Biological Computers: Is Life a Computer?

In one framing of thought, our DNA is a computer. It has 4 nucleotide base pairs, which come together as a quadrinary program.

The entire system is vastly complex, but all life is programmed from those 4 primitives, similarly to how the 2 primitives of true/false create all math inside a computer.

Limits

There are constraints to the DNA analogy:

  • Our brains are chemical trigger machines, but programmed softly through the repetition of habit (as opposed to hard entry of non-negotiable information).
  • Computers are logic machines, and if we work hard enough at making AI algorithms we can make them imitate feelings. By contrast, we are feeling beings that create logic upon those framed intuitions once we’ve achieved some level of certainty.

It’s safe to say mindless activities track absolutely the same as a computer (e.g., working a mindless factory job, driving passively down a clear highway), and all of those tasks can largely be automated.

However, once a conscious mind engages and a soul makes decisions, there’s a clear divorce between a computer’s and a living being. The only way this could be completely overlapping is if we philosophically believe that human beings’ existence is nothing but information.

This entire idea is not fashionable among the tech industry, mostly because it expresses hard limits on how far we can go. We are fully capable to re-engineer components of life like limbs and organs, but something will always evade us that sits almost squarely in the domain of religion.

Possible

As an emerging technology, it’s possible to build computers with DNA, but it will take an enormous amount of effort managing proteins on a microscopic level. It is certainly possible to convert any cell into a stem cell by wiping it out, but that’s a very bleeding-edge development.

We’ll need at least a few decades before we can even explore that domain. Even then, there are too many unknowns (e.g., unintentionally bound proteins and consequences from mutations).

Destroying things is often easier than preserving or duplicating it, and sabotaging existing DNA is within the realm of present possibility. Infecting parasite DNA, for example, could cut down on diseases or infections.

However, beyond working with DNA, we are developing the means to interact with a computer directly with brain signals. It’s relatively rudimentary as of the early 2020s, but it’s only a matter of time before an electrode becomes a comparable interface device over a keyboard and mouse.

Hard Limits

As much as people like to imagine that we can create life, we still barely understand what a living being is. The genetic code only speaks to one portion of the experience, and plain intuition dictates that there’s another domain that sits beyond what we presently know.

Further, to transfer a life (e.g., upload consciousness into a computer) would simply create another life and delete the original, similarly to how “moving” a file across media is an illusion of copying and deleting the original.

Ethics

Of course, ethical considerations also abound with this new technology. If genes could be edited toward one domain or another, engineering a baby from birth would naturally form a bias toward favorable traits (e.g, being healthy), but it slowly becomes other optional traits that may also be favorable (e.g., height, intellect, personality).

Scaled across society, the consequences would be dramatic: social class distinctions based on genetics, differing rules based on genetic predisposition, and other hairy problems that presently only exist in the realm of science fiction.

And, of course, brain-computer interfaces don’t have to operate one-way. If someone can operate software with only their thoughts, it could be possible to send thoughts into a brain as well.