Artificial Gametes, AI, and Information Theory

AKA the Pregnant Robots Article

some pretty sex cells? oOoOo

This is the second installment in a series exploring the intersections between various fields, as they relate to human biology, AI, robotics, and what is known as “The Singularity”.

The future of medical technology and information theory are leading us into a wild destiny most of us find hard to imagine.
In part one we explored the relationships between robotics and feminism, division of labor; and the allocation of domestic and industrial labor from the sexes of humankind to robotics. We then explored the sociological implications of assigning robotic entities the appearance of either sex, for intimate, domestic, or aesthetic reasons.

In this installment we will be looking deeper into information theory, artificial gametes, artificial wombs, and robotic surrogates; as the implications of how we manipulate our own genes will also be the basis of what we physically bequeath to our descendants in form, function and mind.
To begin with, it’s necessary to explain some basics about Information Theory, genetics, and recent developments in medical fields. Let’s start with Information Theory.

In 1948 Claude Shannon, Mathematician, electrical engineer, and cryptographer, founded Information Theory with his groundbreaking paper, “A Mathematical Theory of Communication”.
This work focused on how best to encode the information a sender wants to transmit. In the paper he used the tools in probability theory, as developed by Norbert Wiener, the father of Cybernetics, (whom you may remember from our first installment.)
During Shannon’s time at the Bell Telephone Company Lab, he laid out a formula of how a digital signal decays over an analogue communication line. The mathematical basis for the corruption of signals over space and time, (using probability) were used to make algorithms to counteract entropy, retaining the signals information integrity over a long distance telephone call.
In other words: “Shannon developed information entropy as a measure of the uncertainty in a message while essentially inventing the field of information theory”. (Wikipedia)

Now you may be wondering, what is the relevance of telephone lines and the invention of binary bits to human evolution and…..
Pregnant robots..?

The year is currently 2019. All science fiction aside, we have recently made startling developments in not only the creation of artificial wombs, but also artificial gametes (sex cells), and new gene technologies that effect the inheritance of targeted sequences.

(You might recall, a gamete is a sex cell. The “egg” or ovum of ovaries in females is a gamete, as is the spermatozoa of the testes in males.)

Now that artificial wombs exist..

Why would humans desire to gestate biologically internally?
Synth-wombs be stationary right? Would they be stored in closets? At an insured clinic? In the basement?
Why grow anything in a robot surrogate to begin with if you can do this? For the social value? The emotional experience? The psychedelic spiritual experience of growing another sentient being inside your body? People and robots will likely still want to do this for various reasons.

The technological achievement of an artificial womb, on some levels, separates form from function in our species. It is a bizarre and terrifying transcendence of form. A form that evolved the variety through remixing it’s own structural information, in order to avoiding entropy, retaining as much uncorrupted information signal as possible through sexual reproduction instead of asexual reproduction.

Artificial gametes
i.e. gametes generated by manipulation of their progenitors or of somatic cells

In 2012, scientists “induced pluripotent stem cells” and were able to turn skin cells into stem cells. They then used a process called in vitro gametogenesis, (IVG,) and created an ovum in the lab.

On their own the ovum are not viable, but once being implanted into a ovary, they mature and become viable. Mice capable of their own reproduction have been created using these techniques.

Fertilizing human eggs with this technology is currently forbidden by ethical guidelines, even in research.

It becomes evident that some of the technologies in their infancy now will become relevant in new ways once they are incorporated into robotic entities. The dovetail between artificial beings and augmented human beings becomes messy once artificial gametes, genetically engineered people and artificial wombs come into play.

There is no better example of these themes illustrated in modern cinema and storytelling as seen in Blade runner 2049, Dir. Denis Villeneuve (the sequel to the 1982 classic), and 1997’s Gattaca Dir. Andrew Niccol. These two films explore the edges of what defines humanity. Gattaca a expose on how the pursuit of genetic perfection can alienate us from our hearts… Blade runner 2049 at its conceptual core is about the autonomy of gametes, and wild replicant love, as opposed to manufacture of lifeforms. Both of these films feature a motif of the sea at night, and a struggle between the protagonist and his antagonist. fighting over their individual fates, as well as the scope of how their fates effect humankinds destiny.

Bladerunners replicants are interesting beings in science fiction because they are both genetic organic material and robotic. They have electronic brains integrated into organic tissue. Where is the line between what is considered human enough, and a being dubbed “replicant"? Do we not replicate ourselves in a kind of way? As humans change into more dramatically hybridized forms, will we consider ourselves.. less or more human?

The Seawall Fight Scene.

The seawall is a metaphor for the struggles of humankind to survive against the elemental forces of nature and the cosmos. At the edge of the world, where land meets sea.. In this future version of LA, the city has built a huge artificial seawall. It becomes the wall we have made separating us from other species in the biosphere, and abstractly from the rest of the cosmos. The androids are fighting in the scene on the concrete, sand less shore of the wall.
Joe, and the Tyrell woman, are fighting over autonomy. Who has control of the future of robotic replication. Rick Deckard’s nature remains ambiguous to us as an audience, but it is made evident the nature of his gametes, (being compatible with an artificial womb without any medically assistance), has the power to further enslave replicants through being controlled by Wallace Corp, or through his liberation, the potential liberation of reproductive autonomy for the future of all replicants is possible.

Essentially if he has control over his own balls, the fate of the replicants can be free.

Physical sexual reproduction is the means and primal foundation of any civilization. It is the factory by which production of the human race itself exists. It has been made invisible and private for a reason, as we have postulated and broken down in part one. Women have been subjugated because patriarchal and hierarchical power structures shifted control of reproductive power, by removing women’s control over their own bodies.

