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The Learning Curve

5 questions to help you assess the ethics of future innovations

An innovation’s value is found between the technophile’s promises and the Luddite’s doomsday scenarios.
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Credit: Vector Victor / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • The number of innovations poised to transform the world is staggering.
  • Proponents promise these technologies will herald a brighter future, while opponents worry they’ll cause harm and widen social divides.
  • We need to ask questions and think deeply when assessing the ethics of future innovations.

It seems like every day we’re bombarded with new inventions and innovations poised to transform the world. Quantum computers promise to exploit multidimensional spaces to solve previously impossible problems. 3-D printers promise to remodel the way we manufacture food, clothes, and spare parts. Synthetic biology promises to refashion entire organisms. And artificial intelligence promises to conquer jobs performed by humans for hundreds of years.

What are we to make of these claims? That depends on whom you ask. Proponents believe these innovations will change the world for the better, citing their potential to make it cleaner, safer, or more productive for more people. Conversely, opponents spin stories of unintended consequences and doomsday scenarios — if they don’t outright question the technology’s feasibility.

Biochemist Jennifer Doudna knows a thing or two about evaluating controversial innovations. Her pioneering work in genetic engineering led to the development of CRISPR-Cas9, a gene-editing technology that allows for precise alterations to an organism’s genome. For her work, she won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry alongside Emmanuelle Charpentier.

In a Big Think interview exploring the ethics of CRISPR, Doudna sided with neither the technophiles nor the Luddites. Instead, she considered the innovation’s pros and cons through a series of guiding questions. Here are six such questions you can ask to help you better assess and understand future innovations.

1) Which applications of the innovation might be desirable?

Any up-and-coming technology should aim to improve the world and the lives of the people in it. Otherwise, what’s the point? CRISPR offers an illustrative case (one we’ll return to throughout this article).

The ability to directly edit genes has widespread therapeutic applications. Researchers are exploring its potential to treat cancers and cure genetic disorders. Both of these definitely fall within this category.

“We’ll also be seeing more CRISPR applications in agriculture to help combat hunger, reduce the need for toxic pesticides and fertilizers, fight plant diseases, and help crops adapt to a changing climate,” Doudna told Freethink. “Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time.” 

With that said, we shouldn’t let our imaginations run away with us. It’s enticingly easy to contemplate a future where a simple flick of the genetic switch makes humans as intelligent as Albert Einstein, as empathic as Mahatma Gandhi, and as athletically inclined as Michael Jordan. Easy to imagine, difficult to actually do.

As psychologist Steven Pinker pointed out in an interview, unlike diseases such as sickle cell anemia and cystic fibrosis, intelligence isn’t linked to a few key genes. There are “dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands” of intelligence genes, each one having the potential to impact someone’s IQ in infinitesimal ways. Knowing the totality of their effects, much less how to edit them safely, is something we may not know for a long time, if ever.

As such, we must temper our answers to this question with a healthy dose of reality and scientific understanding.

2) Which applications might be undesirable?

Just because a technology has its desirable qualities doesn’t mean we should ignore its undesirable ones. An important consideration for CRISPR is that genes seldom work in isolation. They are interconnected and can influence each other in various ways, meaning an alteration to one gene could have an unintended ripple effect elsewhere. For example, editing a gene to give babies a one-point IQ boost might accidentally raise their chances of developing epilepsy or schizophrenia later in life.

Similarly, national security expert Richard Clarke worries CRISPR might be used to create biological weapons, diseases for which there are no antidotes, or further the divide between the haves and have-nots. The latter includes not only socioeconomic access but also the concerns over germline gene editing — that is, editing the genome so traits are passed down to future generations. (Though, it is worth noting that such research is currently prohibited in many countries.)

“What if in the process of that kind of gene editing, we created a caste society, where some people were genetically designed to do menial tasks and didn’t have the capability of doing anything else? And other people were designed to be the rulers, with huge IQs and the capability of understanding things beyond the pale for lesser humans,” Clarke said in an interview.

Balancing the desirable and undesirable against each other is the first step in evaluating an innovation’s potential. The next questions consider how to improve the odds those desirable applications will come to fruition while halting the undesirable ones.

A bowl of golden rice grains, a nutrient-enhanced GMO, set next to bowl of white rice grains.
Golden Rice grain compared to white rice grain in screenhouse of Golden Rice plants.

