Apocalypse Deterrence

The Center for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER.org) at Cambridge (U.K.) is focusing on how to protect humanity from the downside(s) of technology.  By “Existential” they are not referring to Camus, but to the elimination of Homo Sapiens — i.e. our existence.

Their concerns include the question of AI*’s that might have both sufficient power and motivation to disrupt humanity, and genetic engineering that could either make us obsolete, or get out of hand and make us extinct.

Who Cares? … well some fairly knowledgeable folks are involved, including:

  • Stephen Hawlking
  • Jaan Tallinn
  • Elon Musk
  • George Church

I suspect that some SSIT folks may find it useful to monitor CSER’s newsletter and consider how their concerns and issues relate to SSIT’s activities. — Grist for the Mill as it were.


Human Germ-line Modification Hiatus Proposed (too late?)

Nobel laureates David Baltimore and Paul Berg have recommended pausing active modification of the human germ-line cells until experts can convene a conference to consider the implications of this activity.  (WSJ 4/9/2015 “Let’s Hit Pause Before Altering Humankind”)   They point out that this parallel’s a similar action in 1975 when the emergence of recombinant DNA technology triggered a conference on that topic.

This is a bit afield from IEEE’s domain of affairs, but quite relevant to the Society on Social Implications of Technology dialogs. Let me outline key concepts they put forward to help build a common vocabulary, and then focus on parallel’s in IEEE’s areas of work.

They point out the advent of a bio-tech (CRISPER/Cas9) that simplifies the modification of germ-line DNA alterations that are “quite precise with no undesired changes in the genome.” They point out that modifications can be within an individual without inheritability (somatic cell alteration.) They can be applied to germ-cells, affecting all future generations from that line either to eliminate a defect (therapeutic germ-line alteration.) Although they point out that similar benefits for the next generation may be attainable via embryo-selection methodology.  Finally there is the potential for “voluntary germ-line alteration”, to increase traits parents currently consider desirable. They point out that “we often do not know well enough the total range of consequences of a given gene alteration, potentially creating unexpected physiological alterations that would extend down through generations to come.” (A.k.a. the law of unintended consequences.)  Ergo they recommend a moratorium and conference to address the implications involved.

This is an excellent example parallel to IEEE’s Code of Ethics which includes “to improve the understanding of technology; its appropriate application, and potential consequences.” Actually, it goes one step further in taking action to manage potential consequences before they are fully realized.

If we look at the fields where IEEE’s technologists are engaged (with computing, robotics and bio-medical systems included, there are few areas we don’t touch), there are some interesting examples.  There is some discussion (although no suggested moratoriums) in areas like self-driving or remotely controllable cars, some of these fields are outgrowths of simple ‘improvements’, such as automatic breaking systems or parallel parking.  Others are unintended consequences of remote monitoring services.

Observation #1: we (technologists, our employers, and indirectly stockholders and customers) may not be applying sufficient diligence in considering potential consequences.  In part we may not be providing the time and incentives for quality engineering of quality products. A quality product should not be subject to hacking that can affect public safety and health for example.

Observation #2: The bio-genetics world is miles ahead of our technology in their limited understanding of what may result from their work.  For example, the concept of emerging artificial intelligence and it’s impact is getting coverage in science fiction, and even some awareness in research and industry, but we have very little insight on the potential consequences of passing over some nebulous lines in paths that lead towards intelligent and./or conscious systems.

What other areas do you see that might warrant some serious consideration before we proceed?

[April 24th, Chinese researchers indicate they have completed a trial of this concept, with some ‘off target’ effects.]

Prenatal Genomics

A genomics researcher, Razib Khan, sequenced his child’s genes prior to birth, a first for the U.S. with a “normal” child.  This is described, with some of the legal and other issues in an article in MIT’s Technology Review. Khan comments on the issue of “who owns a genome” in this article and part of a regular Blog he posts. Just to be clear, this is the 6 billion base pair analysis, not the half billion 23andMe form, so he now has most of the story.  I don’t think full Genome analysis addresses epigenetic information such as methyl groups and histone variations. These can affect gene expression, and also reflect a path for passing information from generation to generation without mutation and as a result of the activities of the parent.  So, yes, it appears your smoking, drinking, etc. can affect your children and grandchildren — actually one of the evident connections is between famine and longevity of grandchildren.

