Imagine a spaceship touches down on earth and from it emerges the most advanced technology known by anyone. Tens if not hundreds of millennia advanced compared to our own mastery. A packed cadre of atomic machinery, fitting as much complexity as the the laws of physics will support into as tiny a space as possible. Imagine this technology exists, and we can study it. Imagine it’s biology.
Biology is the most advanced technology around.
Imagine building a robot that does what a dragonfly does. Insecta are the miniature robotic drones of Animalia, and the dragonfly is the helicopter of the insects. It can hover and pitch, yaw and translate. It can track and catch tiny zippy insects using two large composite image sensors. We don’t have the materials to make its wings, or batteries or motors light enough or capable enough to get within an order of magnitude of body mass. Let alone the fact that dragonflies get their energy from the insects they eat. Let alone that pairs of dragonflies can self replicate. We can’t make anything that fly and also self replicate.
Does human technology get anywhere near this? Can we make any biology? We can make a lot of stuff that isn’t an imitation of biology. Bridges, glass skyscrapers, computer chips. Plants in particular are chemical factories, and industrial chemistry can keep up with a whole menagerie of small molecules. The store carries the human-manufactured synthetic almond extract alongside the plant manufactured natural stuff. We can perform minutiae of alchemy, bombarding a nucleus to transform one atom into another, a feat accomplished at scale by nature in the hearts of stars.
Eventually the path of technological progress curves towards biology. Designers talk about biomimicry. Engineers wielding supercomputers and 3d-printers are beginning to explore topological optimization, a way of letting physics sculpt a part to be lighter and stronger that results in in it looking simultaneously more organic and more alien. Like the bones of a flying creature from a different solar system.
Computer chips can be thought of as large crystalline molecules, attempting a silicon-based biology which parallels the carbon based one. Computer chips are the largest projects humanity attempts, the machines and materials and knowledge we use to make these chips beg for scarce chemicals and advanced manufacturing projects, supply chains which link and branch and thread many times around and deep into the planet. All this has such gravity that competitive international politics bends into a game of delicate courtship towards sustaining chip manufacturing.
Computer chips and cutting edge microelectromechanical machines exist at the same scales as biology. Individual atoms in a chip make use of every bit of their own physics to carry the message. But of course even these most magic of human-made devices remain confined to a flat plane, using materials whose dynamics we understand and whose atoms like to stay in one place, thank you very much. Metals lie flat. Chips are sheets of cut-out paper of different properties, laminated together at the atomic level. Pesky carbon and its friends take on shapes in three dimensions, and they all love to jiggle about in ways that leave our x-ray photolithography machines sorely outmatched.
We build computers, and computers help us build biomimetic systems. The synthesis is advanced carbosilicate biocomputers, a computational silicon layer atop and infused into the biological strata. These are fancy words for our existing modern society, with global communications networks connecting organic meat-sacks. We’re at the beginning. Change is always uncomfortable and must be navigated gently and wisely.
Biology is our distant past and our distant future.
To me, dear Reader, this is a useful frame to consider biology. I know more about technology than biology, humanity as a whole knows more about technology than biology. Connecting them together on a long arc puts them in scale, reminds me that a lot of it can be understood, and reminds me how little we know now. It reminds me that what we call biology is an extension of the universe, and what we call artificial is an extension of biology, wrapping around to help the universe come to understand ourself.