Thursday, November 23, 2006

Genesis Machines by Martyn Amos

Please note: Dr. Amos has suggested that since I am a member of an English department I should be perfectly clear, right up front, that I am musing on an excerpt only, and have not read the book. I stand by my point that this book looks as though it will provide a useful overview of the state of the field, but to all the many readers of Cyborgblog, please be advised that the following is a half-baked meditation on a very brief perusal of a chapter that Mr. Amos generously posted on his website.

Now back to your regularly scheduled posting:

This just out, by Martyn Amos (recipient of the world's first PhD in DNA computing):

From the book description:
martyn amos: "Cells, gels and DNA strands are the 'wetware' of the twenty-first century. Imagine taking cells from a cancer patient and programming them to detect disease and them prompt the body to cure itself. Or clothes woven with microchips, where nanofibres and living cells combine to form wearable bio-weapons detection systems. Both of these revolutionary applications may be closer than we think. Some scientists are pushing the boundaries even further by creating synthetic biology; the ultimate scrapheap challenge, where brand new creatures are engineered in the laboratory."

Amos also provides an online excerpt and list of references. Nice!

Amos writes about "a whole new connection between two ancient sciences – mathematics and biology" (2). This in itself is quite fascinating and intriguing: the mathematical predictability of material processes was what inspired many early 17th- and 18th-century mechanistic philosophers to imagine the body--and the mind--as a machine. Historians have wrongly claimed that the mechanists were superseded by the proponents of vitalism, when in fact the mathematical calculations of biology have increasingly shown that the biological organism and the "machine" are governed by the same natural principals. Isaac Newton could never have predicted the actual convergence of biology and "machine" that we witness today, but those early philosophies of calculation were the beginning of Amos' claim that "Once we understand that computation is not just a human-defined construct, but part of the very fabric of our existence, we can begin to fully appreciate the computational opportunities offered to us by nature" (5).

On the one hand, Amos doesn't seem to be saying a whole lot that we don't already know:
"Every month, new results are reported, molecular algorithms developed, exotic organic complexes constructed. DNA, the code of life, is right now being used at the heart of experimental computers. Living cells are being integrated with silicon nanotubes to create hybrid machines, as well as being routinely manipulated to add entirely new capabilities. Brain cells are being used to build real, 'wet' neural networks. Preparations are being made to build entirely new organisms, never seen before in nature. The fields of computer science, biology and engineering are constantly morphing and merging to accommodate this radical new enterprise." (4)
On the other hand, however, the book looks as though it will provide a good overview of the state of the field.

This excerpt also shows a complete and unquestioning faith in the value of such biocomputing exercises. "Millions of dollars" are being invested by governments and private corporations in this "truly international effort," he writes. While the possibilities are indeed exciting, it's a little disappointing to read the familiar rhetoric of the new world order wrought by computing technology: Amos concludes the above paragraph with the tired old "Traditional boundaries between disciplines are breaking down." He's talking about how "computer scientists move between laptop and laboratory and biologists routinely talk in terms of logic and genetic circuits" but really this seems rather unremarkable: it's only been a short time in human history that computer science has been a separate discipline from biology, and I'd suggest that despite the institutional barriers between the two fields there have been overlapping interests ever since (and before) Norbert Wiener came up with the idea of cybernetics.

The insight this book will give into the field of biocomputing will be valuable, but it looks as though the reader will be wading through some self-congratulatory exposition. I hope the comment that "there are undoubted pitfalls along the way – scientific, technological and ethical" is an introduction to more nuanced considerations later in the book. Even if it isn't, this book will provide an excellent introduction to DNA computation and artificial life.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's generally considered good form to actually finish reading a book before reviewing it; you clearly have not.

5:27 AM  
Blogger Allison Muri said...

DISCLAIMER: This is not a review and Martyn is correct to point out that I haven't read the whole book. Cyborgblog is a blog and contains snippets and reflections, much like an old-fashioned commonplace book. This blog makes no claims to scholarly rigor.

5:43 AM  
Blogger Martyn Amos said...

That much is clear... It is, however, worrying that you appear to be a member of a n English faculty, and yet base your musings on attempted predictions of the contents of a book from an extremely short excerpt. It's clear that you don't even own the book, and are basing a substantial pseudo-review on an unrepresentative sample (which was, after all, intended to drum up trade rather than present a balanced summary of the book). If you were being at all intellectually honest then you would at least either make this clear up-front (ie. not buried away in the comments) or refrain from sharing your thoughts until you have something of substance to say.

9:22 AM  

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