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 )