Laurie Zoloth

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God knows we could use a few more Einsteins in the world, but should we be proactive about it?

When Freeman Dyson prophesied the games could get messy and possibly in reference to genetic engineering, that life forms might be born in garage laboratories in addition to maternity wards, he was sometimes dismissed as a physicist crossing disciplines with a sci-fi vision. But he was bound, sooner or later, to be correct.

Whether now is that moment is not yet determined, but we should begin to ask ourselves the important ethical questions that attend such progress. In one country or another, these games will soon begin in earnest, which will likely trigger a new space race with everyone shooting for the moon.

From Andrew Pollack of the New York Times:

Scientists are now contemplating the fabrication of a human genome, meaning they would use chemicals to manufacture all the DNA contained in human chromosomes.

The prospect is spurring both intrigue and concern in the life sciences community because it might be possible, such as through cloning, to use a synthetic genome to create human beings without biological parents.

While the project is still in the idea phase, and also involves efforts to improve DNA synthesis in general, it was discussed at a closed-door meeting on Tuesday at Harvard Medical School in Boston. The nearly 150 attendees were told not to contact the news media or to post on Twitter during the meeting.

Organizers said the project could have a big scientific payoff and would be a follow-up to the original Human Genome Project, which was aimed at reading the sequence of the three billion chemical letters in the DNA blueprint of human life. The new project, by contrast, would involve not reading, but rather writing the human genome — synthesizing all three billion units from chemicals.

But such an attempt would raise numerous ethical issues. Could scientists create humans with certain kinds of traits, perhaps people born and bred to be soldiers? Or might it be possible to make copies of specific people?

“Would it be O.K., for example, to sequence and then synthesize Einstein’s genome?” Drew Endy, a bioengineer at Stanford, and Laurie Zoloth, a bioethicist at Northwestern University, wrote in an essay criticizing the proposed project. “If so how many Einstein genomes should be made and installed in cells, and who would get to make them?”•

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Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, members of the 1% club no matter how you work out the door policy, have pledged to give away 99% of their Facebook stock. It’s a wonderfully generous thing, but not an easy one to pull off well, and of course the process will be heavily influenced by the worldview of the Facebook founder.

In the announcement of his intentions, Zuckerberg asked this question: “Can you learn and experience 100 times more than we do today?” Listen, I want the world to be 100 times smarter (or even 2 times smarter), but that sounds like he’s investing money in brain chips and VR gear, which is fascinating, sure, but not quite the Gates-ian antimalarial efforts some might have anticipated. In all fairness, the technologist also mentions disease prevention and eradication, but there’s an awful lot of sci-fi-esque wording about radical life extension and the like. A lot of progress may ultimately come from future-forward neuro- and bioengineering, or maybe it will be money spent poorly. Good intentions and good execution are not the same thing.

In a similar vein, a Daily Beast piece by Charlotte Lytton notes that 2015 was the year that Silicon Valley became something of an Immortality Industrial Complex, with the well-compensated wanting to live forever, or at least until their stock options run out. An excerpt:

Might it be more charitable, then, to use the billions being funneled through avoidance schemes into abiding by the law and helping to reverse the problems created by a deficit-laden economy you’ve willfully avoided paying money to for an extended period of time?

“It’s incredibly exciting and wonderful to be part of a species that dreams in a big way,” explained bioethicist Laurie Zoloth. “But I also want to be part of a species that takes care of the poor and the dying, and I’m worried that our attention is being drawn away to a glittery future world that is fantasy and not the world we live in.” 

Her sentiments were echoed by Bill Gates, the world’s second greatest philanthropist (after Warren Buffet), who expressed that “it seems pretty egocentric while we still have malaria and TB for rich people to fund things so they can live longer” in a Reddit AMA earlier this year.

In any case, whether significant progress of the ilk [Peter] Thiel and co. are searching for will ever be made remains a big “if.” But should one of these projects yield a major discovery, who will benefit? As we’ve gleaned from the plethora of “free” services made flesh (or screen) by these businessmen, there’s no such thing as something for nothing—and that something has largely been handing over our personal data.•

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