Sunday, August 05, 2012

The inevitability of human enhancement

I watched a TED talk by Juan Enriquez (Will our kids be a different species?) that wasn’t particularly informative if you’re up to date on biology, but it got me thinking about how quickly some of these technologies are going to affect us.

Human enhancement technologies range all the way from tattoos to adding a new chromosome, and many of these are straightforward to implement to anybody with some basic knowledge of the field.

A generation ago, computer programming was a specialist skill that was mostly practiced by well-educated people employed by large institutions. Although it’s still true that most of the mainstream computer programming happens that way, there are millions of “amateurs” with no particular specialized education or access to expensive capital equipment, and those amateurs are doing as much heavy computing as the top experts thirty years ago.  You don’t see these people much because the mainstream experts are doing so much more, and the world has simply moved on to a stage where the bar for money and more is so much higher.

The same thing is becoming true for biology. An entry-level college biology lab now exposes students to the basics of recombinant DNA, and once learned, a fairly intelligent and curious person can do it on his own, without particular access to specialized equipment. There is already a large movement of DIYBIO people who find refurbished or underutilized biological instruments that they repurpose for amateur uses, with costs a fraction of what the mainstream people pay. And as much of biology moves into computers, the costs go even lower: you can design what you want and have a third party “print” manufacture it for truly citizen prices.

The amateur in America may have some interesting access, but this pales in comparison to professionals from other countries who using the state-of-the-art knowledge available to everyone on the internet, can make seriously interesting biological products with the help of a national-scale lab.

The implication is that even if the United States or Western countries try to ban or regulate something, it will be possible for motivated people in other countries to do it anyway – and the competitive pressures will be enormous. Imagine a gene modification that makes for slightly better math performance. What responsible parent would ignore a technology like that, especially if they feel other parents are doing it?

Even if the United States tries to make that illegal, the motivation is too strong to stop it internationally. Once a Chinese lab, or company, starts offering the service, people from everywhere will travel there to get the procedure done for themselves. This will be very hard to stop.
frankenstein's monster
(FlickR photo by jacob earl )

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Medicine and Anti-Fragility

Black Swan author Nassim Taleb in his highly-anticipated upcoming book uses the term anti-fragility to describe systems that are the opposite of fragile. He coins the term after a lengthy search of the world’s languages convinced him that there is no other word to describe something that is the opposite of fragility. The obvious “robustness” doesn’t capture the sense of how some systems not only survive, but thrive when exposed to attempts to break them.

He’s been leaking chapters regularly on his web site, and a few days ago he released Chapter 21, about medicine. He looks at iatrogenics, the study of medical mistakes, as evidence that a large amount (perhaps the major part) of what today’s doctors take for granted is as unproven as bloodletting:
  • Put ice packs on a fresh sprain.
  • Eat breakfast 
  • Lower the temperature of someone with fever

To him, statin drugs are a dangerous example of intervention “to get a grade to pass a school-like test”. Yes, it effectively lowers cholesterol, but so what? It’s like muzzling a baby to stop the crying: sure, it works but you haven’t addressed the root cause. 

He has similar concerns about antibiotics and disinfectants, insulin injections, and even toothpaste: each effectively treats a “problem” but do we really understand the implications?

I’m sympathetic to the whole perspective, especially how “experts” are often (usually) wrong, etc., but I think Taleb is in danger of being too correct. Like the old joke about the two economists who ignore a $20 bill laying on the ground (“it can’t be real, or somebody would have picked it up already”), finding ways to “improve” things is pretty much what humans are for. 

In the wrong hands, Taleb’s concerns might sound like a defense of the precautionary principle, the easy-to-refute idea popular among environmentalists, that a theoretical, even unproven potential harm is enough to justify restrictions on new technology or development.

You could apply Taleb’s reasoning to say that we shouldn’t make gardens because by artificially hedging trees or cutting grass, we are interfering with natural processes we don’t understand. Well, yeah. But if we don’t interfere with nature we don’t get a garden – and maybe I want the garden. Sure, maybe there will many unintended consequences (my fruit trees will attract annoying birds, my vegetables will attract deer, etc.) but I’ll deal with those problems as they come up.

I apply a compress to a fresh wound and take aspirin for a fever because maybe I want to treat the symptoms. Forget the long-run issues of the consequences of “unnatural” treatments: in the long run, we’ll all be dead.