As I put my thoughts together on a number of different trends, I am reminded every day how rapidly science and technology are changing. You know when you read an article on how to build your own robot (a lot like LEGO) on a general public website like MarketWatch or the latest in surveillance tech, things are indeed rapidly changing. The robot article reminds me of the early days of computer kits, but in this case, way more sophisticated, reflecting the progress we have already made.
I discussed automation and artificial intelligence (AI) briefly in my last post. I say “briefly” because any one of the many topics and trends I am raising in this short series could be the basis of a book, at the very least. Detailed information can be found easily on the Internet and it is not my purpose to try and cover it all here.
Here come the engineers
Today I would like to talk about genetic engineering and the field of genomics, the study of the entire human genome (DNA, RNA, and much, much more) and its interaction with its environment. I am very fortunate to be able to provide you with a link to someone who can do a far better job than I can of describing the situation from a balanced perspective, with technical authority, and with a concern for both the “mechanical” and moral issues involved.
Antonio Regalado, senior editor for biomedicine for the MIT Technology Review, published such a report, titled Engineering the Perfect Baby, a few weeks ago. If there is one link of those I provide in this series that I think is most useful, this is it. It is not an academic paper. It is in clear English, very up-to-date, and demonstrates that the field is also struggling with the implications of their work, as is artificial intelligence. So take a few minutes and get ahead of 99.9% of the general public on this very important topic, painlessly.
If you have now read the article, you know there is one group within genomics that wants the field to “go slow”. I appreciate their concern, but I think they have the wrong approach. In my mind, it is not a question of speed, but a question of what we do with what we have. It is not a question of how quickly we move in a given direction, but what direction we are taking. Whatever direction is chosen, it will move quickly. No one wants to be left behind in that field or, for that matter, all the other fields that will be impacted by genetic engineering.
Even if progress in this field was to be “slowed down” in one nation or a dozen, there would still be plenty of nations moving along as quickly as possible. Even if the slowdown was accepted globally in the research and development community open to public review, don’t count on that happening with the “private” work carried out by government agencies and their contractors.
No one, government or business or scientist, wants to wake up one morning only to discover that they are a generation behind others in genetic research and design by virtue of slowing down their own work. Folks, it is not going to happen that way, whether we are aware of it or not. Simple human behavior and thousands of years of human history provide plenty of evidence to support that. We can have our various opinions, but let’s be realistic.
So what is the problem?
We fear genetic engineering. We are uncomfortable with the thought that we can be “engineered”. Why? Because it sounds as if we are machines. Again, as that article I linked to earlier makes so clear, we are not pleased to think that someone can change our DNA and, in the process, change who we are, what we do, what we think, and more.
Throughout human history, we have wanted to know why things happen. What caused the forest fire that destroyed my village? Why are we suffering a multi-year famine? What or who caused that earthquake, volcanic eruption, or other natural disaster? Why did my child get sick and die?
Questions like these have gnawed at humans for thousands of years, but each of those questions has, effectively, a “mechanical” explanation that most of us accept immediately today. We expect the weatherman to provide a forecast that is not based on throwing dice, reading tea leaves, or today’s astrology column, but on an understanding of how things work, just like a machine.
Our answers may not always be perfect or complete, but we accept that they flow from an understanding of the mechanics of weather, of forest fires, of droughts, and certainly of health. Modern medicine has convinced us that we are made up of “parts” that can break down and require replacements, and if there is no replacement, someone is working on one. We understand that germs are “tiny animals” that we cannot see with the naked eye, but which can kill the strongest among us. That (the germ theory of disease) was not an easy sell. It took centuries to fully establish it and finally convince the many skeptics.
Think of global climate change. Regardless of what position you take on this controversy, it becomes quickly clear that nearly all the debate centers on mechanical (machine) behavior. What causes it? Is it a threat? If so, we can we do about it, if anything? What will be the effects of what we choose to do or not to do? It is a very serious debate, but it basically a debate about a “climate machine” and what, if anything, should be done to change how it is working.
Throughout this period well into the last century, we learned to accept comfortably that pretty much everything around us was “machine-like” and could be manipulated, but with one exception. Us. We are humans, not machines. But things began to change. Let me tell you a true story about Don, not his real name, and his most amazing mother.
Meeting Don’s Mother
Don lived in Alexandria, Virginia across the river from Washington DC. I lived further out in Maryland, renting a beautiful home deep in the woods surrounded by nature. Don called me one day and told me his mother was coming to visit for a week. He didn’t know what to do. She wasn’t really interested in anything and would be just as happy to sit in his apartment for the whole week, but he didn’t want that. So I said, bring her out on Saturday. I’ll make a nice lunch and we can sit out on the deck and enjoy the surroundings. He said, fine, and sounded relieved that he had at least one thing to do with her.
Saturday arrived and I looked out the window as Don parked his car and they got out. The older woman with him looked angry. I thought, oh boy, they must have had an argument. Well, so be it. I’m sure they will drop it now.