It is the same struggle over autonomy of one’s gametes that we see in Bladerunner 2049.

Robots are manufacture up until the point they are self replicating. This replicative power can be corporately controlled, government controlled, controlled by private individuals over another as we have seen analogously in marriage, or it can be autonomously controlled by individuals. Hence those who control the replicative power of artificial gametes, fictional or not, control the direction of morphology through their choice evolutionarily which gametes to fuse with, or modify and pass onto progeny.

Going back to information theory, and how it effects genomics,
The patenting of genomic information poses a unique danger to the environment. Not only has there been a history of suicide genes with companies like Monsanto, genetic drift polluting other crops, but now we see more sophisticated technologies like “gene drives” being inserted into the genetics of disease vectors. This practice seems like a miracle solution for diseases like malaria, but unfortunately is short sighted because gene drives literally break the ability of a gene sequence to remix because it overrides as the default “drive” copy of the gene every time. This gene then spreads through the population disproportionately, eventually completely overpopulating the other gene variant over time.

Right now we are just talking about one species, a mosquito, and one gene. But I hope you can see the implications of such a powerful technology being terrifying and in need of great discretion and care when utilized on a global level in any ecosystem. As well as the social impacts of patented genomic technology on society’s sense of self as a whole. (I am certainly not advocating that we not utilize techniques we understand and have been able to test thoroughly, regarding gene drive and its application to mitigate spread of malaria.)

We are just learning how complex the interplay of genes are to achieve their wide range of functions. It’s important we not accidentally cleave off a gene variant that also serves as part of another essential function (perhaps in another environment.)

Over time through evolution, variability of gene sequences seem to be there to protect the gene sequence from not only data corruption over time from mutations, but to maintain unique enough cellular structures and immune responses that other organisms like viruses and parasites can’t crack our defense mechanisms (The Red Queen by Matt Ridley)

The very edge of the current cybernetic revolution being born, in plain sight, and in a seemingly normalized sphere of medical technology and computer science.
Everything from IUDs, to tens machines, implanted meshes, artificial hips, and other devices have already augmented us into the prototype of a new species, infused with our own inventions. These new devices are currently governed by departments such as the FDA and American Medical Association. These organizations can’t keep up fast enough with the changing designs and materials of human augmentation and have a history of grandfathering in “similar” enough designs without proper testing, essentially experimenting on our loved ones to skip the expenses of additional testing. (See the Netflix documentary, “The Bleeding Edge”.

The first generation of augmented humans are the grandparents of the millennials and those before them, with their hips and hearing aids.

Soon it will be us, with Elon Musk’s neural net (I will share my thoughts on that in part 3), our genes being re-edited from stem cells, and our genomes sequenced by artificially intelligent learning machines that can foresee how new sequences will work together better than any human mind.

Becoming familiar with the long term consequences of how we utilize our new technologies will be essential if we are to survive the adolescence of our singularity and “transcendence”. From the individual lifestyle choices we make, in material of our augmentations, to the editing of the information that makes us up and how we choose to pass it on, is the very stuff that will make up what we are from here on out. We should choose wisely what parts we tamper with, and try to replace, or refine.

Gattaca: The Brother’s Swim Race and Conclusion.

To wrap this up, in the film Gattaca, (spoilers) there is a scene in which the protagonist Vincent, races his brother in a swim out from the shore at night.

In this film, we see again a symbol of the chaotic and unknown nature of the cosmos represented as a sea at night. Two beings are competing against each other. As kids they had swam to see who could make it the furthest from shore before turning back. Now they recreated that competition in a more dramatic context, as his brother is investigating Vincent’s identity fraud at the Gattaca Aerospace Corporation. Having been born with a heart condition, society has deemed Vincent’s “kind” unfit for work of that class and caliber. This is really a competition between genes, and ideologies. His brother Anton is engineered, born with a clean bill of health. Vincent born “defective”.

The weaker brother .. seemingly against all odds beats his genetically modified brother. Anton gives up and turns back, but also falls beneath the waves as he tries to make it to shore. Vincent ends up saving him. At the shore, in disbelief, his brother gasps as he asks him “How?”. How is it possible? To not only best him in distance, but save him on the way back… and Vincent says essentially, “I never saved anything for the swim back.”

As it turns out, Vincent used celestial navigation to lead them back to shore. Having bested his brother, Vincent will go on to leave on his mission to Titan, and impact human destiny in the stars.

Vincent in Gattaca is a triumph of human will over form. Our human history is defined by the limits of our bodies and us pushing the frontiers of our technology. Vincent is an example that we cannot loose ourselves and our dreams in the pursuit of perfecting our genes. We are also made of our experience, of the respective cultural fabrics of the world, the values taught to us, and our individual passions. (Gattaca as a film is vastly ahead of its time, if you haven’t seen it do check it out.)

To sum up a long and complex installment, with these biotech developments coming for us as fast as they are, let us be careful how we use technology to become new beings, and understand we bequeath those ambitions forever to our forbearers.

I think this classic Jeff Goldblum quote from Jurassic Park sums up my feelings of awe, excitment, and healthy trepedation for the wild future of biotech.

Thanks for reading this article. If you enjoyed it and would like to see me continue to share more long form science fiction/science reality thoughts on philosophy and the read the forthcoming third installment of this series in which well be tackling cybernetics, stay tuned!

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Editor and Writer: Sara Phinn: Artist. Performer. Philosopher. Futurist.