Crowd sourcing artificial life and its ethical issues

Government and the private sector had a famous competion to see who could map the human genome. Now we have social media helping both with runnaway oil in the Gulf area. People are providing observations and also solution ideas for the crisis.

For example, Gulfcoastspill.com has been setup to help.

The site was developed with the help of the Scotland-based web development company EdgeCase.

Through Gulfcoastspill, eyewitnesses can log sightings of the spill (oil on beaches, injured wildlife and volunteer activities etc.), recording their position and uploading photos, videos and comments. There’s also, inevitably a tie-in with Twitter and a mobile app for both Android and iPhone.

As widely reported after some 15 years of work and about a $40 million investment , Craig Venter’s team of scientists (at the J. Craig Venter Institute) reports success in “creating the first living organism with a completely synthetic genome.”

This is offered as proof that genomes designed in a computer and assembled in a lab can function in a donor cell, eventually reproducing fully functional living creatures, that is, artificial life.

There are obviously very important ethical issues that we need some wisdom on. FFor one thing this work has progressed without any real regulation and the science largely over the public’s head – e.g use of words like “clone” or “synthetic life”.

PROF JULIAN SAVULESCU, OXFORD UEHIRO CENTRE FOR PRACTICAL ETHICS, thinks the main is that this has profound and unparalleled potential benefits – developing new biofuels, being able to deal with pollution, new medical treatments – but it also has almost unimaginable potential risks.

Getting some balanced, transparent thinking on this is needed and maybe social media can help.

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Arvind Nigam

IMHO I do not think Gulf Oil Spill is great use case for Crowdsourcing. Simply because crowd is not trained, nor experienced enough to handle deep sea missions, or space missions. Even http://solveoilspill.bubbleideas.com/home was set up by my friend to crowdsource ideas and BP confirmed on liking the idea too, but seriously it does not work this way.

Anyway regarding developments in biotech and cyborganisms, there was a breakthrough development called Genetic Code 2.0 which talks about new life forms.


Srinidhi Boray

Echoing Arvind, when there is fire in a building it needs expert fire-men to solve. In all first responder situations general citizens are to make way for the those trained to work. However their help in restoring is much needed.

In Product Life Cycle Management, that is a collaborative framework that allows everyone to participate in the product development, the engineering process management is controlled by governance. All stray ideas are panned and then evaluated if they can incorporated logically into implementation.

Crowd sourcing potentially has lot of intuitive ideas, not necessarily rational. Given the complexity and array of information sources and context, Occam’s razor becomes necessary. In the development of parallel computers, where such things have been dealt, Occam’s Razor (“plurality should not be posited without necessity”) was much applied to ensure process allocation happens first to those things known to optimize the processing thread utilization. However, things are rapidly changing and incorporating crowd-sourcing way to allow for systemic benefit is much a challenge.


Gary Berg-Cross


We agree that “crowds” are not trained for technical things like oil spills and of course crowds are not always wise. But people can bring different perspectives from experience that can be useful.

Indeed the first principle to get good decisionsis that groups should be made up of people with knowledge relevant to a topic. Journalism and social media should get some simple awareness raised and training started.

But the second principle is that the group needs to hold diverse perspectives and bring DIFFERENT knowledge to bear on a topic. It seems that diversity improves decision making.

One thought is that this is because we all inevitably make errors, but not all the same type of errors . Wne we make similar errors we become interchangeable and there is little benefit gained from a crowd.

But when people make different errors, from different perspectives, there is a chance that different errors will often cancel out.
This is discussed in “You Know More than You Think: How to tap the wisdom of the crowd in your head”

Arvind Nigam

@Gary I agree in that “Yes! There are experts in the crowd everywhere.” So the gates must not be closed.

There is someone named Michel Migeon from South Africa who is a veteran in Oil Spill management. This guy has been trying to reach out to BP & DeepWaterHorizon guys with a cheap containment technology : Check this out: http://solveoilspill.bubbleideas.com/idea/cheap-self-floating-mesh-barriers

Apparently BP is a bit slow; and one only imagine how much oil must have been spilled by not processing such requests of help from corners of the world.

CEO – http://bubbleideas.com

Gary Berg-Cross


Thanks for the link to Michel Migeon’s work. It is hard to tell from the site how successful his self floating nets were but it would be interesting to see if one could use distributed expertise to filter though options and converge on a small set of good options that could then be quickly evaluated for final selection. I’m not sure that we have the expertise in this audience to do that, but perhaps there are people here who know who they are to get options a hearing.