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Science Technology

DARPA Aims for Synthetic Life With a Kill Switch 295

jkinney3 writes to mention that DARPA's mad scientists have undertaken a new program designed to create synthetic organisms, complete with a "kill switch." The project, dubbed BioDesign, is dumping $6 million into "removing the randomness of evolutionary advancement" by creating genetically engineered masterpieces. "Of course, Darpa's got to prevent the super-species from being swayed to do enemy work — so they'll encode loyalty right into DNA, by developing genetically programmed locks to create 'tamper proof' cells. Plus, the synthetic organism will be traceable, using some kind of DNA manipulation, 'similar to a serial number on a handgun.' And if that doesn't work, don't worry. In case Darpa's plan somehow goes horribly awry, they're also tossing in a last-resort, genetically-coded kill switch."
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DARPA Aims for Synthetic Life With a Kill Switch

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  • Luckily... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Friday February 05, 2010 @04:28PM (#31038878) Journal
    History has no evidence of any organism managing to evolve away from a lethal or maladaptive feature. The killswitch should persist in the population indefinitely.
  • by slimshady945 ( 1553213 ) <> on Friday February 05, 2010 @04:31PM (#31038910)
    Let's hope the kill switch is not a lysine dependency.
  • Excuse me? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 05, 2010 @04:33PM (#31038934)

    jkinney3 writes to mention that DARPA's mad scientists have undertaken a new program designed to create synthetic organisms

    Ok, this stupid meme that everyone who works with applied biology is some sort a crazed wild eyed 'mad scientist' arrogantly playing God really needs to die. If you can't say something without that sort of emotional language, don't say anything at all.

  • by amliebsch ( 724858 ) on Friday February 05, 2010 @04:33PM (#31038938) Journal

    Putting aside the sarcasm, any self-replicating technology, or technology that could be self-replicating, needs to have multiple safeguards in place to prevent over-replication. Unless you are willing to declare any such research absolutely off limits and enforce it somehow, then I think they should be credited with doing the right thing here.

  • by P-38Jbird ( 1087601 ) on Friday February 05, 2010 @04:35PM (#31038968)
    That what popped into my mind. "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die."
  • Laws of robotics? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by BeerCat ( 685972 ) on Friday February 05, 2010 @04:36PM (#31038986) Homepage

    It seems as though the "kill switch" option is an attempt to hard-wire an equivalent to Asimov's laws of robotics (obey all orders / don't harm humans / protect self).
    However, Asimov's "I, Robot" stories were written to highlight how even something hard wired could have its pitfalls - and that was someone who wrote the stories and also the 'rules' behind the stories.

    Be interesting to see how this one pans out.

  • Too late... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Scribbler'sEmporium ( 1310863 ) on Friday February 05, 2010 @04:36PM (#31038996)
    They should talk to Craig Venter. He'll beat DARPA by 5+ years.
  • by jollyreaper ( 513215 ) on Friday February 05, 2010 @04:42PM (#31039050)

    How could it possibly go right?

  • by OldEarthResident ( 1724062 ) on Friday February 05, 2010 @04:42PM (#31039054)

    When I start seeing developments like this, I wonder if we as a species are developing faster technologically than we are maturing as a civilisation.

    Are we wise enough to use such a technology, if it were developed to it's full potential ?

  • Re:Luckily... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 05, 2010 @04:46PM (#31039112)

    Modern cows are the result of HUMANS selecting for traits, not nature. Although even if that were not true, I'd argue that becoming tasty has been hugely beneficially for them. Why else would there be over a billion of them on the planet?

  • Re:Hmmmmm (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Vinegar Joe ( 998110 ) on Friday February 05, 2010 @04:47PM (#31039132)

    I believe the movie you're looking for starred Harrison Ford and Rutger Hauer.

    Just because it's been done before doesn't mean it can't be remade with more special effects, a higher budget and worse actors.

  • by Locke2005 ( 849178 ) on Friday February 05, 2010 @04:52PM (#31039194)
    You wonder if our technology is developing faster than our enlightenment? We already have enough weapons to kill everybody on the planet 100 times over, and our top priority is watching "Jersey Shore"... does that answer your question?
  • by Timmy D Programmer ( 704067 ) on Friday February 05, 2010 @04:52PM (#31039200) Journal
    Sure sounds like it to me.
  • Junk DNA (Score:3, Insightful)

    by The Raven ( 30575 ) on Friday February 05, 2010 @04:58PM (#31039284) Homepage

    The killswitch needs to be incorporated into critical sections of the organisms DNA to give it even a chance of working. The deadly gene needs to have a beneficial purpose, or (even without selective pressure) the section that codes for the killswitch will randomly mutate with no adverse effect on the organism.