I have never met anyone as ugly as this woman. I don’t mean physically, although her face was twisted into an angry look that did not disappear for a single moment during the more than four hours of their visit. It was her attitude that slapped me across the face. I had prepared a great lunch and had the house ready for company. During the entire time, she never said one word to me or even looked at me for more than a second or two. Once, she did grunt and that was all she had to say.
Don said nothing, as if this was normal, so I said nothing. I didn’t want to embarrass him or make a bad situation worse, but it was agony. Don and I talked throughout while she sat, scowling and looking away from us the whole time. Lunch made no difference. Trying to find something to talk about really became a challenge. A couple hours into this fiasco and I was hating every minute of it. As I finally watched them leave, the relief was huge. The kindest thing I could think at the time was how sorry I felt for Don, but I really never wanted to see her again. That’s not like me at all, but that was the way it was. Don never talked about it and I had no interest in pushing it. She was gone. Fine.
Meeting Don’s Other Mother
Months went by and one day I got a call from Don. I absolutely had to come to dinner at his place on Saturday evening. No excuse was acceptable! So I said, okay, but why? He said, my mother is here and she wants to see you. Oh good god, no, I thought. It’s the last thing I wanted to hear, but I sucked it up and said, okay, I’ll be there, but I was not a happy man at all.
As I walked up to Don’s door, I reminded myself that if things were even half as bad as before, I at least could leave early based on some fake excuse. I didn’t have to wait for them to leave this time. I knocked, Don opened the door, and I saw his mother a few feet away.
She rushed up to me, grabbed my hand, looked me in the eye, and apologized for her unforgivably rude behavior at my house. She told me that she had felt locked up in a jail cell in her head, unable to get out. She knew what she was doing was terrible, but she couldn’t control it. That was past now and she finally had the chance to ask forgiveness, which of course she got immediately. This gracious, smiling, lovely older lady was not the woman I met before. If I hadn’t known better, I would have sworn she was someone else, but she wasn’t.
She explained that Don and his brothers had intervened and insisted that she go to a psychiatrist. She finally agreed to go. As a result, she was given a prescription for a “cocktail” of psychoactive drugs. Her life immediately improved and with a couple changes, she was finally out of jail and free to be the woman and mother she wanted to be. Her happiness was infectious. We had a wonderful dinner and I was blown away by her behavior, but this time for all the right reasons.
I left that evening and as I drove home, I thought to myself, that was amazing! I had been critical of over-prescription of psychoactive drugs, but I had just met someone whose life had dramatically changed for the better as a result of psychoactive drugs. I still worried about over-prescription, especially for children, but I no longer could ignore their value to those who needed them. Don’s mother had taught me a lesson that I still remember.
We’re happy for Don’s mother. So what?
Another thought that came to my mind that night was, who is the “real” mother? Mother #1 or Mother #2? Was the woman I just had dinner with Mother #1 returned? Or really Mother #3? And if her “cocktail” changed, would she be Mother #4?
In the years following, I would ask Don how his mother was doing and he would often say, her cocktail had to be changed. Her brain chemistry kept changing and the old cocktail had less and less impact. Eventually, he told me she was sliding back into a bad state again. As they changed the cocktail, I wondered how many “mothers” there had been.
So what does this have to do with genetic engineering? If you can successfully “engineer” the genome, it is forever. Of course, you might go back and re-engineer it in the future, but the point is simple. The effects of genetic engineering will not fade over time. They are now a part of “you”.
I suspect the use of psychoactive drugs will eventually fall as genetic engineering takes their place. When will that come? The very first step in that direction has already been taken.
A few days ago, Popular Science introduced me to the BabySeq project where newborn babies will be checked for any of 30 genetic diseases. They will not change the baby’s DNA, only alert the parents and their physician to the need to prepare.
How long will it be before parents demand that they not simply be told this genetic disease will strike their child, but demand that something be done about it before it strikes. That something will be genetic engineering. I see nothing extreme in a forecast like that. This is simply the first of many steps to come.
I could go on for pages, but I will not. There is enough up there, links included, to more than make my point. Genetic engineering is controversial for good reasons, but it has too much potential for good and evil to be ignored. It is not going away.
Let me summarize some of the concerns of this and my three prior posts.
1) Our physical bodies are organic machines. Parts break down and require replacements, if they are available. Systems malfunction and require repair or enhancement. The recent 3D printing of a hip replacement is just one of many examples. This understanding of our bodies as organic machines is close enough to universal that exceptions are few and far between.
2) Our brains are who we are. No brain activity, no “us”. We accept that the chemistry of our brain dramatically impacts our behavior and that the use of psychoactive (psychotropic) drugs can have an equally dramatic impact and can reverse unwanted behavior or, at the very least, reduce it substantially. As of 2010, one in five American adults was using a psychoactive drug, and that does not include the 6.3% of adolescents 12-19 also using these drugs in 2010.
