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When will we be able to create artificial life?

When will we be able to create artificial life?
Roman Yusefi from West Midlands (age 5-14)

Can we create life?
Class 5MW, Thomas A Becket Middle School, Worthing from West Sussex (Age: 5-14)
Answer

There are three types of artificial life, usually called wet, soft, and hard artificial life.

Wet artificial life is an aspect of biochemistry. It is possible to make small amounts of DNA, and this is the technology behind GM crops – for example, to help corn plants ward off insects or tolerate drought. Now researchers are working on the creation of life forms driven by completely artificial DNA. Scientists have already built entirely artificial chromosome, a large looping strand of DNA, containing all the instructions a microbe needs to live and reproduce. They hope to transplant such man-made material into a cell, where it is expected to take control of the biochemistry of the cell. If they succeed, they will have created wet artificial life.

Soft artificial life is based on the belief that “life is a process which can be abstracted away from any particular medium” (John von Neumann). Soft artificial life exists in computer software. In this way scientists study the evolution of populations of computer-simulated life forms, in artificial environments. It could be argued that soft artificial life is not really life, because it depends upon factors outside the system, such as human-supplied electricity. The counter-argument is that natural life depends upon water, also from outside the system.

Hard artificial life is an aspect of robotics, in which man-made robots are designed to be self-sufficient, and to go to places that are dangerous for humans, such as areas of high radio-activity, the deep ocean, outer space, etc. Such robots would have to obtain their own energy, make their own decisions, and do a good job. This aspect of artificial life is in its early days, but progress is being made. However, to count as life forms, such robots would have to be self-reproducing, a problem that some scientists are attending to.

David McFarland, Emeritus Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford

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