Note — Jul 05, 2020

Is DNA Hardware or Software?

If you like to read about bonkers, mind expanding and mind exploding topics, this is the one to click on.

Christina Agapakis interviews Michael Levin to better understand the Xenobots his lab has created. Lots and lots of interesting things in there but perhaps the one thing to remember for future readings is this group’s different take on biological software vs hardware. Most biologists have been thinking of DNA as the software and actual living things as hardware, focusing all their hopes of manipulating life in the tweaking of DNA (see CRISPR for example).

Levin’s team has managed to program cells without touching DNA, “simply” by giving “cells and tissues novel stimuli or experiences.” To keep the same very imperfect analogy, you could say that in this perspective DNA is not software but machine code (the only format that can be executed directly by a computer’s CPU), what they are doing with Xenobots is software, and the cells and beings are the hardware. Make sure to stick to the end for the 🤯 on epigenetics, and how he would approach General Artificial Intelligence.

[T]hese teams of cells were wholly liberated from constraints of frog DNA. Their behavior was determined by their shape, their design. […]

DNA has been shaped by evolution to produce hardware that is eminently reprogrammable. I think we need to respect the fact that evolution has given us this amazing multi-scale goal-driven system where the goals are rewritable. […]

It’s because the structure of the cortex is templated onto the previous one. So when it makes a daughter cell, it just copies whatever it has. The non-genetic piece of information is critical. This is the original demonstration of true epigenetics. This information is simply not in the genome. […]

I’ve been suggesting that a true general purpose intelligence is much more likely to arise not from mimicking the structure of the core of the human cortex, or anything like that, but from actually taking seriously the computational principles that life has been applying since the very beginning.