The FDA is currently blocking 23andMe from providing health analysis related to their genomic testing, but for clients, the results are available in raw form, and online sites allow cross checking. Of course in the world of the Internet, most attempts to control information are futile.  A software package Promethease provides analysis via a literature search “for free”.  Of course one might worry about what the creators of that package do with the information besides telling you about the genome you submit (presumably your own).  It seems that the FDA, while trying to protect consumers from “medical advice not provided by a professional”, have pushed the  liability and challenges associated with this from a contractually obligated partner to the open internet.

Looking forward, we can anticipate that genome sequencing will be available to the public, at least in “free” countries, and that analysis will be possible with varying degrees of quality control in such environments.  It would seem the medical, policy, and ethical community might be better served by focusing on articulating the issues and educating the public rather than trying to get the genie back in the bottle (or should I say the Genome back in the bottle.)

What’s New in DNA – What Does It Mean?

Ok, this one took me by surprise.  “Man-made DNA“, the headlines don’t seem that shocking.  But then I looked a bit inside.  The folks here are not just doing genetic engineering, but actually adding new base pairs to the DNA alphabet.

It’s not your grandmother’s DNA! … she had four base pairs with the ability to create twenty amino acids — all of which is a shared organic chemistry with every other living thing on earth (and I’d assumed, until today, other “goldilocks” planets.)  I recently competed the free Udacity course, sponsored by 23-and-Me, on how the … what do we call them now … “legacy” DNA pairs… work.  Researchers at Scripts Institute in San Diego have managed to find two additional molecules for a new base pair set, that “works” in DNA. They can insert them into bacteria, the bacteria reproduce, and these pairs get copied just like the legacy pairs.  This expands the range of amino acids that can be produced to one hundred and seventy two — that’s one hundred and fifty two more building blocks to play with in building organisms.  Depending on how “likely” these two additional bases are in a given planetary chemistry set, this means we might find DNA based life-forms that simply don’t use the same base pairs that we use.

So what? That’s the big question in my mind.  Our ability to understand the translation of base pairs into proteins into amino acids into cellular components into cells into life forms is somewhat limited at this point.  Give a genetics wizard a new mutation and ask what impact it will have and she won’t have a clue.  Needless to say, give our wizards one hundred and fifty two new building blocks and they will be clueless.  If some of these do good things, we can expect some of them to do bad things — although it is likely that most will do nothing at all.

It took four and one half billion years of playing with the chemistry set on Earth to come up with the thousands of species we have, and thousands of extinct species — presumably guided by the “invisible hand” of evolution.  No doubt we can incorporporate these additions to our “kit” in a tenth of that time (i.e. five hundred million years.) — (are we there yet?) … with a bit more carefully managed range of speciation and extinction.  It’s just the first million years I worry about.

Humans have not demonstrated a great deal of global responsibility in dealing with today’s challenges — governments, corporations, institutions and individuals tend to operate with short-term, self-serving agenda’s — even when they are presented with fairly solid evidence that their courses of action are harmful.  The new Cosmos series on TV does an excellent job of demonstrating that in a recent sequence on the dating of the universe (the transition of uranium into lead) and the closely related battle to stop poisoning the planet with lead in gasoline.  When we move forward into an arena where we have limited or no visibility we need to tread very carefully, at least.

How do you see this next opportunity in evolution?


Mr .Jim Isaak

Mr.Jim Isaak
Bedford, NH; United States
SSIT Volunteer since: 2.003
picture of Mr.Isaak SSIT Roles
Vice President, 2015; Blog master 2014-present
IEEE Roles
SSIT Board (elected or appointed), IEEE Director, Member IEEE Technical Activities Board, IEEE Standards Association, IEEE Section/Chapter
SSIT 5 Pillars Interest:
Sustainability, Ethics, Impact of Emerging Technology
privacy, predictive (science) fiction, policy
Web site & Social Media
IEEE Senior Member in New Hampshire Section of Region 1

Last updated: 29/01/2017