Jumping from silicon to carbon


The artificial technology-based world that we have created around us contains a lot of silicon. Our computers, smart phones, cars, planes, medical devices, power stations, and infrastructure networks all rely on silicon chips to process o’s and 1’s, and transistor-adorned central processing units are at the nucleus of every electronic device we deploy.

But this may be about to change. Our natural world is based on an element one level above in the periodic table; carbon. Life is built not on silicon wafers, but around carbon chains. DNA molecules define the form and function of organisms large and small, and this is a very different approach to the electronic technology we invented and developed over the last few decades.

Our silicon-based computational tools have been allowing us to analyse and decode carbon-based life for years, but only now are we starting to understand what might be needed, as a minimum, to create an autonomous organic device we term life. A recent news report outlined progress with creating a synthetic bug using what seems to be a minimum number of genes; 473 to be precise.

This is a leap beyond genetic modification because it is about creating a life form from the ground up rather than simply adjusting something that already exists. We still don’t understand the full function and scope of each of the genes, but it wont be long before we do.  And then it will be possible to create libraries of building-block genes rather like we create libraries of computer code modules, so that before long we’ll have a programming language, compiler system and developer kits to create and prescribe forms of life itself.

This will almost certainly have much in common with how the silicon-based computer industry developed. There will be organic devices that perform new functions rather like the calculator and digital watch did in the early days of silicon. These will grow in complexity and value as we develop our knowledge around the systems. And our present day silicon devices will start to look as outdated as thermionic valve technology did when silicon wafers started to emerge. But don’t expect equivalent devices; an organic timepiece is not an appropriate use of this new carbon-based technology, whereas a swarm of bee-like reconnaissance drones may well be.

A major difference, however, is around self-replication. Silicon chips do not reproduce, but life has a habit of being able to do so. On the right substrate, simple organisms like bacteria can quickly generate a colony, and more complicated life creates seeds, spores, and eggs. It is a key requisite of life that it should be able to create younger selves.  So expect our drones, our algae-based batteries, and our leafy photosynthetic solar cell roof tiles to grow, replicate and die; and more interestingly to adapt in Darwinian fashion. No longer will we have centralised factories or vast landfills. Instead, our devices will grow in-situ and we’ll throw them on the compost heap when they have completed their life cycle. And we’ll use their children and their children’s children to provide an on-going service.

This really is going to be a dramatic change to the way we live. It will throw us enormous challenges and probably provide serendipitous solutions. We will need to be careful that we don’t create a species of a device that acts as a predictor on something else we value, as they will almost certainly need to feed on something. Then again, one company may adopt this approach as a way to see off competition! But, equally something like our reconnaissance drones could also provide a pollination service as they go about their surveillance work. Honey may even be a by-product!  These carbon-based devices may also photosynthesise and help capture carbon, reducing global warming as a by product of their use. We may even legislate it as a prerequisite for any new such device on the market.

Our landscape around us will change. Life that has taken millennia to evolve on our planet will co-habit with life we seed in the laboratory. Oaks will stand alongside trees designed to behave as wind harnessing ‘turbines’, fields of pasture will butt up against plantations of device seedlings, and oceans will have shoals of fish that we designed to seek out mineral deposits for the few remaining electronic devices we still need.

Adrian Burden, Festival Founder