Parallel Minds, 131–139


The Promises of Monsters


Advances in synthetic biology and in the production of forms of lyfe capable of embodying in artificial structures the same functions as those exhibited by living organisms have now consolidated the idea that life is not an exceptional phenomenon limited to biological matter, thus establishing a newfound continuity between living and non-living matter. Another consequence of this new understanding of life is that it is no longer possible to draw a rigid distinction between our technologies and living organisms. Just like Frankenstein’s monster, our technologies are slowly and inexorably ‘coming to life’. And it is principally thanks to chemistry, materials science, and nanotechnology that objects increasingly indistinguishable from living organisms—in composition, structure, and function—are beginning to see the light.

The idea of constructing a unified model of machines and living organisms can be traced back to 1948, when Norbert Wiener founded cybernetics, which he described as the ‘science of communication and control in the animal and in the machine’. According to Wiener, artificial machines and living organisms have in common the presence of similar feedback mechanisms, i.e. retroactive mechanisms capable of regulating and directing their behaviour spontaneously.…