Friday, July 17, 2015

Asymptotic Genetics

Asymptotic technology will be divided up by those aliens in the know into multiple pieces. The sections that exist after the approach to asymptotic technology is reached may be quite different from how we divide up science and engineering. New fields will be invented, old fields will be expanded, some fields may be merged, others may be sliced into multiple pieces, and so on. So it is somewhat risky to assume there will be something like asymptotic genetics. But since all areas of knowledge will be covered, some specialties will deal with genetic coding. It may be that genetic coding will become like language for other future fields, and there might be no community doing only genetic coding research. Everyone will know about genetic coding, just like everyone now knows about their language. Inside the fields that use it, there may be some specialists who spend some time covering it, just as there are linguists of the English language. But the majority of the scientists and engineers may just use it in their daily work, without much thinking about it, just like how very few people think today about the linguistics of the English they use.

While we think it is so modern and high-end and impressive that we know a tiny bit about the genetic code, the aliens in this advanced state might regard it as of no importance at all, just some basics from centuries ago, in the caveman era of science. Nowadays nobody much thinks about Newton anecdotally watching an apple fall and coming up with the theory of universal gravitation. In the alien world that is near asymptotic technology’s limits, nobody may think about figuring out how to translate genetics into cellular structure, how to map a genetic code into the organism it will become, how to check a new genetic code for consistency or other errors before committing it to life, or anything else we regard as impossible today. They may have the best genetic code for a ribosome written down somewhere, along with fifty variations, just as we have the chemical properties of zinc written down. Nobody on Earth thinks it is a big deal to know the ionization potential of zinc to any level of ionization. Probably nobody in the alien world will think ribosomes are a big deal either.

When a scientific field is thoroughly worked out, and the theories exist along with any data needed to use them, it becomes just a tool that is used to accomplish things society wants. If an alien world were far from finishing up science, one chunk of scientific knowledge might be used to develop the next chunk, but after this is all wrapped up, what’s left is using it in society, and making society more efficient in what it will choose to do. So the proper question to ask when we discuss asymptotic genetics is not which genetic code will be developed first or second or last, as they all will be, and it is not to figure out how the aliens will determine protein folding as they will do it routinely, using some computer with adequate power and visualization tools, munching the theories that exist on what makes proteins of different types fold to different angles under the presence of what influences. The question to ask is what will they do with it.

Because genetics will not be a novelty with the alien society, there is no premium attached to doing anything with it. Perhaps there was in their past, before they knew everything about genetics, biology, and the hundred of subfields and neighboring fields of each. It would have been cool to build a new organism that absorbs sunlight and CO2 and N2 plus a bit of other things, and outputs rocket fuel of a particular type. Oohing and aahing in the rocket fuel genetics community. But after the knowledge is gained, and the variations explored, and the conditions optimized, if it is cheaper to make this fuel using a chemical process, then the organisms get shelved. There would be no point to using them, as society has as its guiding principle, after novelty wears out, “Be efficient.”

What could be done is one thing that limits the use of genetic organisms. Some things might be impossible, for reasons of self-consistency, violations of some basic biological principles or some other abstruse reason. Most likely, almost everything could be done biologically that society needs to have done. If there is a function that society does, an organism could be created to do it. If the alien society has lawns and sidewalks, a sidewalk-trimming goat-like organism might be created. It might have night vision, so it would trim at night, be potty-trained, not make noise at all, and could find its way home after a night’s munching. Would the alien society replace landscapers with these organisms? This depends on how many of the members want to do landscaping at any given time, or on how much sidewalk-trimming robots cost society to build and maintain, including automated repair facilities of course.

It is hard to imagine that there would not be many uses for organisms that could be tailored to have desired properties. So the various types of needs of society, for cleaning and hygiene, nutrition, waste handling, transportation, assistance to humans, and plenty of others would be scoured for niches in which organisms would be more efficient that robots or other forms of automation. Members of society would have become very accustomed to seeing the organisms, or seeing signatures of their use inside closed areas.

Organisms might be a poor term to use for the biological creations of asymptotic genetics. There may well be combinations of automation and biology that work well. An organism is something that can live on its own. We don’t have a word for the biological part of a symbiote that combines it with something mechanical. The dividing line is somewhat fuzzy.

If the aliens create an organism which only lives on synthetic food that some machine makes for it, is it truly an organism? If it has an organ which serves as a fuel tank, and does not digest anything at all, is it an organism? The varieties that combine biology and either on-board or off-board automated equipment seem huge, and since the aliens have the ability to compute just about what they want, they could figure out what might be the most efficient way to perform society’s tasks, including checking to see if symbiotes are the best.

Where will the pursuit of efficiency take them? Would they think that giving some creeatures like monkeys more intelligence be a useful thing, or something like dogs, or other animals, including both ones which have grown up and evolved on their planet and also those they synthesized. If not intelligence, how about speech? We don’t have any name for such creatures, any more than we have names for the symbiotes which may be possible for them to create.

Let’s call them intellos, for the purpose of discussing them in this blog. Intellos may be of limited intelligence, in organisms that have a simple purpose. Their intelligence may be restricted to very detailed processing of sensory inputs, so that some task could be accomplished. Would the goat-like sidewalk trimmer have a large occipital lobe, so it could see the grass line very accurately, and snip off each offending stalk or leaf of grass? Would it also have a good sense of direction, improved over what goat-like native creatures have, to allow it to navigate city streets that look almost identical? Would the alien society find that intellos, perhaps just a brain in a box, make better controllers of complex networks than multi-core processors or whatever computer system they have produced? Do they find that speech interfaces with intellos are better than other types of communication? Their world is difficult to imagine, even to outline some of the possibilities that they would have to sort out.

Perhaps the most interesting question is, what would they do to themselves? With all that genetic know-how, and the ability to understand how to create organisms and more, would they leave their own genetic code alone? Would they make fixes in it, to prevent problems during the lifespan of the citizens of the civilization? Would they do selection on it, to provide successive generations with improved capabilities across the board? Would they introduce synthesized genes that did not appear in the evolution of their species, or of any species on their planet for that matter? As a finale in our questioning, will they create a new species to replace themselves? Evolution drove their species to be a certain way, but do they think they have had enough of it, and they want life on their home world to be some other species, better in some ways than they are?

These questions and especially the finale lead back to their memes. You can figure out what types of organism you want to use to trim your sidewalks, because trimming the sidewalks is a subgoal of some other goal, which is a subgoal of some other goal, and so on, back to the fundamental goals of their society. These are in their memes, which were likely set up and frozen before they got very close to asymptotic technology. Even though the concept of memes was created as an analog in society to genes in biology, memes come back to dominate genes in a sufficiently advanced alien civilization. If the meme says spread our species to the heavens, then tinkering with their genetic code is their limit. If the meme says spread life to the heavens, then it may not be their species they sent to Earth with their business card, but some species they tailored to be most impressive or perhaps most acceptable to us. If genetics is fast, they could create the organism while in orbit, investigating us up close. On the other hand, instead of using drones or some other mechanical devices to investigate our planet, perhaps they would want to create something else biological, even something else just like us, but with a few subtle differences.

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