Monday, October 08, 2007

Owning Life -- Artificial and otherwise

J. Craig Venter believes he has a functioning artificial chromosome based of Mycoplasma genitalium, giving it a label of M. laboratorium. Yes, it is significantly more synthetic compared to other cultured and transgenic species, but that is not the problem. What is objectionable in the situation is the fact that Dr. Venter plans on patenting the organism that he has created. I can understand certain specific genes being protected - they are the result of labor and development - manhours. However, this organism is a much more than a sum of its parts. Indeed, it has a cluster of reproductive genes, genes for metabolism and others. What happens when that species conjugates with another bacterial species? Can Dr. Venter still say M. laboratorium is still "his"?

The same issue will be faced with truly artificial life in the form of a learning, electronic neural network. When that object becomes much more than what it was when it was created, and begins the process of sentience, can it be labeled as property? (See Star Trek:The Next Generation, Season 2, Episode 9 - "The Measure of a Man" for a fantastic depiction of this scenario)

The fact is, even in this minuscule scale, this confronts humanity with very fundamental questions, and will lay framework regarding our values. Some things, especially when it concerns life even in the smallest sense cannot be held for profit's sake. Granted, the patenting process allows credit and respect where due for certain processes or products made. It does not, however, allow a human being to claim ownership on an organism, no matter its scale.

Full article here.

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