Can robots and humans make babies together? This is a serious question inspired by some of the advances already achieved in the 21st century by researchers in cell biology and in a discipline variously known as biorobotics, synthetic biology, or bionanotechnology.
Although it had long been a truth universally acknowledged that sexual intercourse was an essential precursor to conception, it was only around 150 years ago that early studies of embryology revealed the reason why, according to the dogma of the time, intercourse was “essential” in human reproduction. The reason was that only an egg from a female, fertilized by a sperm from a male, can result in a live birth. But thanks to the Nobel prize winning work of researchers like embryologist John Gurdon and stem cell researcher Shinya Yamanaka, it has become possible during the past few years to create both sperm cells and eggs in the laboratory from skin cells, obviating the need for a human mother or father to kick off the reproductive process.
It has become possible during the past few years to create both sperm cells and eggs in the laboratory from skin cells. At the end of April 2016, Stanford University and the Valencia Infertility Institute announced the result of a collaboration project in which human sperm, with tails, were created from skin cells. Just five months later, testifying to the speed with which stem cell research is progressing, researchers at the University of Bath reported that they had discovered a method of creating offspring without the need for a female egg. This was heralded as a major breakthrough which rewrites 200 years of biology teaching, and could pave the way, for example, for a baby to be born from the DNA of two men.
In August 2017, researchers at Ohio State College of Engineering announced an exciting new technology. “Tissue nanotransfection” (TNT for short) which enables injured or aging tissue to be repaired or restored, including blood vessels, nerve cells and entire organs.
TNT technology has two major components: First is a nanotechnology-based chip designed to deliver cargo to adult cells in a live body. Second is the design of specific biological cargo for cell conversion. TNT doesn’t require any laboratory-based procedures and is also non-invasive.
“By using our novel nanochip technology, injured or compromised organs can be replaced. We have shown that skin is a fertile land where we can grow the elements of any organ that is declining,” writes the study’s co-lead, Dr. Chandan Sen, director of Ohio State’s Center for Regenerative Medicine & Cell Based Therapies. The next step for the Ohio researchers is clinical trials next year to test this technology in humans.
In fraction of a second, TNT injects genetic code into the skin, turning those cells into other types of cells required for treating diseased conditions, generating any cell type of interest for treatment within the patient’s own body. This is key to the concept of a human-robot baby whose genetic information comes from both “parents,” the robot as well as the human. The skin cells used to derive the sperm and egg which start the embryonic process, already contain genetic information from the human parent. But what of genetic information derived from the robot parent?
To answer this question, let us consider the research of a South Korean team lead by Jong-Hwan Kim, a pioneer in robotics. In 2005, Kim and his team at the Robot Intelligence Technology Lab in Korea’s Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) published a paper in which they describe an artificial creature called Rity, living in a virtual world. They used Rity to test the world’s first robotic chromosomes—a set of computerized DNA codes for creating artificial creatures that can have their own personality, and can ultimately reproduce their own kind or even evolve as a distinct species. The effectiveness of the Korean team’s artificial chromosomes was demonstrated by implanting genetic code into two Rity robots living in a virtual world, in order to specify their personality.
In 2007, the Korean team applied for a patent for their “genetic robot” invention. The patent describes in some detail how the research team model their software robot based on established biological inheritance laws, including those propounded by Gregor Mendel, who lived from 1822 to 1884, the founding father of the modern study of genetics.
When a sperm and egg meet, their respective DNAs combine so that half of our DNA comes from our mother and half from our father. We need to understand how the Korean model operates in order to understand how a human-robot baby can be created with genetic codes derived partly from a robot. The team define their “genetic robot” as an artificial creature, a software robot, or a general robot that has its own “genetic codes,” the genetic code of a robot being a single robot genome composed of multiple artificial chromosomes.
A Korean invention allows the user to design a genetic code for a software robot easily and intuitively. The genetic codes are classified into “personality genes” related to the internal state of the software robot, and “outward genes” related to its outward appearance. The outward genes provide pieces of outward genetic information that determine the outward appearance of the software robot, such as its face and its eyes. The personality genes provide fundamental genetic information, internal state genetic information, and behavior determination genetic information, and they dictate the robot’s personality by determining changes in its internal states, including changes in the robot’s motivations, its homeostasis, and its emotions, and changes in the corresponding behaviour manifestations as the robot interacts with its external environment.