    To put it another way, a car alarm built into your rear bumper is not nearly as useful as one built into the ignition.

  • by Wyatt Earp ( 1029 ) on Friday February 05, 2010 @05:04PM (#31039352)

    You realize that without DARPA you'd not be whining about defense spending on the Internet, right?

  • Re:Luckily... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by rxan ( 1424721 ) on Friday February 05, 2010 @05:14PM (#31039484)

    "You're implying that a group composed entirely of female animals will... breed?"
    "No, I'm simply saying that life, uh... finds a way."

    "If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it's that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, expands to new territory, and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously."

    Great movie as well.

  • Re: Luckily... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 05, 2010 @05:21PM (#31039576)

    All it would take is a mutation in the 'kill switch' vital regions of the DNA to disable it. If it's not being actively used, disabling it will confer no advantage or disadvantage.

    In other words: having a kill switch or not having one - either way - won't affect the organism on a daily basis. Mutations to that gene group won't be phenotypically visible until you try to activate it. Activating it applies an extreme selective pressure toward those who don't have it. Turn it on, and the mutated progeny remain.

  • by OldEarthResident ( 1724062 ) on Friday February 05, 2010 @05:26PM (#31039628)

    Yes, for as long as we have a documented history.

    However, over the last few decades, we have developed the ability to destroy all life on this planet. 100 years ago we couldn't do that.

    And while we have matured in some ways (we have not destroyed ourselves yet in a nuclear war) I don't think we have developed far enough to wisely use some of the military technology, like this one, which we are now developing.

    The effects of a nuclear war are immediate for everyone. OTOH, this technology has the potential to be silently developed until one day we find out, the hard way, that we have gone too far.

  • by Red Flayer ( 890720 ) on Friday February 05, 2010 @05:32PM (#31039724) Journal

    Before the government got involved, health care in the US was affordable to even the poor.

    [citation needed]

    There's a reason Medicare and Medicaid exist, and it's precisely because the poor *could NOT* afford health care.

    The idiots who look at the past through rose-colored glasses really piss me off -- there were no "good old days". The government programs we have today were largely the result of a problem needing to be addressed. What, you think that the magical budget fairy appeared and said, "Hey everybody! Let's give money for health care to people who can already afford it!"

    There is something supremely retarded about you kids. You see government fail miserably at almost everything it does, yet you somehow believe the solution is more government control.

    And there is something fundamentally retarded about someone who believes that an unregulated system would result in a better outcome. Newsflash, retard -- when entities are allowed to act completely in their own self-interest, they do so, to the detriment of others. The insurance industry is a private tax on health care (a portion of everything lines someone's pockets). Why shouldn't the beneficiary be the general public (via a federal system) instead of a small group of extremely wealthy people?

  • Re:Luckily... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Chris Burke ( 6130 ) on Friday February 05, 2010 @05:39PM (#31039814) Homepage

    Well you know even discounting the Jurrasic Park effect.

    The kill switch is there in case all their other genetically-programmed methods of making sure nothing can go wrong, go wrong. Anything sound fishy about that?

    I mean this isn't like having redundant hard drives so the chance of both failing is a lot lower than the chance of just one failing.

    If they fuck up the genetically programmed loyalty, then I personally am not going to feel confident that they didn't fuck up the genetically programmed kill switch too!

  • by JerryLove ( 1158461 ) on Friday February 05, 2010 @05:41PM (#31039832)

    Before the government got involved, health care in the US was affordable to even the poor.

    Leeching out bad humors was less expensive than an MRI is.

    Of course your statement is untrue. It was a lack of available healthcare that caused medicare and medicade to be enacted to fill the gap.

    There is something supremely retarded about you kids. You see government fail miserably at almost everything it does, yet you somehow believe the solution is more government control.