3) As I have discussed here before, AI or artificial intelligence is rapidly developing and improving. AI is the source of controversy among those who fear it may destroy the human race, but I believe it is more likely to augment human intelligence, not destroy it. But one thing is clear. It is intent on demonstrating that intelligence, human or artificial, is a mechanical process…the work of a machine, be it organic or inorganic.
4) And then there is genomics, particularly genetic engineering. In short, we are programmed at the point of conception. We are the product of code, just like a web page. We are coded differently than any web page, but unlike a web page, we can change our code.
5) As an added thought derived in part from my 2009 article at Barron’s, Next, the Retirement Bubble, along with all the above and as a result of much of it, our life spans are lengthening and there is every reason to believe that they will continue to grow during our lifetimes, but most of us continue to act as if we were our parents or grandparents, refusing to alter our dreams of traditional retirement and our “golden years”. Those golden years may well be made of lead.
6) For decades now, or centuries if you prefer, humans have slowly come to think of themselves as “machines”. At every step in that process, there was fear and opposition. Today, this shift has accelerated and given every sign of continuing to accelerate even more. If it happens quickly without taking the 99% of us who are only dimly aware of what is happening, if at all, then the potential for an explosive negative emotional reaction grows.
7) Finally, my earlier posts emphasized the changes in the traditional “class system”. The combination of the trends above may leave us with two classes – a global upper class and everyone else. Or it may destroy all the traditional classes. I would choose the latter. A new class system may develop, but the old one will no longer be useful, if we get this transition done right.
Enough gloom and doom, what needs to be done now?
We need leadership. This is not a local or national issue, it is global. I hope you understand why I have absolutely no faith at all in politicians providing leadership in this arena. Leadership must come from those who are responsible for the trends. They know what can go wrong. Some talk about killer robots (Elon Musk), others warn of the extinction of the human race (Stephen Hawking), and others tell us our jobs will disappear (Bill Gates). Those gentlemen mentioned, plus many others, are people with the knowledge and the resources to do something very constructive. If I had the opportunity to talk to them, I would begin with two serious recommendations.
1) Guys, I have nothing but respect for all you have done and are doing. Each of you is a “genius” in his own right. The world is a better place because you are part of it. But you have to stop telling us that we are going to be killed, our race is going to be destroyed, our jobs are going to disappear, and other very unpleasant outcomes of the work that you are partially responsible for, and leave it at that. That is totally irresponsible and a stain on your reputations. And no, tossing a few million dollars to a group to monitor the transition ahead is lame, at best.
You have a responsibility to all of us. If you don’t act on that now, you will live to regret it, and so will we. At the very least, you should call on those others you know in the various fields you work in to at least create a Code of Conduct, a Code of Ethics, new versions for each field of the Hippocratic Oath or whatever you want to call it. The purpose would not be to stop research. That is not going to happen. And it is not to slow research down. That might happen in some places, but it won’t in others.
Consider what I said earlier in this post, “it is not a question of speed, but a question of what we do with what we have”. The Hippocratic Oath did not interfere with medical research, but it was and still is taken seriously by physicians, a reminder to do no harm. It has been modified here and there, but it has served a good purpose. It is evidence that the people responsible for the research understand their responsibilities to humanity and it requires them to swear allegiance to its principles before being allowed to practice. No, it won’t stop someone determined to do harm, but taken seriously, it is an important step. You, of all people, should be at the forefront of the creation of the code or the oath or whatever you choose to call it. You have told us what can go wrong, show us how to do it right.
2) Then there are the XPRIZEs sponsored by Google and others, and ranging from ocean health to a permanent return to the Moon. Tens of millions of dollars in prizes are offered to teams all over the world to come up with solutions to many of the world’s leading problems. So why not a few XPRIZEs for teams to come up with ways to deal with some of the potential problems that come with automation and AI eliminating millions of jobs, for one example? Do I have to tell you that it is better to do this before the jobs are eliminated, not afterwards? If so, you are not as smart as I think you are. But I could be wrong.
Gentlemen, here it is in as brief a form as possible:
- Get moving on this and move now, not a year from now.
- Do it right and we all stand to gain.
- Ignore it and we all stand to lose.
- So do it now and do it right!
This has been an incredibly difficult series to write. So many trends, so much potential to benefit the human race, so much potential to damage the human race, trying to summarize it is a nightmare. And every day, I read something new, another step forward in one or more trends. Trying to “freeze” it long enough to discuss it intelligently is a constant challenge.
But I will tell you this. I do not hate any of these trends. I do not fear any of these trends. What I hate and fear is that we mess it up and bring on a damaging conflict that must be avoided. I insist on seeing all of this as a “sunrise”, not a “sunset”, of the human race. But it isn’t going to happen because you or I or anyone else wants it to, but because we make it happen.
In the future, I will be discussing pieces of the puzzle facing us, not the whole puzzle, and how we can prepare for it in our own lives. The journey has only begun.
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