The Craig Venter type artificial life (see the earlier question) is probably safe to make because it is just a direct copy of something already in existence. Designing new DNA sequences, and hence new genes, is more dangerous because there is the risk that the microorganisms created will be capable of harming people, animals or plants. So, such research should only be done in places with very good bio-containment – i.e. where you can be suse that no microorganisms can escape until you’ve tested them for safety. Will everyone in the world do this carefully? I don’t think so, but in the UK the rules are very tight.
There are also similar risks for the “genetic engineering” that goes on already, particularly for microorganisms. This is a much faster way of modifying the functions of organisms – eg. its easier to tweak one part of a car at a time than to redesign a whole new one from scratch. So, in some ways there is more danger from common forms of genetic engineering than there is from attempts to make “artificial life”. Worth everyone keeping an eye on and thinking about.
I think that as long as there are procedures to safeguard against people taking massive leaps forward (before they can be properly checked by the scientific community) I don’t see it as a problem Caty. A study was conducted quite recently about robotic artificial life and how it would evolve in the future (and what people’s worries were). This study using students sums up for me what our worries should be… http://scu.uwe.ac.uk/Files/Robotic_Visions_Summary_Parliamentary_Seminar_Final_0.pdf