Makeable humans

Tinkering with humans
There has been a lot of fuss about the Chinese twins conceived in China with modified DNA with the aim of protercting these babies form HIV infection in the future. Scientist He Jiankui received the full load of criticism even from Chinese scientists.What is the underlying moral problem? Technology is now so far advanced that in the coming years there will be countless possibilities to modify people: the make-able human. Modifying DNA or adding a chip with effects on hereditary characteristics.

Brain – computer links. We are also able to link the human brain to computers allowing people to “enrich” themselves with the intelligence or memory of computers, or to listen directly to music. Some people have built-in chips that can log in to their computers, homes or bank accounts. Experiments are done with brain-computer connections, so that you can operate a device through brain power. And of course technology helps many people with physical defects to regain a decent life: from artificial legs and arms to digital replacements of your eyes or ears. In short: a range of possibilities has unfolded to create modified people. Undoubtedly, the tech giants will also come up with consumer gadgets in this area. How should we deal with this?

Limits to manufacturability? How should you view this from the technology side? Should you develop or engineer everything that is possible or are there limits? And if so: who should set these limits? We will have to find answers to the question where, how and when certain technology can be applied. If we do “nothing”, there will undoubtedly be many incidents in the coming years, as was recently shown in the case of the Chinese babies. The CRISPR-Cas technique with which DNA parts can be cut and pasted is extremely simple and can be carried out cheaply. Making a brain link with a computer, like the cyborgs, is a bit more complex, but influencing data systems with brain power 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 by means of technology. The options we have range from curing sick people, which most people have no trouble with, to equipping non-sick people with extra qualities, which many people will object to. But there is a large grey area between these two options we should carefully discuss. The case of the Chinese babies is a good example. The scientist involved wanted to save the babies from a future disease through “race improvement”. Is this curing a human from a possible illness, or is this racial improvement of a human? How should we cope with the many possibilities in this area that are unfolding today? 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 “Ubermenschen”?

Reflection required. It is urgently required for governments, scientists, philosophers, but also the professional group of technologists, to start considering these questions. Every day technology is becoming easier and it is becoming cheaper to carry out lots of these kinds of experiments. Some rich people or scientists will take the plunge and start experimenting, perhaps with themselves, as cyborgs do. Certainly, some governments will state that they want to improve their people. Where have we heard this before? No doubt doctors will come up with proposals to make humanity resistant to certain diseases, such as HIV or malaria. Do we really want this? How should we cope with this?

International frameworks required. It would be insane to come up with different rules for each country. That is not workable and would turn out to be counterproductive. After all there is no denying that we live in one “fluid” society! The only way is a communal one but this will be a long and complex process 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 2020 mankind is stuck with countless challenging and promising technologies to take people to a higher level, but is by no means able to cope with them wisely. The image that emerges is that of a toddler with a hand grenade that can joyfully pull the pin out at any moment.

Guidelines for technical staff required. At the moment the technological man or woman who is confronted with these matters in his work has no guidelines but his own conscience. Therefore it is important that the technology community should focus more intently on the ethical side of the profession. People like the recently deceased physicist Stephen Hawking and the still very much alive entrepreneur Elon Musk have rightly pointed this out. Perhaps just as with doctors taking an oath of Hippocrates, something needs to be done so that technical professionals commit themselves to adhering to certain professional rules. It is certain that technology not only has many good but also many dangerous aspects. The ethical component has been too long and badly neglected but requires the full attention of professionals as well as society as a whole.

This is a slightly modified article that was previously posted in CIO Magazine from April 2019