MindBullets 20 Years

Synthetic life makes the jump from virtual worlds

Artificial DNA used to make live replicas of game characters

Now that scientists have perfected the technique of synthesizing DNA, it is possible to take computer-generated characters from virtual world environments and make physical copies of them.

Following on the craze of designer pets, kids can now design their own version of notorious game heroes, and have them ‘grown’ by BioSynth Inc. Reminiscent of the action figure toys of yesteryear, these constructed creatures actually live, breathe and eat.

Although customers have free rein in designing the outward appearance of these man-made mammals, they are all based on BioSynth’s patented artificial rodent, and share the internal organs of a modified lab rat, which keeps their maintenance simple. BioSynth offers the creatures in two sizes, and delivery usually occurs within three weeks of upload.

Animal rights groups are still in the courts, trying to interdict BioSynth from producing the live toys, but as the pets are sterile and have a limited life span, legal definitions of animals are being hotly debated. Does a synthesized cyborg fly, used by the military, have similar rights?

Meanwhile BioSynth is being flooded with orders, as the millions of game players on the web clamour for a tangible clone of their favorite fantasy beast.

ANALYSIS >> SYNTHESIS: How this scenario came to be

The Birth of Synthetic Life
Scientists Build Bacteria-Killing Organisms From Scratch
By hacking a virus with artificial DNA, researchers at MIT and Boston University created a bacteria-killing machine that demonstrates the potential of synthetic biology. – Wired News 10 July 2007

Virtual Life
By 2007, Second Life has 800,000 active residents and World of WarCraft, the clear market leader in massively multi-player online role-playing games (MMORPGs), has 9.5 million. Players spend hours developing their avatars. Sensing a marketing opportunity, dozens of large firms, from Chrysler to Reuters to Playboy, build their own islands and cities within the virtual worlds.

2008: Synthetic Genetics
American bio-engineers at MIT announce that a massive database detailing complete genetic codes is available for commercial use. Biobricks have been created that encode more than 25,000 different purpose-driven genes from scratch. These may be purchased off-the-shelf and inserted into common microscopic organisms, like bacteria.

In 2010, Darryl van Uyk, a 23-year-old high-school drop out from Phoenix, Arizona, becomes the first MMORPG dollar billionaire. He develops chains of businesses throughout World of WarCraft, Habbo Hotel, RuneScape and Second Life where his avatars sell everything from magic swords to stretch limos.

In 2011 World of WarCraft releases a new beast, the Grashajak, into their world. They declare it unbeatable. A clan of top players form a posse and track the Grashajak down. The characters rush into battle and are slain. Police receive calls from horrified parents as some of the real-world children take their own lives in the grief of losing their characters. World of WarCraft issues an apology but Blizzard Entertainment, its owner, suffers a 25% stock crash. Within weeks the company is swallowed up by News Corporation.

In 2014 it is said that four out of ten Internet users has a parallel life somewhere in one of the Internet’s virtual worlds.

By 2015 the MIT research has matured into a commercial project called Blue Heron. Meanwhile, British scientists have developed thousands of transposons which ‘move’ genes from one species to another. Their company is called GeneTech. The two approaches compete.

Drew Endy of MIT calls the GeneTech approach ‘DNA bashing’. “I’m an engineer,” he says, “I prefer to build things from scratch.” By 2011 a single lab worker is able to synthesize a couple of human genomes from scratch every day. No more need for DNA bashing – just write out the sequence you want and synthesize it straightaway – at less than one dollar per base pair.

2016: Fantasy Animals
Josh Bartlett, a developer at GeneTech, starts combining characteristics of his favorite fantasy creatures. He collects the genes for the horn of a narwhal and combines them with a white horse to produce a unicorn. His other pet project combines characteristics of lizards and bats to create small dragons.

At the request of his Hollywood customers, Bartlett buys biobricks from Blue Heron to give his unicorns flashing pink spots, and to make his dragons squirt fire.

The UN passes an international declaration making it illegal to develop fantasy humans.

2022: Virtual Emergence
In 2022 a chance meeting between Josh Bartlett of GeneTech, Drew Endy of MIT, and Darryl van Uyk results in a new venture, BioSynth. Van Uyk puts US$ 150 million into a project to create living versions of MMORPG fantasy characters. “There are about 50 million people regularly playing in virtual worlds. All have invested hundreds of hours in developing their characters. About 10 years ago I started making plastic models of people’s characters and mailing them to their creators. We’ve sold around 48 million of these over the past decade. This is a natural extension of my business,” says Van Uyk.

“It’s quite complex,” says Bartlett. “We want the creatures to be quite small and so we’re starting with lab rats which are about the best-sequenced animal on earth.”

Civil rights groups are up in arms. The UN declaration regarding the development of fantasy humans is analyzed. Ultimately the legal challenge has no basis. “Rats have been used for genetic experimentation for almost 70 years. Just because some of them will look human doesn’t mean they are,” says Miriam Zodwana, BioSynth’s attorney.

Investment analysts remain cool. The legal challenge may have been won, but no-one knows whether the technical challenges are even attainable.

2028: Third Life
In March 2028, in a massive arena built directly in the center of the exhibition hall at the Global Virtual World convention in New York, BioSynth unveils their creation. It is the smash-hit of the year.

People watch spell-bound as 8-inch high bipedal fantasy creatures interact across a replica island. There are Orcs, Ogres, Goblins and Elves. But no humans. “We thought it may be best to hold off for a while and see how people react,” says Van Uyk, with uncharacteristic restraint.

Protest groups collect but, by the end of the one-week convention, over 150,000 of the creatures have been sold. At US$ 15,000 a pop they are not cheap, but Van Uyk seems to have been correct in his faith.

“Welcome to Third Life,” he laughs. “Now you can have a real life, a virtual life, and a pet life.”

Warning: Hazardous thinking at work

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