The term “fundamental genetic information” refers to fundamental parameters, for example volatility, which have a great effect on changes to the robot’s internal states and external behaviours. The internal state genetic information comprises parameters that affect the internal state of the robot in relation to how it is affected by external inputs to the robot. The behavior determination genetic information refers to parameters that determine the robot’s external behaviours based on its current internal states.
So to summarize their invention, the multiple artificial chromosomes implanted in the Korean software robot dictate the individual personality characteristics peculiar to that robot, which in turn governs how the robot’s internal states change, including its motivation, homeostasis, emotion, and its behavior resulting from those changes while it is interacting with its external environment.
The Korean team’s patent application also summarizes their method for passing on genetic information from a robot “parent” to its robot “offspring.” The genetic codes of one or more software robots are used as the genetic codes of a pair of parent software robots, and new genetic information is created by combining genetic information from paired homologous chromosomes – information provided by the genetic codes of the parent software robots. The combining is conducted according to a predetermined gene crossover rule.
The Korean invention allows the user to design a genetic code for a software robot easily and intuitively and to design genetic codes for various software robots by crossover. It also enables a user to easily modify or construct a genetic code for a software robot by providing both a changing function for intuition traits and a software robot crossover function. This exercise in genetic engineering is used to create software robot offspring with the desired personality features.
It cannot be a huge step to translate the genetic code format generated by the Korean algorithm, into the genetic code format employed in the Ohio TNT chip, thereby allowing researchers to specify personality traits and physical characteristics to be passed from a robot parent to a human-robot baby.
The very real possibility has appeared of the robots of the future manipulating human skin cells to create human sperm and human eggs. Suddenly the very real possibility has appeared on the horizon of the robots of the future manipulating human skin cells to create human sperm and human eggs, and from them, using the Ohio discovery of TNT as the basis, creating an entire human-robot baby whose embryo can be nurtured and carried through pregnancy by a mother surrogate. By injecting genetic code into skin cells à la TNT, the Ohio researchers have paved the way for the genetic code of a robot, containing some of the characteristics of the robot, to be passed on to its offspring along with human genetic code. This is how I believe it will be possible, within the foreseeable future, for humans and robots to make babies together.
Will this happen in my lifetime? Probably not, as I am 72. But given the phenomenal rate of discovery and progress in the fields of cell biology and nanotechnology, I think it is likely to happen before the end of this century.
There are all sorts of ethical questions relating to such a use of genetic engineering as part of the process to create babies.
These implications were put somewhat into perspective in a post on human genetic engineering by Renuka Sivapatham, a graduate student at the University of Southern Denmark. DNA editing techniques have been available for decades and are crucial tools for understanding gene functions and molecular pathways. Recently, genome editing has stepped back into the limelight because of newer technologies that can quickly and efficiently modify genomes by introducing or genetically correcting mutations in human cells and animal models.
Genome editing technologies have come a long way and have already advanced towards mammalian models and clinical trials in humans. These results force scientists to question the future and the implications of such powerful technology. Should we accept the genetic engineering of human embryos? If yes, when and in what capacity should we accept it?
There are all sorts of ethical questions relating to such a use of genetic engineering as part of the process to create babies. Prominent scientists in the field have already initiated conversations regarding the ethical implications that arise when modifying the human genome. Preventing genetic diseases by human genetic engineering is inevitable. The slippery slope is if, and when, we start to use it for cosmetic changes such as eye color or for improving a desired athletic trait. A perfect example is surgery, which we have performed for hundred years for disease purposes and is now widely used as a cosmetic tool. Opening the doors for the genetic engineering of human embryos could, with time, lead to genetic manipulation for desirable traits, raising the fear of creating a eugenic driven human population.
Who are we to manipulate nature? For those who suffer from genetic diseases, the answer is not so simple. If we can safely prevent severe genetic diseases and create healthy humans, why not manipulate nature?
At this time the long-term effects of genome editing remain unknown, raising additional questions. As the field progresses, with appropriate regulations and guidelines, it will eventually co-exist alongside other major controversial topics like nuclear power and genetically modified organisms. Since ethics are different across the world, creating international guidelines will be a challenge, but a necessity. Strict regulations are in place for nuclear power, the same should be possible for the genetic engineering of human embryos. To outlaw genetic engineering entirely will be potentially declining a place at the discussion table, as the further utilization of such technologies is unlikely to be abandoned.
Excerpted from “Can Robots and Humans Make Babies Together?”, keynote speech of the third International Congress on Love and Sex with Robots, delivered in London on Dec. 20.