixation, preventing it from being released into the atmosphere – something which could help prevent climate change. Other bacteria could help produce substances that can be used as energy.

The development of genetic engineering is also beneficial, according to the research team. By learning more about what genes do, in the future, we can develop better and more personalised drugs, stop hereditary diseases and prevent ill health by implementing treatment at an early stage.

Discovering life in space would be as game-changing to us humans as when Charles Darwin discovered that human beings are merely one type of species among many others, according to history of ideas scholar David Dunér.
Discovering life in space would be as game-changing to us humans as when Charles Darwin discovered that human beings are merely one type of species among many others, according to history of ideas scholar David Dunér.

There are also unique opportunities associated with finding life in space, according to David Dunér.

“It would give us completely different knowledge of ourselves. What is special about Earth today? What do we share with others? What is needed for life to emerge?”

Above all, he believes that the discovery of other life would give us completely different perspectives on humanity, in terms of the way we think about ourselves and other forms of life.

“For us, it would be as revolutionary as Copernicus discovering that the Earth is one of several planets in our solar system, or Darwin’s discovery that human beings are merely one type of species among many others. If we find life in space, we simply become one of many other life forms.”

According to the researchers themselves, the group’s ambition to define life and to increase understanding of what life actually is reflects humanity’s inherent curiosity and will to explore.

They find the human fascination for life intriguing: Why do we build large telescopes if the chance of discovering life – as we know it – is small, and the chance of encountering these life forms even smaller?

David Dunér argues that that is how we survive, and always have. As a species, we want to find new hunting grounds and keep moving forward.

“It can’t all be about the public benefit. Knowledge of other life can teach us more about ourselves as a species.”

Perhaps the will to find or create new life forms ultimately concerns a desire to reach out, to communicate as a species, according to the research team, arguing that the gold discs with sounds and images from different cultures in the world, which were sent into space in 1977, say a lot about us as human beings.

Plurality of Lives

The researchers are part of the Plurality of Lives theme at the Pufendorf Institute for Advanced Studies (Pufendorfinstitutet), working to explore the definition of life.

The theme includes: semiotician Anna Cabak Rédei, evolutionary biologist Jessica Abbott, philosopher Erik Persson, philosopher and medical ethicist Mats Johansson, ethicist Anders Melin, history of ideas scholar David Dunér, astronomer Dainis Dravins, political scientist Maria Hedlund, legal scholar Markus Gunneflo, chemist Petter Persson and cognitive scientist Christian Balkenius.