Introduction to Growing Up with Lucy

The first time I created life I did it the easy way. At least it seemed pretty easy from my perspective, although for some reason my wife seems to recall it rather differently. This time, though, she can sit back and relax. She doesn’t have to put up with morning sickness or back pain, and she won’t be required to carry her stomach before her like a galleon in full sail. This time the birth pangs are all mine. This time I’m attempting to make a baby the hard way: one piece at a time.

We living beings are some of the most sublime and complex structures in the known universe, but, as far as I have been able to tell, we are still just mechanisms, no more and no less. If so, then in principle it must be possible to build an artificial being with all of the qualities of a natural one, up to and including self-awareness. This news will not surprise anyone who watches sci-fi movies, and if Hollywood is a reliable prophet we can expect the first android butlers to be delivered any day now. But have you ever really thought about what would need to be done, in order to create a complete living thing from scratch? I don’t mean a fancy piece of animatronics or a computer cunningly programmed to behave as if it were alive, but something with a real mind of its own that can think and learn and take personal charge of its destiny. Where would we begin? What exactly are the problems and how are they to be solved? Could it ever be done? Should it be allowed? Why would we want to bother?

I expect you have far better things to do with your life than get personally involved in such questions, but I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s a fascinating notion. In these interdisciplinary times, when biological concepts are infiltrating so many aspects of our technology and culture, it would be interesting to speculate about whether we could really bring together the huge variety of knowledge, skills and ideas that would be needed to make a complete living being. It’s not a bad topic for a book, now that I come to think about it.

Of course, idle speculation is one thing but actually to attempt to do it for real would be quite another. After all, we hardly have the faintest idea how the brain works, what the mind does, or what consciousness even is; let alone how to replicate any of this. Biological organisms are stupendously complex things, with thousands of millions of working parts, and almost every aspect of the living form is still shot through with mysteries. It must surely be impossible?

Yet how are we going to know if we don’t try? And how are we going to prove to ourselves that we understand how natural systems work unless we are able to replicate them? There are hundreds of books on the human brain, extolling the virtues of this or that theory of how it operates, but most of these explanations remain largely conjectural, and those details that can be tested are only ever examined in potentially misleading isolation, as if someone was trying to design a plug without paying much attention to the socket into which it was meant to fit. Many of the particulars are quite well established, to be sure, but to my knowledge there is no over-arching theory of the brain – no description even of its basic principles of operation – that can yet be proven to work. And to be frank, this is not terribly surprising. Sometimes it is simply not possible to understand something by taking it apart and examining the pieces, and the human mind is perhaps the epitome of such an irreducible system. If you take an animal apart to see how it works, the first thing you end up with is a heap of bloody entrails that don’t work at all any more. Sometimes the only way to understand something is to start with a blank sheet and attempt to build it from scratch, beginning with a pile of bits that ‘don’t work’ and trying to find out how to put them together so that they do. Only then will you know what questions you should really be asking and what problems the system is actually solving. At worst you will come away feeling suitably chastened, with a healthy and informed sense of awe at the beauty and elegance of nature.

So this is precisely what I set out to do. Two years before I started writing this book I laid the foundation stone for an absurdly optimistic project – to build myself a complete artificial creature, whom I christened Lucy, in honour of the famous fossil of one of our hominid ancestors. Lucy is an android robot. Well, to be strictly accurate she’s an anthropoid robot, since I modelled her appearance loosely on that of an orang-utan rather than on a human being. In fact, in her first manifestation, Lucy is only half an anthropoid, because she has no movement or sensation below the waist, but she is complete enough to be going on with, and I hope she will pass through a succession of different physical forms over the coming years as my understanding increases, growing up in much the same way that a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly.

Today’s technology is still much too primitive to solve all of the problems straightaway, and we currently understand so little about the brain that neuroscience is barely more advanced in theoretical terms than physiology was during the seventeenth century, shortly after the invention of the microscope. Nevertheless, we have to start somewhere, and I think there are good intellectual reasons for trying to tackle the whole of the problem at one go, instead of in isolated pieces and tiny increments. The Lucy project is really a kind of one-man, miniature moonshot – a broad and audacious endeavour with big prizes to be won, but also high personal stakes and a significant chance of complete failure. Yet moonshots are sometimes the only way: you cannot reach the Moon by learning to jump incrementally higher and higher, no matter how impressively rapid your initial progress might be; sometimes you need to take a bold step, stop jumping, and set to work on building a moon rocket.