    Perhaps because we see that non-government-controlled healthcare in the US is unaffordable, and we notice that it is private healthcare charging the government those high prices. We likely also notice that things like that law that makes it illegal for medicare to bargain for cheaper drugs was written by private healthcare companies.

    More likely though, we just notice that everyone else has cheaper (often by half), more effective, universal healthcare than we do.

    Please feel encouraged to mod me off-topic, right after you do the same to the parent. This isn't an article on healthcare or right-wing ranting about a time that never existed.

  • Re:Luckily... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by dunng808 ( 448849 ) <garydunnhi@gmail . c om> on Friday February 05, 2010 @05:49PM (#31039932) Journal

    Modern cows are the result of HUMANS selecting for traits, not nature.

    This is a common misconception. Humans do not operate outside of nature. The law of natural selection includes the efforts of whalers hunting whales and conservationists trying to protect whales. The pigs that are reportedly wrecking havoc in parts of the southeast are not alien, simply new arrivals. The humans who make TV shows proclaiming the end of life as we know it due to the pig infestation are one little piece of the same natural process. And yes, cows have done well because they are good to eat AND easy to farm. Whales, like tuna, are not so lucky.

  • Hey, old man (Score:5, Insightful)

    by copponex ( 13876 ) on Friday February 05, 2010 @05:54PM (#31040012) Homepage

    Listen. Your anecdotal claims backed up by zero statistics are surely fascinating. And I'm so excited that here in the "science" section of slashdot, hearsay is apparently super awesome.

    If you want to go back to 50s medicine, you're welcome to it. People who have heart problems can die twenty years earlier. Severe forms of diabetes can go back to being lethal. Patients with mental illnesses can be lobotomized and put in a walled garden somewhere. Let's just throw out the massive advances in medical technology just so you can make some cheap, baseless, and most importantly, false political points.

    Medical care is now highly specialized, with many, many fields, staffed by many different doctors, and I can guarantee you that that leading oncologists, heart surgeons, and neurosurgeons will not visit your house for an extra fifty cents. Sorry, but your childhood fantasy is just a childhood fantasy.

    Out in the rest of civilization, the best way to cope with the increase of medical technology is to socialize it to reduce overhead. This is because it is very difficult to incentivize keeping someone healthy in a pure market. Without regulations, companies have no reason not to charge you outrageously for everything, since the cost you're willing to pay to live his virtually no limit.

  • by Dan Ost ( 415913 ) on Friday February 05, 2010 @06:04PM (#31040156)

    SARS is claimed as being a case where things in the lab screwed up and someone become infected.
    Swine Flu was also apparently mishandled, the virus being recreated from a previous similar outbreak decades ago.

    You got any evidence for either of those?

  • by Shadow of Eternity ( 795165 ) on Friday February 05, 2010 @06:35PM (#31040524)

    Means they're below me on the food chain.

  • Re:Luckily... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by paeanblack ( 191171 ) on Friday February 05, 2010 @06:40PM (#31040576)

    Cows haven't managed to evolve into anything other than steak.

    There are approximately 1.5 billion cows in the world, which is orders of magnitude more than anything else in their weight class. In terms of biomass, they are one of the most successful land animals ever to exist on earth. Cow DNA will be replicating for a very long time.

    The primary reason for the success of cows is the fact that the recipe for steak is encoded in their DNA. They also spend most of their usable energy towards making more steak.

    Evolutionary success does not mean being on top of the food chain. High-level predators are usually, as a species, much more vulnerable to extinction.

  • Re:Luckily... (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 05, 2010 @07:05PM (#31040836)

    Contrary to your redefining of the term, breed actually means creating offspring. Homosexual behavior amongst sexually reproducing species is not breeding, it's fucking. No amount of politically correct gender-based tolerance will change that.

  • Re:Hey, old man (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Sheepmage ( 1310569 ) on Friday February 05, 2010 @07:25PM (#31041024)

    Without regulations, companies have no reason not to charge you outrageously for everything, since the cost you're willing to pay to live his virtually no limit.

