18.632 grow your own

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Mon, 14 Mar 2005 06:47:39 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 18, No. 632.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Mon, 14 Mar 2005 06:42:35 +0000
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: biological engineering

Dr Hugh Denard (Warwick) has drawn my attention to an article in the
Guardian that in turn alerts us all to the new field of biological
engineering. See http://tinyurl.com/4eqn8, or if that doesn't last, search
www.guardian.co.uk archive for "From the cells up" (10 March 2005).

It seems that MIT (in Cambridge, Massachusetts, not also Boston, as in the
Guardian article) has created a new undergraduate programme in this field
-- apparently an unusual thing for MIT to do. So there's reason to pay
attention to a field that promises "to make better drugs, extract minerals
from rocks, convert sunlight to hydrogen, and even design entirely new
organisms that behave in pre-programmed ways... even programme the DNA of
an organism so that it grows into your next home". An organic life-style?
What seems considerably closer is the manufacture of microelectronic
circuitry by growing it: viruses engineered so that they "express proteins
and interact with the right organic and metal compounds to then turn them
into long thin wires or rings". But what seems of considerably greater
interest to the researchers is making new sites for information processing.
According to Drew Endy, an assistant professor and "one of the subject's
leading lights" (lucky man!), "The point of using biological [engineering]
to do information processing isn't in order to replace your laptop
computer... Instead, we can use biology-based computing to implement modest
amounts of memory and logic in places where we don't have any - like the
cells in your liver."

That's engineering biology. What interests me even more might be called
biologizing engineering, or perhaps simply "computers and organisms". See
Michael Mahoney's and Angela Creager's course at Princeton, History 598,
http://www.princeton.edu/%7Ehos/h598/h598f04.html. See esp the collected
papers of Warren McCulloch, in Embodiments of Mind (1988), with the great
forward by Jerome Lettvin. McCulloch would have been a good ally.


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Received on Mon Mar 14 2005 - 01:55:52 EST

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