As you will soon discover, I’m not an expert neuroscientist, nor a psychologist, nor a philosopher of mind. I’m just a man-in-the-street: a self-taught tinkerer with a natural desire to understand myself and the world I live in. I’m probably no more qualified to play god than you are, but circumstances seem to have conspired to give me at least a smattering of the skills and experience I need, plus the motivation to try it and an opportunity to have a go. I am also freed from some of the constraints facing professional scientists, who have reputations to maintain, specialisms to stick to and armies of students to keep occupied. Trying to build a practical artificial life form single-handedly is either brave or foolhardy, depending on your perspective. Trying to do it at such an early stage in our understanding undoubtedly raises more questions than it answers, but I think it is worth doing, if only for this reason.

But boy, does it touch a few nerves! In the two years since I started this project I’ve been accused of being an unscientific charlatan who is only doing this as a get-rich-quick publicity stunt, a heartless reductionist who wants to demean and demote the human spirit, a misogynist who wants to usurp women’s role as the nurturer of new life, a hopelessly naïve fool who doesn’t know enough science to realise how hard it is and an irresponsible megalomaniac who is trying to bring about the imminent downfall of society. And there was I, foolishly thinking that this was just an innocent personal enquiry into the Nature of Things, motivated by a natural human curiosity and a genuine desire to be helpful. It just goes to show how wrong one can be about one’s own motives!

On the other hand, and much to my relief, the majority of people I’ve spoken to seem to be as fascinated by this project as I am, and I hope you will enjoy reading about my experiences so far. This book is an early progress report – my first letter home from the trenches. The right moment for writing technical research papers will come later, but in the mean time I want to share with you some of the notes and queries that I’ve been scribbling in the margins of the blueprints as my thoughts have been developing.

I specifically want to address three questions:

First, what can we learn from biology, and what can biological science learn from this? What inspiration can we draw from nature when attempting to design intelligent systems of our own, and conversely, to what extent are we presently being misled by our intuitive and often unquestioned assumptions about how our bodies, brains and minds work?

Second, what can we actually achieve today? Rather than answer this in a hypothetical way, I plan to draw candidly on my experiences with Lucy. At the time of writing Lucy is still far from finished, but already, scruffy though she may be, she is among the most advanced research robots in existence, and her successes and failures stand as indicators of the present state of the art.

Finally, what might we be able to achieve in the future, and what could this mean for us and for our creations? The limitations of today’s technology offer hints about the strange materials and machines that we can expect to see tomorrow. And if tomorrow does bring us artificial living beings with real minds of their own, what impact will this have on society, and how will it affect our moral and ethical stance?

I hope you will interpret the stream of consciousness in this book as being a moderate and balanced (while not merely ambivalent or placatory) view of intelligent life, both natural and artificial: Creating androids is not as easy as some people seem to think, despite the tongue-in-cheek subtitle of this book, but neither is it an impossible pipedream. Human beings are machines, whether we like it or not, but this doesn’t in any way belittle us or rob us of our humanity; it simply means that we need to revise our understanding of machines. Since long before the tale of Frankenstein’s monster, the concept of artificial life has both captivated and repelled us, but parables and horror stories are not good guides to literal fact. Dogma, irrational belief and closed-mindedness may well be easier, more comfortable states to adopt (for scientists as much as the general public), but knowing the truth about life is far deeper, richer and more productive. Despite all the hype, artificial intelligence will not lead us to Utopia but neither will it realise our most dystopian nightmares. Like most truths, the reality lies somewhere between these extremes.

From the safety of my perspective, as someone who doesn’t actually have to go through childbirth, creating life the natural way seems an almost effortless process: a single cell divides and differentiates, over and over, until somehow it gives rise to a structure whose complexity and beauty utterly boggle the mind. Bearing this precious cargo from the security of the womb into a world large enough to realise its potential is something I’m pretty glad I don’t have to experience, but trying to do the same thing by hand, with rivets and solder, isn’t exactly relaxing either. I have never had to think so hard in all my life; I could burst a blood vessel any minute, and my labour pains have barely even started yet! There’s more to being the parent of an artificial life form than you might think. I shall leave natural childbirth to mothers; let me tell you instead about some of the surprising variety of things one has to consider when attempting to create a baby the hard way.

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