Crispr in the court of public opinion

A philosophical poser in today’s Financial Times appears in an article entitled “Geneticists quest for crisper prose in the book of life”. At issue is the emerging gene editing technology known as CRISPR – Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, (not the most illuminating acronym in the world of science). In essence, the technology has evolved from work over recent decades in gene therapy addressing the challenge of manipulating DNA in the nucleus of any cell.

This “germ-line modification” is important because, unlike tinkering with non-reproductive somatic cells, the effects extend beyond individual subjects: we would move beyond the potential elimination today of a genetic predisposition to one disease in one person to the potential elimination of all diseases in all persons forever (the promise goes). And then? Just possibly beyond the elimination of all that is bad to the enhancement of all that is good, and the creation of a new breed of superhuman – which itself could be seen as either a promise or a threat.

Will we be able to “prise apart the nuances”, as is asked in a good background piece on DNA upgrading that appeared last month in The Guardian. What is made clear in both articles is that the genie of CRISPR research is twitching out of the bottle but there is still time for us to determine its apparel and behaviour. The court of public opinion has not so far proved enthusiastic about any research that could be portrayed as Frankenscience, and the challenge for researchers and philosophers alike will lie in moving the debate beyond knee-jerk portrayals into more thoughtful analysis of the science and where it might usefully take us.

Situation vacant: mind uploaders wanting

If we are “nothing more than the signals flitting through our brain” it might just about make sense that this little mashy blob of signal-facilitating could be cryonically preserved – frozen for the dubious benefit of some posterity that might thaw it out – and then the zippity-zap of signalling could again begin. Assuming that so far as this, the science works, it still leaves things unproven either way that this re-ignited signalling motor is “a brain”, and still less that it is the brain it was once understood to be. As to the potential for re-creating on this biological platform the mind that previously enjoyed its pre-cryonic leasehold there: how can we doubt this? Let us count the ways . . .

Without getting into the psychology of multiple personalities and the philosophies of extended or embodied cognition, we can only be amazed at recent media reports of the relationship between the brain and the lymphatic system, or the brain and the gut (providing a scientific rationale for the old saying that we are what we eat). And then we get into our selves as we are perceived by others, amidst the infinite relativities of their biases and misapprehensions, and the stage is set wonderfully for a modest thought experiment:

Let’s imagine it is 1980 and middle-aged Joe is relieved of his mid-life crisis by a heart attack so severe he decides to have his brain cryonically preserved when, too soon and so sadly for the children he leaves behind, his mortal coil is shuffled off. Half a century later and, thanks to the wonders of science, he is defrosted and reconstituted. He meets his children, grown beyond their sighing like furnaces at their father’s Lolita complex but still piping and whistling their dismay at the other pursuits to which this younger guy turns his mind. But then they ask: what mind?

Thought experiment 1 – Humour and AI

In the Guardian article referenced below in Lively Stuff, scientist Richard Dawkins in self-deprecatory mode references a cartoon showing a chap hard at work late at night on his computer, while his wife’s voice from off begs him to come to bed. He cannot be disturbed, he cries, as “Someone is wrong on the Internet”.

In contemplation of such a scenario we will often talk of resonances, whole new meanings and something that is funny on so many levels. The hinterland of funny is a wondrous place and not the least of the wonders is how an AI of any stripe – narrow or deep, vanilla or chocolate – might fare within its borders. Chops can be licked in anticipation of a dinner table riff of the “What’s so funny about that?” variety, if the intelligences involved were human – or at least humans of the ilk of Stephen Fry with Amy Schumer, say; or Dawkins himself on tilting at windmills with an arch wit-jammer like Robin Williams, were he still with us, or Billy Connolly.

The sort of conversations that ensue when digital assistants and chatbots are set loose on YouTube still fall short of being interesting, much less funny, and much less than funny and interesting about what makes something funny and interesting. The ecstasy in contemplating the emerging whole that is greater than the sum of the parts lies at the heart of what it means to be an engaged human intelligence; and one challenge for the engineers of machine intelligence will lie in moving beyond the quantitative consolidations of every thing that has ever been uttered, were that even feasible. The day may be approaching when a chatbot might explain a joke, but minting one doesn’t yet appear on any horizon in our universe.

Technology and solving the big problems

Imagine being out on the street on the morning of 21 July 1969, and asking 100 people about humanity’s potential following the moon landing of the previous day. So, what next? Most people would have talked about cities on Mars, flying cars on Earth, and eradicating disease. You would have got nothing but blank looks if you had suggested that more likely outcomes would be the Internet, killer drones, and algorithmic DNA sequencing. Or as Jason Pontin of MIT Technology Review playfully puts it in his popular TED Talk, “we were promised Mars and we got Facebook.”

What emerges from so many reflections on the transformative power of technology is that the variance between what we want and what we get usually proves to be more about technology’s enhancing things we already do. With the Internet, drones and DNA sequencing, we have always been into talking, murdering, and processing information. But when we decide to shoot for the moon, at least half a dozen vital factors come into play if we expect technology to assist in meeting that challenge.

Jason Pontin mentions four of them: political leadership, institutional support, clarity on what precisely the technological problem is, and an acute understanding of that technology and how to apply it to the problem. To these he might have added the resource to dedicate to the challenge and a collective agreement on the cost/benefit analysis to enable the appropriate commitment of those resources.

Greater funding for intelligence research can only increase knowledge and lower costs and barriers to entry for governments and institutions that seek cooperative solutions. And in the meantime, we need to keep the killers away from the drones.