Tinkering with humans
There was a lot of fuss about the twins conceived in China with modified DNA with the aim of making HIV infection in these babies impossible in the future. The scientist He Jiankui even received the full load of criticism from Chinese scientists.
What is this ultimately about? Technology is now so far that in the coming years there will be countless possibilities to change people: the makeable human. Modifying DNA with effects on hereditary characteristics.
Brain – computer links. We can also link the human brain to computers that allow people to “enrich” themselves with the intelligence or memory of computers or to listen directly to music. There are people with built-in chips that can log in to their computer, home or at the bank. Experiments are also done with brain-computer connections, so that you can operate a device with thinking power. And of course technology helps many people with physical defects to regain a decent life: from artificial legs and arms to digital replacements for your eyes or ears. In short: a range of possibilities unfolded to make modified people. Undoubtedly, the tech giants will also come with consumer gadgets in this area. How should we deal with this?
Limits to manufacturability? How should you view this from the technology side? Do you have to make everything possible that is possible or are there limits? And if so: who should set those limits? We will have to find answers to the question where, how and when certain technology can be used. If we do “nothing”, there will undoubtedly be many incidents in the coming years, such as now with the Chinese babies. The CRISPR-Cas technique with which DNA parts can be cut and pasted is extremely simple and can be carried out with cheap means. Making a brain link with a computer, as the Cyborgs do, is a bit more complex, but influencing data systems with the brain might be easy to learn.
“Improved” people? As humanity and IT specialists, we have to prepare ourselves for the path that we are taking if we are going to make “improved” or “refined” people with technology. The options we have range from making sick people better, which most people have no trouble with, to equipping non-sick people with extra qualities, which many people do have difficulty with. But there is a large grey area between these two options we should carefully discuss. The situation with the Chinese babies shows that. The scientist wanted to save the babies for a future disease through “race improvement”. More brain or memory capacity, a brain connection to the internet or computer, a physically stronger body, resistance to diseases, a longer life, a digitally smart person. What are the pitfalls to this pursuit of “übermenschen”?
Reflection required. It becomes rather urgent that governments, scientists, philosophers, but also the professional group of technologists, start considering these questions. It is becoming easier and cheaper to do technological experiments. More and more rich people or scientists will put on the naughty shoes and start experimenting, perhaps with themselves as cyborgs do. Certainly, certain governments will consider that they want to improve their people. Where have we heard that before? No doubt doctors will come up with proposals to make humanity resistant to certain diseases, such as HIV or malaria. Do we want this ? How should we cope with this?
International frameworks required. It is clear that it would be insane to come up with different rules for each country. That is not workable and would turn out to be counterproductive. We do live in the “liquid” society! The only way is a joint way but that will be long and complex in a world with so many contradictions. International committees should be set up to study the many different issues and provide binding advice. There are no such committees at the moment. In 2018, mankind is stuck with countless challenging and promising technologies to take people to a higher level, but is in no way able to cope with them wisely. The image that emerges is that of a toddler with a hand grenade that can pull the pin out joyfully every moment,
Guideline for technical staff required. The technology person who is confronted with these matters in his work has no other guideline at the moment than his own conscience. That is why it is important that the technology community also focus more intensively on the ethical side of the profession. People like the recently deceased physicist Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk also rightly pointed this out. Perhaps just as with doctors taking an Oath of Hippocrates, something needs to be done in which the technical profession commits itself to adhere to certain professional rules. It is certain that technology not only has many good but also many dangerous aspects, and the ethical component therefore requires the full attention of the professional group and society.
This is a slightly modified article that was previously posted in CIO Magazine from April 2019