If you have been reading the Newsletter recently, you can’t have missed it. August 24, ISSP hosted a one-day event on living technology, which in fact comprised three interrelated events: 4 student workshops on living technology, a scientists’ Flagship workshop on living technology, and finally a public outreach meeting on living technology entitled: Putting People in The Present. The following is a report on the latter.
While the various living technology workshops ran throughout the day, the public part of the event began in the evening. Prof. Henrik Pedersen, Dean of Natural Sciences at SDU, opened the meeting by emphasizing to the more than 100 audience members how important a sound dialogue is for providing scientific development and innovation with viable premises. He then proudly introduced the program, which presented four scientific talks aimed at putting the audience in the present with regards to living technology, plus a panel discussion arranged to facilitate the very kind of dialogue whose importance he had just been emphasizing.
From the outset, the reason for ISSP to arrange a comprehensive public outreach meeting became evident. As Project Director of the ISSP working group on living technology Prof. Mark Bedau made clear in his talk Engineering Emergence: The Key Promise and Challenge of Living Technology, living technology is not something that might happen in the future – rather, it is already here. But more importantly, given its likely importance as a scientific, industrial and memetic paradigm, we need to face this fact, and create a sound dialogue focusing on how we want to deal with this fact.
While Prof. Bedau carefully explained the notion and likely implications of living technology to the audience, the likely depth and scale of these implications are almost impossible to grasp without further evidence. To convey this to a large audience you would have to bring them into a lab. This was exactly what geneticist and physicist Martin Hanczyc from the Center of Fundamental Living Systems (FLinT) at SDU had decided to do. In his talk Artificial LifeMartin showed real-time movies from the FLinT laboratories, giving the audience a unique opportunity to watch life – or at least something lifelike – in the making. In these movies the audience came to witness how protocells moved, nourished, and played out other features of evolutionary processes.
But what uses might we come up with for something as intriguing, but also small, as protocells capable of moving, nourishing and, perhaps even one day, self-reproducing? What would the difference be between technologies based on life or lifelike features and standard industrial technologies? In her talk Surviving the 21st Century with Living Technology Rachel Armstrong from the Bartlett School of Architecture provided the audience with some visions of answers to such questions. Her talk began with a story of how a particular piece of living technology had once saved her life by…
However, as Mark Bedau had started out explaining, protocells are far from the only kind of living technology already here or in the making. By far the most well-known kind of living technology is found in robots. To present living technology in the area of robotics, the ISSP working group presented Kasper Støy from the Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller Institute. Most people in the audience had difficulties believing it at first, as Kasper showed movies of robots gaining their energy from “eating” snails and flies rather than by being plugged into a power grid. Kasper also discussed and showed movies of well-known robots based on lifelike features already working around us, as well as robots programmed to reconfigure and reproduce themselves, when given a helping hand.
Fortunately, in the following break, the audience got the chance to refuel on sandwiches rather than snails and flies, as well as discuss the talks individually. The audience then reconvened for a panel discussion on their hopes, thoughts and concerns about living technology. Philosophy Prof. Vincent F. Hendricksfrom the University of Copenhagen moderated the panel, which featured Chairman of the Danish Council of EthicsPeder Agger, Director of FLinT Prof. Steen Rasmussen, Chief Editor of Videnskab.dk Vibeke Hjortlund, CEO of ProtoLifeNorman Packard, Prof. at the University of New Brunswick Mihaela Ullieru and high-school student Freja Ek Sindberg from Odsherred Gymnasium.
It is always impossible to summarize a discussion like the one that followed. But it was evident that the inspirational scientific talks had served their function. The panel discussion turned out to be well-informed, as well as informative, to an extent rarely experienced. The experts on living technology were presented with a long series of investigative, critical and yet constructive questions from the audience. This balance was possible only due to the invigorating Vincent Hendricks, a critical and soundly-reasoning Peder Agger, and Vibeke Hjortlund who showed her experience with formulating a balanced evaluation of complex arguments in the context of science – and, of course, with a great audience who was more than willing to put their minds together in a collective effort to make everyone present more aware of the questions we need to address as a collective when faced with new technologies.