An Artificial Life Form A Day Keeps the Protesters Away: Synthetic Evolution and Genetic Modification as a Means to Quell Ethical Concerns

As was evidenced by the hullabaloo surrounding Alba the glowing rabbit, genetic modification is a touchy subject for many people morally. Who says that we have the right to toy with the development of living creatures purely for art or amusement? Well, what if said experiments never involved living matter in the first place?

Enter the field of artificial life. Advanced scientific theories, observations, and the ever-expanding capabilities of computer programming have made it possible to simulate almost every aspect of a life form, including the ecology of several life forms and evolution itself. As mentioned in our text, Nell Tenhaaf analyses the possibilities of artificial life by stating:

“The transcendent vision of higher evolution attached to it places A-Life within a trajectory that runs from alchemical wizardry through Faustian metaphysics to contemporary reproductive technologies and cloning. A-Life is based on the hypothesis that computer simulation of evolution can determine not just how evolution works but also how it progresses, that is, that simulations of living systems can shape the development of species” (Wilson 308)

Sound far-fetched? It really isn’t, and this idea has been incorporated into products that you may not associate with complex scientific analysis. One of these areas is children’s toys and video games.

Tamagotchi, a popular toy in the 90’s, features a digital pet on a keychain that you have to care for, whose growth and development is affected by your actions or lack thereof. For example, if you tend to underfeed your pet, it will grow into a different breed of creature than if you overfed it most of the time, etc. Happiness, hunger, health, and discipline records in the growth stages have the capacity to change the appearance and personality of the adult creature, which in turn affects what type of creature its offspring might be.

tamagotchi

The simulation of genetic modification and evolution has been prevalent in our culture for some time now. This is a valuable tool for analyzing possible affects of these experiments, without “getting one’s hands dirty”. After all, in the Pokemon game, if you expose an Eevee to a leaf stone in order to make it evolve into a grass type creature, you don’t have PETA protesters banging on your door because you’ve violated the rights of that digital life form.

This, however, brings up some interesting questions. Do synthetic life forms have rights? As was mentioned in the book Make it So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction, people tend to anthropomorphize technologies and artificial intelligence, and therefore assign a personality to non-living things. And yet, at least according to current thinking, most would consider attaching an extra limb to a robotic creature much less morbid than doing the same to a carbon-based, natural creature. Why is this? We feel less guilty if the life form is unable to feel pain and is unaware of the work being done to it, for example, as in genetic experiments on bacteria and other less-relatable creatures. But as we progress, and we are able to make artificial intelligence more and more “realistic”, will this attitude change? Is a robotic person a person too? Artists have explored this idea in films like Her and Wall-e, and many others.

Amidst the speculation, one thing is clear. Simulating scientific experiments will simultaneously solve moral and philosophical issues while creating new, complex questions that demand reevaluation of how we define “life”.  This discussion is certainly one that deserves our interest, and it will be exciting to see how the future unfolds in this field.

~ Gabi J.

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