Are We Just Biological Robots?

In the last month, there have been a couple articles about the bacteria in our bodies that caught our attention. The average human body contains about 6 pounds of bacteria. That much bacteria has over two million genes, completely dwarfing the 23,000 genes in the human genome.

‘‘We are, at least from the standpoint of DNA, more microbial than human.”

In the New York Times, the first article talked about how the bacteria in your body can affect your mood. Apparently, the bacteria in your body can release chemicals that cross into and affect the brain. Serotonin and dopamine, mood-altering chemicals released by your own body, have also been shown to be produced by the bacteria in your body. In one study, a population of depressive patients was found to be more likely to have a certain type of bacteria in their gut.

In a second article that came out this month, scientists at Virginia Tech have mathematically demonstrated that the same bacteria could be used to control an inanimate object, such as a robot. A robot could theoretically read bacterial gene expression using tiny fluorescent microscopes and respond in a predictable manner.

“Basically we were trying to find out from the mathematical model if we could build a living microbiome on a nonliving host and control the host through the microbiome”

The worlds of biology and silicon are moving ever closer together and we seem to be moving towards the future envisioned by noted futurist and inventor, Ray Kurzweil. In The Singularity Is Near he foresaw humans using nanotechnology, biology, and robotics to extend and enhance their physical selves. Ten years ago, he pointed out that technology is changing at an exponential rate and its impact cannot be predicted by looking at the past. He predicted that technologies like genetics, artificial intelligence, and robotics would feed on each other, and eventually change so fast that they would outstrip our ability to comprehend those changes. Those predictions so completely unnerved Sun Microsystems founder, Bill Joy, that Joy penned an article in Wired magazine (April 2000 issue) called “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us”.

We are already creating new products that measure and monitor our bodily functions. We are creating goggles that augment the reality that we see through them and are building robots with ever more powerful brains.

What does this mean for the world of design? Will our wearables eventually be controlled by the bacteria in our bodies? Will we eventually be able to make a phone call just by thinking of it?

Is this future a scary one or one of infinite opportunity? What are your thoughts? If we listen to your bacteria will we find out?