Thursday, September 11, 2008

Cross Learning: Biology and Information Technology

Who among us haven’t realized the existence and increasingly growing virtual world? These people must be living under a rock.

We have virtual communities where people are representing themselves as 3D images mimicking real people and their location even are virtual worlds that have supermarkets and roads and houses, etc.

Indeed, virtual worlds and universes are created, thanks to computers. Going down to microcosms, we have viruses and Trojans.

In the real world, top scientists have completed the mapping of the human DNA through the genome project. This has heightened the interest of many people to create artificial lives.

And there is David Harel from the Weizmann Institute in Israel who proposes to recreate living organism inside a computer. He wants to recreate a worm called Caenorhabditis elegans believing that this is the best example to work on being the best understood animal in the field of biology. His objective for the project is to be able to reveal how some stem cells, particularly the pluripotent, decide which specialty to take on and eventually make us understand some of the complex developments happening in nature.

And then again there is Stephen Emmott from the Microsoft Research who is thinking the other way around. Opposite to David Harel's computer trying to mimic a living organism, Emmott wants to make computers out of biological components.

Stephen Emmot and another thinker Stephen Muggleton of Imperial College, London are developing what they call an artificial scientist. This creation has been borne out of their thinking that people and other biological beings are forgetful and not very good crunching numbers compared to electronics but people and other creatures are better at reasoning. The artificial scientist would be able to do inductive logic and probabilistic reasoning. As such, these computers would really act like real scientists - they can design experiments, gather results and make theories and hypothesis. Much as I had imagined, I honestly have not come up with a picture of what an artificial scientists physically looks like. But the idea though is very enticing.

Many other researchers have taken the inner workings of biology into IT developments. Luca Cardelli who is also from Microsoft Research compares biological cells and computers and tries to discover how molecular biology wetware works in analogy to hardware or software.

Other scientists, both from Biology and Information Technology think of the spread of diseases like AIDS and malaria in terms of information systems. These are complex insights involving artificial intelligence but I think developments like these should be something people from all walks of life should support.

As information technology professionals are trying to learn more and more from how nature works through biology, we – humans, plants and animals – are supposed to be beneficiaries of these efforts. Let us just hope that all scientific projects will be geared towards increasing opportunities for work instead of increasing war weapons; finding better medical solutions instead of developing biological warfares; and healing this ailing planet instead of extracting more resources indiscriminately.

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