Clanking Replicator

Via the BBC, news that researchers at Cornell University have constructed a self-replicating machine and published their notes in Nature. This one is certainly a “Clanking Replicator” type and not a more exotic nanoassembler, but it’s pretty cool stuff nevertheless. I for one welcome the arrival of our new robotic overlords and look forward with great anticipation for the lauch of our first von Neumann probe and the beginning of (post)human galactic domination – Bwahahaha!

Futurism

In a bizarre story, the BBC reports about a printer adapted to produce 3 dimensional living tissue.

Again via the BBC, President Bush looks set to back NASA’s project to use nuclear propulsion systems in spacecraft. This has the potential to make the exploration of space by either crewed or robotic craft a lot more viable, but is something likely to meet with opposition from anti-nuclear campaigners. Needless to say the news will please those in favour of a human exploration program.

There’s been wide reporting of the discovery of a fossil of a four-winged dinosaur in China. Here’s the New Scientist report and the BBC report.

Researchers at Imperial College London looking into memory and neurofeedback make claims that it might be possible for people to be trained in better recall. Neurofeedback techniques involve showing people their brainwaves on a screen and teaching them how to exert some control over them. (Guess what? via the BBC.)

Cloning Humans

This topic has been in the news recently what with the announcements from Clonaid that the first two human clones have been born, one in the US and one in Europe. The announcement of the birth of the first clone was greeted with scepticism (BBC report), and a proposed DNA test has now become less likely after a lawyer in the US began a legal action against the “parents”. The birth of the second clone was announced this week (BBC report), and will no doubt be treated sceptically as well.

For those not au fait with the ins and outs of cloning, the New Scientist has devoted part of their website to the subject. These pages include a FAQ and compilations of reports and articles on the subject.

I’m disturbed by the news that human clones have already been created (assuming that they have, and this wouldn’t surprise me). I’m not disturbed by the concept of cloning, and I don’t feel that there’s necessarily anything intrinsically wrong with the cloning of humans, what disturbs me is that the technology is far from being a mature one. The various experiments which have resulted in successfully cloned animals over the last few years have thrown up many questions about the long term viability of clones. Dolly gets arthritis young, cloned mice appear to age rapidly – what’s clear is that we just don’t know enough about this technology to start applying it to humans in an ethical manner.

Research and experimentation on humans is a complex area. In most western countries there are ethical frameworks for it involving concepts of informed consent (an example). I’m not sure how these sorts of rules are usually applied to unborn or unconceived children, but I imagine that it would be difficult to get a program of medical experimentation past many Ethics Committees where the potential consequences were quite so vague and uncertain, and where the actual subject had no chance to give consent of any kind.

Of course out in the real world there are places where and people for whom such considerations are irrelevant and, as has been said many times before, the cloning of humans is probably inevitable. I think that it’s profoundly irresponsible for anyone to have embarked upon this project at this time, and I think that it will ultimately damage rather than improve chances for the technology to be used positively.  I suspect that one factor motivating this rush to produce that first cloned child (rather than money, fame and a place in the history books, of course) was to do it before it became illegal everywhere.  Unfortunately this very action is likely to encourage knee-jerk legislation against cloning technology before we even really know whether it has any potential human applications at all.

Living in the Future

Heard a couple of titbits in the news this morning that serve to remind that we already live in the future.

In the UK a Doctor calls for public debate about the ethics of Face Transplantation. Apparently this could be of benefit in reconstructive surgery where the patient has suffered extensive damage to their, err, face.

Dr. Severino Antinori, the Italian famed for being a vocal proponent of human cloning, announces that the first three human clone births are imminent.