THE BLOG
10/01/2014 12:55 pm ET Updated Dec 01, 2014

Cybernetic Synthetic Biology And The Internet of Living Things

In October 2013, Greg Gage and Tim Marzullo unveiled a cyborg cockroach that could be controlled from a smartphone through electrodes attached to its antennae and a wireless unit on its back. Imagine in the coming years what would happen if we are able to go much smaller and nanoscale computing devices could be integrated with individual bacteria. And what if these hybrid devices could be designed to control colonies of bacteria? Of course a big problem could be powering such devices, but bacteria based batteries are already a reality.

So should we allow this living technology to develop and be autonomous? If it was possible, then the extension of "the internet of things" to "the internet of biology" e.g., bacteria, molds, plants and crops should also be possible -- in fact all living things could be networked and online. An online connection could enable living systems to be controlled by software allowing bioware "apps" to add functionality beyond that allowed by biology.

What if the bacteria connected online could be turned into sophisticated swarms with collective intelligence spread over many miles, vastly exceeding the primitive-by-comparison biological sensing? What if the synthesis of bacteria and silicon-powered intelligence gave rise to a new symbiotic life form? I would imagine that these swarms could be used to remove pollutants, sent out to sense the environment, even monitor the emergence of new viruses in the wild. Perhaps even more exciting could be the direct control of the machinery within the cells. Enter the realm of cybernetic synthetic biology.

What exactly is cybernetic synthetic biology? From my point of view I see this as the integration of biological organisms with small silicon-based computing devices and I've been pondering this concept -- as well as the consequences -- for around 12 months. In my own scientific work I am interested in understanding the chemical origin of life, creating new life forms, and investigating new ways of controlling chemistry and biochemistry. The taming of existing life forms using silicon seems extremely attractive, albeit a few decades off (although some would argue that silicon, such as in the form of smart phones, is already controlling us through social media and messaging).

Although the internet of biology seems rather outlandish, I really think it might be very interesting to anticipate what the consequences of such a technology could be. Could a responsible approach explaining the potential wins, wonders, and pitfalls be used to educate the public and policy makers? This would also give scientists and technology developers time to think about the implementation as well as debate possible safety measures.

We are now entering a time of research developments, technological innovation and policy development where it is not only possible to peer review scientific ideas, but also to discuss possible consequences before the work is done. Could such a discussion not only focus on the merits of the science in question, feasibility and value for money, but also the impact of success on society as a whole? This approach is not without risks. Preventing science that generates anxiety could inhibit chance discoveries that is the very essence of blue-sky thinking. Of course we need to responsibly discuss the risks, as well as address the fears say of unleashing the god-particle equivalent of black hole that swallows the Earth, or perhaps a bioweapon that can be remotely programmed by their masters to lie silent and then unleash all manner of terror.

However, I feel that this is unlikely, and scientists have a duty to push the boundaries -- and in this case redefine how the fusion of technology and living systems will shape the future. A serious debate is needed. A future where biology and computers are integrated poses significant questions, especially if native living things are replaced by a new technology. It may be that the future for human kind will be as hybrid biological-robots. I guess we'd better start discussing this now.