    This line of reasoning is problematic for two reasons. First, there's capitalism. In an unregulated economy, if doctor A believed that the procedure to save my life would take 2 two hours of his time and that my life was worth all the money I had in the bank to me, then he could try to charge me that amount. Of course, without any money to pay for food or my house or future procedures, the life I'd be living after the procedure might not be worth all that much to me, in which case I could just say "no" to the doctor. On the other hand, doctor B might realize that he could also perform the procedure, and actually leave me with enough money to live a decent life after the surgery. That doctor might also benefit from future services that he could provide me and my family, given that he didn't just bankrupt us on one procedure. In an unregulated economy, that doctor can choose to provide his service at a cost lower than doctor A, and that will likely be a better proposition for him and me (it'll also have the side effect of forcing doctor A to lower his prices in order to stay in business). With 100 doctors in the mix, prices would normally be driven down even further. Note that this is opposite the trend we're seeing in our current system (and the hypothesis for why that is the case is basically that our health care system is not unregulated, but rather, very regulated.) Note that the competition not only drives down the cost of services provided, but will also drive down the cost of the medical technology available to all of us as well.

    The second reason is that there are usually multiple treatments to a given condition, all resulting in a different quality of life afterward and all requiring differing amounts of time and resources on the part of the doctor. For example, if one procedure will cure me with a 10% chance of death, vs another with a 20%, and the cost of the first procedure is 1000 times more than the cost of the second, who should make the decision regarding which procedure I should get? Should the doctor automatically pick the one that's in his best interest? That seems like a bad idea. Should the government be picking the option that's in its best interest? If you believe that the government should pick the option in the patient's best interest, how can the government, which is footing the bill, fairly decide what's in its patient's best interest when it's resources are finite and split between 100,000,000 different people? I propose that the fairest solution is to let the decision be based on the patient's values, priorities, and resources.

  • by copponex ( 13876 ) on Saturday February 06, 2010 @02:12AM (#31043686) Homepage

    I don’t think monopolies are nearly as much of a problem in a free market as opposed to one that’s been heavily regulated.

    Look around the world to see the results. Strong regulatory states dominate GDP per capita. [] This is because a powerful regulatory body steadies the market as it inevitably moves through it's cycles.

    these arguments come down to a moral one: is it okay to forcibly take from one person in order to provide a basic level of care for another? I don’t think that’s morally sound, in fact, I think it’s horribly unjust

    Ah. So, building roads is okay. Rail, airports, municipal buildings, all fine. Fighter jets, tanks, helicopter gunships, and we're still on the moral high ground. And the second an orphaned child receives state funded care, you think it's "horribly unjust." You're really just full of shit, aren't you?

    You will always be forced to make unconscionable choices: who deserves to bear the burden of supporting the others? Why shouldn’t we take equal amounts from everyone, why should some bear a higher burden than others from a moral perspective? What do you define as the bare minimum that everyone deserves?

    So, the more unconscionable choice is to decide to let your countrymen suffer because you won't come off an extra 10% on your taxes? Do you have any idea what happens to a society when wealth inequality leads to starvation, or what an economy looks like when a vast majority of the country is illiterate, uneducated, and wallowing in poverty?

    If a poor person needs an $1,000,000 surgery in order to survive, should he get it or not? If that person needs $10,000,000, should he get it? Or should we just let him die? At what point is it okay to let a person die? I would never want to be the one making these decisions because I don’t believe there are right answers here. They are all wrong.

    If poor people aren't worth keeping alive, why not sponsor hunts like the good old days in the Wild West? We could offer $1,000 for the head of any minority (since they're most likely to be poor), or offer them $1,000 in exchange for getting sterilized so they won't breed. I'm sure none of the major businesses would suffer if the lowest wage they could pay an employee was $15 an hour, since all of the people who earned a minimum wage are now dead. I'm sure prices wouldn't go up a bit. And I'm sure you would never get caught up in that cycle, where the bottom 20% of the population is wiped out, jobs are cut, more people sink to the "poor" level, and another round of head bounties begins.

    I'll get serious just for another moment. Here is a list [] of the most expensive uninsured hospital expenditures. The top one translates to about $52,000 per procedure, which is an AMI/heart attack, for a total of 2.08 billion. The next is a pregnancy and delivery, at $9,300 per person, for a total of 2.04 billion. And the costs go down from there. As far as I can tell, the total cost of uninsured care which doesn't get paid is $40 billion per year. So, less than three months of war spending, or half of what we spend a year on cigarettes.

    That's a fine moral argument you're making. If you're a complete lunatic.

The party adjourned to a hot tub, yes. Fully clothed, I might add. -- IBM employee, testifying in California State Supreme Court