Monday, December 09, 2013

Why making complex robots when you can hack nature?

Within the next decades, we will be able to hack (efficiently) micro-organisms and insects. Why making tiny flying machines when you can hack and fly a real bug?
In 2006 the DARPA (US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) asked scientists to submit "innovative proposals to develop technology to create insect-cyborgs". Initialy launched as a science fair, the idea was to create robo-bugs and drone-bugs for many applications such as detecting traces of explosives, finding people in collapsed buidings, and also... many military and intelligence applications. As a (not so) funny example, remember this scene in the Fifth Element movie from Luc Besson (see image) when a roach kitted out with a video camera and a microphone tried to get information from the world's president. You could say that's only a science-fiction movie, but just read the article here about the real roach-cyborg experiment.
There is also a growing community of "biohackers", science enthusiasts who are experimenting with genes, brains and bodies outside the confines of traditional laboratories. Giving amateurs access to some of science's most sophisticated tools and techniques is good... and bad. Some researchers fully expects that "kids will be able to hack these things, like they wrote code in the Commodore 64 days". Well... stop. Just think about what's we are doing here: a bug is a living animal. And that's "only" a bug. Imagine viruses. Imagine dogs. We must start thinking about where we'd draw our ethical lines.
That's for sure, with the convergence of nanotech, biotech and cybertech, we will be able to modify and hack nature in the next future. As every scientific and technological advances, there will be fantastic applications but also very dangerous ones. Hacking something without understanding it could lead to very bad consequences. I think there must be an ethical debate about this. However, I think also that we can't refuse the benefits of experiments, mainly because scientific discoveries and technological advances are the only solution to our planet's main problems. But we must move (fast) forward with a human-centered ethical approach, not with short-term financial purposes. When I write "human-centered", I mean also that humans belong to nature, and as a consequence, it includes also our living environment : earth and all its creatures.

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