As most of you are aware who have read, here or elsewhere, the news of the first attempt to engineer a human embryo, a line has been crossed. While geneticists elsewhere were debating the morality and ethics surrounding such engineering, the Chinese just went ahead and did it.
Yes, I am very much aware, as the Nature article linked to above reports, that they chose embryos that could not lead to live births and that, of the 54 embryos that survived and were tested, only 28 showed that the engineering had been successful. As their lead researcher put it, “If you want to do it in normal embryos, you need to be close to 100%,” (Junjiu) Huang says. “That’s why we stopped. We still think it’s too immature.”
In addition, the report adds, “His team also found a surprising number of ‘off-target’ mutations assumed to be introduced by the CRISPR/Cas9 complex acting on other parts of the genome. This effect is one of the main safety concerns surrounding germline gene editing because these unintended mutations could be harmful. “
Fine, but none of that denies a simple fact. A line has been crossed. In the future, it will likely be called a “seminal event” and rightfully so. Every “first time” is going to have its problems in a discipline this young, as this one has just demonstrated and we will have a second time and more, but only after the first time and that is now part of our history.
The same will be true of AI, artificial intelligence. There will be another “first time” that brings moral and ethical questions to the forefront in a similarly unexpected and explosive fashion in AI as well.
And that brings me to today’s point. Genetic engineering and artificial intelligence are “two peas in the same pod”. They are very similar, not superficially perhaps, but in at least two very fundamental respects. Two words come to mind.
Both are directly concerned with code. Every computer depends on code to actually operate. The coding of AI must be mind-bogglingly difficult, but it is being written. In like manner, genetic engineering is essentially an attempt to “recode” the human genome – the DNA, RNA, master proteins, and all the other substances that make up the human genome and determine how it will be expressed in our lives.
In one instance, the code must be created from scratch. In the other, the code already exists, the result of random chance at the time of conception. With the exception of identical twins, each of us has a unique code. The two disciplines may be approaching their work from different directions, but their goal is common, at least in this very important respect.
We may now think of “humans and machines” as “organic machines and inorganic machines”, if we like, but code is essential to the development of both artificial intelligence and human intelligence. What the Chinese research team reports is really not different from an AI programmer who discovers that her code works some of the time, but not always, and occasionally with very negative results. The Chinese experiment with coding was simply far more dramatic. However, in both disciplines, code is critical.
Both are global. It makes no difference what researchers in either field on either side of the North Atlantic, as was usually the case in the 20th century, think should or should not be considered a “line” and whether or not it should be crossed. The decision can be made independently and in nations far from the North Atlantic, as has just occurred. Under the circumstances of the 21st century, any line can be crossed, anywhere the talent and equipment are available. Today such talent and equipment can be found in many nations and I expect we will be hearing from researchers in other nations, India comes to mind as just one obvious candidate, but there are others and more to come. If nothing else, these two fields attract talent and money!
In the near future, when time and circumstances allow, I will discuss the potential impact of genetic engineering, in particular, on our ability to control our own lives and how that might lead to a negative emotional reaction on the part not only of that field’s critics, but of its most ardent supporters. I am not as pessimistic as some may think, but I do believe we can benefit by discussing it before we are forced to confront it as other lines are crossed.
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