Cellular Turing Test

Christopher Little isn’t fooled by the creation of ingenious bacteria

6th March 2017

Alan Turing devised a test in 1950 to determine if a machine had achieved what could be perceived as artificial intelligence. Rudimentary in design, it simply poses one question; can a machine trick a person into thinking they are having a conversation with another human being? On a cellular level, that test has just been passed. After scientists have created artificial cells that are so life-like, they’ve fooled living cells into thinking they are communicating with one of their own.

Natural cells ‘talk’ to each other through their own language of chemical signals. Whether it be through hormones or neurotransmitters, cells can use various biological messages to converse with one another.

Sheref S. Mansy from University of Trento, Italy, told ResearchGate; “We have been interested in the divide between living and nonliving chemical systems for quite some time now, but it was never really clear where this divide fell.”

In their cellular Turing test, Mansy and his team proposed that artificial life would need to be able to interact seamlessly with real cells. This would then allow them to evaluate an artificial cell on the basis of it deceiving a real cell, in much the same way as a machine’s artificial intelligence is assessed.

The tiny cell like structures they built were placed near the living bacteria of three species - E. coli, Vibrio fischeri and Pseudomona aeruginosa. The artificial cells were able to successfully “listen” to chemicals that the bacteria gave off, but to pass the cellular Turing test they had to be able to communicate back. To respond, the artificial cells turned on genes that made them glow to show that they had “heard” the living cells.

Thus far only one species of artificial cells has completed full cycles where the real cells could “hear” the artificial cell and respond in return.

Mansy and his colleagues now aim to build different kinds of artificial cells to test their hypothesis further and to subject them to the same cellular Turing test.

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