A recent study by the Pew Research Center showed that a substantial majority of the U.S. public is “wary” about enhancing human abilities by biomedical means.
The survey – which used this methodology – asked people about gene editing in babies to reduce their risk of serious disease, implanting brain chips to improve people’s ability to concentrate and process information, and giving people synthetic blood to improve their physical skills. According to the report, about two-thirds of those surveyed were “very” or “somewhat” worried about these things. About the same percentage said they would not want the brain chips or blood transfusions for themselves, though the respondents were split about 50-50 over gene editing for babies.
As a science fiction reader and writer, I tend to assume technologies like this will be available and widespread in the future. For example, in The Weave I created a culture in which “gene tweaks” were common. That wasn’t the point of the story; it was just part of the worldbuilding.
But two of the criticisms raised by the survey participants struck me as worth paying attention to as both a human being and a science fiction writer. Over 70 percent of those surveyed thought the technologies would be made available before anyone thoroughly understood them, and an equally large percentage thought some of them – particularly the brain chips – would make the divide between the wealthy and the rest of folks much greater.
Those are the kind of concerns I have about many of our scientific advances. And, in fact, the gene tweaking in The Weave world did, in fact, lead to a class divide. Any new processes require looking at the ramifications very thoroughly. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t move forward, but it does mean we might want to do better research into the downsides or figure out solutions to any inequality before such technologies become available.
That said, I’d have been in the minority in favor of those technologies if I’d been in that survey. Gene editing to prevent disease would prevent a lot of suffering and heartbreak, though I’m sure there are conditions for which it should not be used. I can see wonderful applications of the brain chip in both people who do difficult, high stress work that must be done carefully – say surgeons or air traffic controllers – not to mention as a way of helping people with brain damage or dementia.
And I don’t have any objections to using synthetic blood to boost physical performance. It could be a real asset to those thousands of people out fighting wildfires in California right now. As long as it’s safe – and that’s an important consideration, because so many of the drugs people take right now to boost athletic performance are dangerous as well as banned by sports councils – it could make it possible for people doing very difficult and dangerous work to survive.
Of course, it’s possible that we’ll develop robots and artificial intelligences of various kinds to do some of those very difficult mental and physical jobs, but I’m not sure that would meet the objections of those in the survey either. I’m in favor of those things, too, once we come up with ways that ensure they can really do the job.
Here’s the concern expressed by many of those surveyed that I don’t share. A lot of folks seemed to consider these enhancements “unnatural.”
We started doing “unnatural” things to ourselves a long time ago. I’m wearing reading glasses right now; if I had to rely on my “natural” vision to read and write, I’d be in trouble. Why would gene editing or brain chips or synthetic blood be any more “unnatural” than pacemakers, prosthetic limbs, or hip implants?
Creating new technologies, including ones that enhance our abilities as well as ones that do tasks for us, is one of the things that people do and will continue to do. To me, that makes those creations as natural as anything we’re born with.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look at them carefully before releasing them into the wild. Not every new technology is good, and even the good ones should be handled carefully. They’re not right in every situation.
But they’re going to be wonderful solutions for some of us. I’m still hoping that artificial cartilage for arthritic knees becomes practical in my lifetime. Physical therapy keeps me moving, and good knee replacements will be available if my joints erode too much more, but artificial cartilage holds out the promise of a return to the range of movement I had when I was young.
Let’s look at new inventions and discoveries before we leap, but let’s be careful to avoid letting our fear of change control our decision making. Change, after all, is just about as natural as anything gets.