Biological Machines and the Mechanization of Life

This paper, written in 2013, is almost identical to the german version »Synthese von Maschine und Biologie – Organische Maschinen und die Mechanisierung des Lebens«, which was published in »Synthesis: Zur Konjunktur eines philosophischen Begriffs in Wissenschaft und Technik, Gabriele Gramelsberger/ Peter Bexte/ Werner Kogge (Eds.), Transcript 2013, S. 171 – 192«.

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Our machines begin to resemble living creatures. They are self-­assembling, self­‐maintaining, inherently non-­terminating, massively parallel, stochastic, adaptive, and self-modifying. What does that mean for our human self-conception?

During its long history from antique hand-operated instruments to modern information processing automata the notion of the machine has several times received a shift in meaning. Today the concept of the machine has completely lost its attachment to any concrete material and is instead characterized by its functional behavior. Symbolic machines, i.e. the mathematical idea to mechanically operate with symbols, became a fundamental skill in many different scientific disciplines. In this paper we take a look on synthetic biology from the computational point of view and especially address the question whether it will once more challenge the notion of the machine. One obvious consequence of future biotechnologies is that we cannot any longer draw a strict line between technique and life. In the past machines did not assemble, maintain and reproduce themselves, they had to be fabricated by man and required human monitoring and directing. Through the technical use of biological processes this hallmark of the living becomes untenable. Self-strategies and especially self-referential functional descriptions like self-assembly, self-reproduction, and self-modification are at the center of the convergence of the natural and the artificial. Conversely the adoption of life-like qualities by technical artifacts will also challenge our image of life and organisms and our understanding of what aliveness could mean.