3) Who gets access?

Doudna calls CRISPR a “democratizing technology” because it is relatively inexpensive and widely available. Its costs don’t limit availability to a few prestigious, well-funded labs. But access of that kind is only part of the equation. We must also consider whether the technology’s desirable applications can reach the people who need them and if they can afford them once they become available.

For example, in 2019, Victoria Grey became the first person to have sickle cell disease treated with a CRISPR-based therapy. Years later, she continues to live without the pain, fatigue, and trauma that had been a chronic part of her life. That’s great news!

However, Grey was a volunteer in a trial run. Others have calculated the potential costs of such therapies once made public, and they are staggering. By one estimate, the gene therapy itself would cost at least $1 million. Other expenses include the chemotherapy necessary to prep the bone marrow, the time spent in the hospital, and the months of recovery. Even with insurance, the out-of-pocket costs may be a substantial barrier to access for many people.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in agriculture provide another relevant case. As Doudna noted in her interview, many people have rejected GMOs for two reasons. First, they don’t understand the science, and second, they saw the products as “not widely accessible or would be extremely expensive to people that couldn’t afford them.” That combination of ignorance and lack of accessibility has proven to be a deadly hurdle to clear. Among their desirable applications, GMOs can help combat nutrient deficiencies that are responsible for a million deaths and even more diseases worldwide every year.

4) Who decides if and how it should be regulated?

Sometimes, an innovative technology falls nicely in line with existing laws or traditions. We have a government agency ready to provide oversight, or market forces do their thing. But that isn’t necessarily the case. Consider the lack of progress we’ve made in deciding how social media or cryptocurrencies should be regulated.

Regulating CRISPR may be more fraught because the technology has such a broad range of applications that fall under the purview of many different laws, agencies, and industries — none of which may agree with each other as to what qualifies as a desirable use or undesirable misuse.

Bioethicist Alessandro Blasimme argues collective governance will be necessary to successfully regulate gene editing technologies moving forward. Such participatory assessments would be handled through processes such as focus groups, citizens’ juries, and deliberative panels aimed at “integrating public insight into governance and decision-making processes.”

He points to France’s “Estates General of Bioethics” as an example in action. Every five years, the country engages in a months-long consultation with the public to garner their opinions on bioethical issues. The National Consultative Committee on Ethics then produces a report to summarize the results and propose legislation to address concerns.

“If scientists and members of the public remain open to different articulations of genome editing’s ethical stakes, transparent and inclusive forums can help both scientists and citizens subject their assumptions to scrutiny and revision when needed. Public engagement in genome editing governance would not just promote scientific or social consensus. It would offer opportunities for inclusive dialogue about the impact of genome editing,” Blasimme writes for the AMA Journal of Ethics.

5) Can we arrive at a consensus around its use?

Challenges abound in answering this one. Nations will have their own agendas, fears, and predicaments to consider when concluding how to adopt a particular innovation. And the conclusions they draw can have far-reaching effects. In Europe, for example, gene-edited plants are subject to the same regulations as conventional GMO foods. This limits the planting and sale of such plants throughout the European Union, which can further limit investment in research among the globe’s wealthiest nations.

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Speaking on genome editing, Glenn Cohen, professor of law at Harvard Law School, told The Harvard Gazette: “Public policy or ethical discussion that’s divorced from how science is progressing is problematic. You need to bring everyone together to have robust discussions. […] It’s very hard to deal with a transnational problem with national legislation.”

Thankfully, as an international community, scientists have begun the necessary work. To date, two international summits on human gene editing have been held, with a third one scheduled for early March in London. Hosted by the Royal Society, the summit looks to be trying to answer many of the questions outlined above, including those surrounding equity, accessibility, and the roles we all play in setting regulatory and research agendas.

Will these summits answer all of these questions? Probably not. But they at least provide a place for us to explore them to determine a better course forward.

As Doudna said in her interview: “I think with any new technology, one always has to try to get the balance right. On the one hand, we of course want to see technologies and science being used to solve real-world problems. But on the other hand, we want to ensure that that progress is responsible and that we are working together with the stakeholders to ensure that there’s not an unintended or even a negative intended consequence of the use of these technologies. How to do that is a big challenge.”

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