I went to the Avignon nanoethics conference with every intention of giving a blow-by-blow account of the meeting as it happened, but in the end it was so rich and interesting that it took all my attention to listen and contribute. Having got back, it’s the usual rush to finish everything before the holidays. So here’s just one, rather striking, vignette from the meeting.
The issue that always bubbles below the surface when one talks about self-assembly and self-organisation is whether we will be able to make something that could be described as artificial life. In the self-assembly session, this was made very explicit by Mark Bedau, the co-founder of the European Center for Living Technology and participant in the EU funded project PACE (Programmable Artificial Cell Evolution), whose aim is to make an entirely synthetic system that shares some of the fundamental characteristics of living organisms (e.g. metabolism, reproduction and evolution). The Harvard chemist George Whitesides, (who was sounding more and more the world-weary patrician New Englander) described the chances of this programme being successful as being precisely zero.
I sided with Bedau on this, but what was more surprising to me was the reaction of the philosophers and ethicists to this pessimistic conclusion. Jean-Pierre Dupuy, a philosopher who has expressed profound alarm at the implications of loss of control implied by the idea of exploiting self-organising systems in technology, said that, despite all his worries, he would be deeply disappointed if this conclusion was true. A number of people commented on the obvious fear that people would express that making synthetic life would be tantamount to “playing God”. One speaker talked about the Jewish traditions connected with the Golem to insist that in that tradition the aspiration to make life was by itself not necessarily wrong. And, perhaps even more surprisingly, the bioethicist William Hurlbut, a member of the (US) President’s Council on Bioethics and a prominent Christian bioconservative, also didn’t take a very strong position on the ethics of attempting to make something with the qualities of life. Of course, as we were reminded by the philosopher and historian of science Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent, there have been plenty of times in the past when scientists have proclaimed that they were on the verge of creating life, only for this claim to turn out to be very premature.