The Digital Mind: How Science is Redefining Humanity

Following the release in the US,  The Digital Mind, published by MIT Press,  is now available in Europe, at an Amazon store near you (and possibly in other bookstores). The book covers the evolution of technology, leading towards the expected emergence of digital minds.

Here is a short rundown of the book, kindly provided by yours truly, the author.

New technologies have been introduced in human lives at an ever increasing rate, since the first significant advances took place with the cognitive revolution, some 70.000 years ago. Although electronic computers are recent and have been around for only a few decades, they represent just the latest way to process information and create order out of chaos. Before computers, the job of processing information was done by living organisms, which are nothing more than complex information processing devices, created by billions of years of evolution.

Computers execute algorithms, sequences of small steps that, in the end, perform some desired computation, be it simple or complex. Algorithms are everywhere, and they became an integral part of our lives. Evolution is, in itself, a complex and long- running algorithm that created all species on Earth. The most advanced of these species, Homo sapiens, was endowed with a brain that is the most complex information processing device ever devised. Brains enable humans to process information in a way unparalleled by any other species, living or extinct, or by any machine. They provide humans with intelligence, consciousness and, some believe, even with a soul, a characteristic that makes humans different from all other animals and from any machine in existence.

But brains also enabled humans to develop science and technology to a point where it is possible to design computers with a power comparable to that of the human brain. Artificial intelligence will one day make it possible to create intelligent machines and computational biology will one day enable us to model, simulate and understand biological systems and even complete brains with unprecedented levels of detail. From these efforts, new minds will eventually emerge, minds that will emanate from the execution of programs running in powerful computers. These digital minds may one day rival our own, become our partners and replace humans in many tasks. They may usher in a technological singularity, a revolution in human society unlike any other that happened before. They may make humans obsolete and even a threatened species or they make us super-humans or demi-gods.

How will we create these digital minds? How will they change our daily lives? Will we recognize them as equals or will they forever be our slaves? Will we ever be able to simulate truly human-like minds in computers? Will humans transcend the frontiers of biology and become immortal? Will humans remain, forever, the only known intelligence in the universe?

 

Writing a Human Genome from scratch: the Genome Project-write

The Genome Project-write has released a white paper, with a clear proposal of the steps and timeline that will be required to design and assemble a human genome from scratch.

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The project is a large scale project, involving a significant number of institutions, and many well-known researchers, including George Church and Jef Boeke. According to the project web page:

“Writing DNA is the future of science and medicine, and holds the promise of pulling us forward into a better future. While reading DNA code has continued to advance, our capability to write DNA code remains limited, which in turn restricts our ability to understand and manipulate biological systems. GP-write will enable scientists to move beyond observation to action, and facilitate the use of biological engineering to address many of the global problems facing humanity.”

The idea is to use existing technologies for DNA synthesis to accelerate research in a wide spectrum of life-sciences. The synthesis of human genomes may make it possible to understand the phenotypic results of specific genome sequences and will contribute to improve the quality of synthetic biology tools.

Special attention will be paid to the complex ethical, legal and social issues that are a consequence of the project.

The project has received wide coverage, in a number of news sources, including popular science sites such as Statnews and the journal Science.

Next challenge: a synthetic human?

A group of researchers is calling for the next challenge in genetics: create an entirely synthetic human genome. The Human Genome Project Write (HGP-write) aims at creating a human genome from scratch, using the information available from thousands of sequenced human genomes.

Creating a DNA sequence that corresponds to a viable human being is quite an achievable challenge with existing technology. The large number of sequenced human genomes provide an excellent blueprint for that such a genome could be. Poorly understood or hard to sequence regions provide considerable challenges, but they should not be impossible to tackle. More difficult would be to create viable cell lines out of the synthesised DNA, or even viable embryos.

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As IEEE Sprectrum reports, the subject has received considerable attention in the media, namely in the NY Times. The authors of the proposal have already said that they do not intend to create synthetic humans, but only advance the state of the art in genetics research. Their objective is to understand better the human genome, by building a human (and other) genome from scratch. However, one never knows where a road leads, only where it starts from.