Challenge: Create a living machine

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liveboy21
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Challenge: Create a living machine

Postby liveboy21 » Sat May 23, 2015 3:13 am UTC

Hello science forum,

I present a challenge. Find a good definition for what make a being 'alive' and design a machine that meets those criteria. The machine should be made using current or close to current technologies.

Good luck. :)

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Re: Challenge: Create a living machine

Postby ahammel » Sat May 23, 2015 4:52 am UTC

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liveboy21
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Re: Challenge: Create a living machine

Postby liveboy21 » Sat May 23, 2015 5:49 am UTC

Wow, I don't think that counts but it is really cool nonetheless.

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BlackSails
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Re: Challenge: Create a living machine

Postby BlackSails » Sun May 24, 2015 9:19 pm UTC


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Re: Challenge: Create a living machine

Postby poxic » Sun May 24, 2015 10:52 pm UTC

BlackSails wrote:How about this machine?

I can make one of those. Need a bit of help to get started, and most of a year to finish.
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Re: Challenge: Create a living machine

Postby Qaanol » Sun May 24, 2015 11:17 pm UTC

Poxic just won, I think.
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krogoth
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Re: Challenge: Create a living machine

Postby krogoth » Mon May 25, 2015 6:05 am UTC

poxic wrote:
BlackSails wrote:How about this machine?

I can make one of those. Need a bit of help to get started, and most of a year to finish.

If I help at the start can I get credited on the scientific paper? or do you want to do the laborious part :lol: and I'll work on the paper?
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Re: Challenge: Create a living machine

Postby elasto » Mon May 25, 2015 12:13 pm UTC

Yeah. In all seriousness, the OP correctly emphasises the difficulty of defining what counts as 'alive' with any great precision, but seems to gloss over the difficulty of making a definition for 'machine' that precludes already living things.

For example, dictionary.com has this as a definition for machine: "an apparatus consisting of interrelated parts with separate functions, used in the performance of some kind of work"

Ok, so what is the definition of 'apparatus'? Does a human being qualify? "an apparatus is a group or combination of instruments, machinery, tools, materials, etc., having a particular function or intended for a specific use"

Ok, so not very helpful, given that there's an 'etc' in there!

Unless you specifically define a machine as being something non-living - by saying, for example, it must be 'artificial' or 'man-made' or whatnot - then why doesn't the human body qualify?

And why should the human body be disqualified when each of us has an unbroken chain of evolution back to a set of molecules that were very much non-alive billions of years ago. Surely we are an example of something going from non-alive to alive all by itself - and so are a living machine?

Who needs current or future tech anyhow? The tech levels of 4.5bn years ago were apparently good enough for the job...

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Re: Challenge: Create a living machine

Postby speising » Mon May 25, 2015 12:19 pm UTC

But the OP also specified "design", not "build". If you can produce complete blueprints for a human, i guess you win.

liveboy21
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Re: Challenge: Create a living machine

Postby liveboy21 » Mon May 25, 2015 12:27 pm UTC

Sigh, you are all correct. I have no idea how to ask the second part of the question properly.

I can't say that you should try to make a device that is alive that is made up of stuff that is man made because someone suggested 'human'. So congratulations to krogoth,BlackSails and Poxic for being awesome. I will return when I think of a better way to ask this question.

Next time, Gadget! Next time!

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Re: Challenge: Create a living machine

Postby elasto » Mon May 25, 2015 12:44 pm UTC

speising wrote:But the OP also specified "design", not "build". If you can produce complete blueprints for a human, i guess you win.

Well, we have the 'design' for a human being - the human genome was sequenced more than a decade ago.

We have also constructed DNA from scratch in the lab:
Scientists in the US have succeeded in developing the first living cell to be controlled entirely by synthetic DNA.

The researchers constructed a bacterium's "genetic software" and transplanted it into a host cell.

The resulting microbe then looked and behaved like the species "dictated" by the synthetic DNA.

