People have been studying and debating ethics for a long time, at least relative to our perception of humanity. During this time period there has been a acceleration of the growth of technology. On September 8, 1966, the first Star Trek episode aired. In the Star Trek episodes a device called a communicator was used to allow voice communication between an individual on a planet or elsewhere and the Starship Enterprise. While such communication was possible via radio and television, small hand held devises were a fictional dream for most people, emphasis on most.
I remember using my first flip phone, also called a clam shell design, in the early 1990’s for calling home from a soccer game in Santa Fe, almost 30 years after Captain Kirk. It was an analogue system. Soon thereafter, the phones became digital. Actually, I was lagging the technology because the digital IBM Simon Personal Communicator made its debut in 1992. Of course, there was, and still is, a huge ground system in place to make such communication possible. But how would Star Trek have changed if Captain Kirk had a smart phone?
While the smart phone has caused ethical issues for us such as texting while driving or use during taking a test, they have been fairly easily resolved. Of course, Albert Einstein’s quote of “Never memorize something that you can look up” was from a slower era. Do you want your doctor diagnosing your symptoms using a smart phone?
Something simpler might be on the way. You, viewed as a machine, are controlled by deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA, that contains 20,000 genes that actually encode protein – the “computer code” that makes you run. Decode your DNA and you have a map of your biology. So why can’t your doctor take a drop of your blood and instantaneously analyze it to determine if you have a genetic issue relating to your symptoms? Obviously, it is not that easy but we are in a neo-biological revolution and I might suggest it is measured in jerks. In physics a jerk is the rate of change of acceleration. It is going faster and faster at an ever increasing pace.
In the October 2018 issue of Wired, Bill Gates asserts that “blood will tell us everything” about people in the realm of medicine and it will make health care more accessible. This is a great horizon for humanity if used correctly. For example, Gates cites the work of Stephen Quake, a professor at Stanford, who led the development of a test that can predict a woman’s due date within two weeks. One might say so what, it’s a nine month projection. But what about the 600,000 plus infant deaths per year from premature births? Think about the implications. If then infant is going to be premature, do you abort or do you prepare?
Going further, work is being done on DNA testing for genetic disorders. While I have not determined the status, what if you could examine the DNA of a fetus and find abnormalities for Down syndrome, cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s disease, Duchenne muscular dystrophy, sickle cell anemia, hemophilia, and on and on. When you get the test result, what do you do? What is right and wrong, what is good and bad? After all, if the goal is to enhance humanity and make it better with time, shouldn’t you eliminate handicapped members of society or at least prevent them from emerging as societal burdens? I know my answer to the question, but what is society’s answer?
Currently, there is a technology called CRISPR which enables DNA editing. It has been used in the plant industry to modify tomatoes. In this process certain tomatoes have been modified to improve harvesting efficiency thereby increasing useful yields. Sounds good because more food at lower prices can be produced as long as there are no hidden or overlooked surprises. And it is faster than plant breeding. But it also suggests that the DNA can be modified before the plant starts to grow. What if in the animal kingdom you can modify the DNA of eggs and sperm to produce bigger livestock?
Now go further. The animal kingdom includes human beings – homo sapiens. The DNA of the egg and sperm is tested and modified to eliminate all genetic disorders and fertilization takes place in a test tube. But what about fertilizations outside the test tube? Are they legal and what is the repercussion? And why stop at genetic disorders? Think about genetic enhancement, a smarter and stronger humanity. At the same time, dwell on the implications for society and how we get along, who is in charge, and what life as a human means.
While all this might be interpreted as science fiction fantasy, remember Captain Kirk’s communicator and the compression of time in the evolution and revolution of technology. How soon will the manipulation of human DNA be upon us? Much faster than we believe. Or is it already here? How will we ethically control it? I do not know. But we need to be thinking now about the right and wrong – the ethics.