...

Dr Venter likened the advance to making new software for the cell.

The researchers copied an existing bacterial genome. They sequenced its genetic code and then used "synthesis machines" to chemically construct a copy.


So as well as being able to build a living machine - the easiest way being to incubate it in an already existing living machine (a resource the world is hardly running short of) - we can design it too. Only really our ethics is slowing us down with our experiments at this point - otherwise we could just be making random changes to the 'software' and seeing what results.

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Re: Challenge: Create a living machine

Postby Copper Bezel » Mon May 25, 2015 1:09 pm UTC

That's not actually true. A bacterium is unquestionably alive, but we do not have the power to construct one. We may indeed be able to duplicate the genetic sequence of one, and even alter it in rudimentary ways, but that sequence is only instructions for how to tell a living bacterium how to produce one, so it's actually not any more to the point than poxic's already thread-winning answer. And we certainly can't produce a viable genetic sequence without duplicating existing ones.

The traditional biological definition of life has been used in these kinds of discussions before, as well as the simpler "maintains and reproduces itself" version. Also implied in the question is something like "without depending on being made of living cells" or something. It's not a nonsense question, and it's been around forever, so I think nitpicking the definitions here is a little harsh.
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Re: Challenge: Create a living machine

Postby elasto » Mon May 25, 2015 1:26 pm UTC

Copper Bezel wrote:That's not actually true. A bacterium is unquestionably alive, but we do not have the power to construct one.

Would you have the power to construct a laptop from only raw molecules? Any machine of above trivial complexity has to be created using parts and techniques that have been created by someone or something else. Not only that, any laptop has to be created by a human.

Is it really that important a distinction that a laptop is created by 'external' human effort, whereas a baby is created by 'internal' human effort?

How are 'external' and 'internal' defined, and where do the definitions blur?

My goal here is not to produce an air-tight argument - it's more to expose how the question is actually far more nuanced and complicated than it first appears...

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Re: Challenge: Create a living machine

Postby Copper Bezel » Mon May 25, 2015 1:53 pm UTC

I think the semantics are important for their own sake, but not an important part of defining the problem. Philosophy be damned, there was a first designed, non-biological engine and a first designed, non-biological computational device capable of carrying out instructions and making decisions, and regardless of your definitions and anything you mangle to fit them, those things first happened in the last two millennia. Those things weren't significant because they were novel scientific phenomena that the universe had never seen, but because they were milestones in the capabilities of human engineering.

So no, I really don't think it's a problem that there aren't airtight definitions here. What liveboy21 meant was obvious from the top. You could make a more airtight definition if the commonsense one seems insufficiently concrete, but there's no reason to assume that anyone was depending on airtight and literal definitions at the beginning. "Living" to me remains uselessly vague - I mean, there are "commonsense" definitions that depend exclusively on self-reproduction and commonsense definitions that don't include that as a criterion at all - but I think "machine" is pretty obvious at face value.
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Re: Challenge: Create a living machine

Postby Himself » Sun Jul 05, 2015 5:26 am UTC

I guess I'm resurrecting this, but would the Replicators from Stargate count?
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Re: Challenge: Create a living machine

Postby Copper Bezel » Sat Jul 18, 2015 8:39 am UTC

I think that's probably the sort of thing that's the archetypal example, not that it's exclusive to Stargate. Still goes back a bit to the OP explicitly not specifying a definition for "living" and expecting others to come to a consensus, though. And leaves the question of how close any present-day technology is to making that work.

I do think it's likely sensible to think of colonies reproducing, rather than individuals. That way, you can specialize your "cells" and don't need to assume that any one unit has the ability to construct any or all of the kinds of parts necessary for making another unit. Just as in real-life multicellular organisms, storing the data is cheap, and all the cells can do that much - but top-down manufacturing will require specialized tools that work better at scale. (Leaving aside the obvious implication that robots that build a factory to build robots are probably more efficient still than robots that build robots.)
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