Thursday, August 20, 2015

Genetically Engineered People: ethics and prospects

The Economist coincidentally has this feature in its latest edition
Many SF writers have speculated about genetically-engineering people for diverse environments. Whether it's microgravity habitats, long-duration space missions, water-worlds or high-gravity planets, it seems plausible that we could help natural selection along the way and engineer human DNA to create the adaptations we would need to cope. I alluded to this in the recent post about about buying insurance in case of asteroid impact (apropos living on Mars).

Genetically-modified human: not a pretty sight
It's easy to float the idea, but could it work in practice? There are some ethical issues, to put it mildly. Although most mutations (I'm thinking SNPs - single nucleotide polymorphisms) are additive, the complex relationship between DNA structure and gene expression makes it difficult to mathematically or computationally predict the phenotypical result of this or that allele modification. To get an effect akin to creating a new, tailored species of humanity would require thousands of novel alleles.

How does Nature do it? Evolution creates new alleles by mutation, at random: if the mutation confers an advantage it may survive and spread as the people carrying its less-adaptive competitors are preferentially killed by the environment. Each of us is here because thousands of our long-ago relatives who were somewhat unlike us died horribly, without reproducing.

If our predictive models were good enough, we could short-cut Nature's brutal 'generate and test' algorithm. But no simulation is likely to give us sufficiently accurate data - there are just too many subtleties in a world of real bodies, real environments and real life histories. We would have to do our best, bring new kinds of people into life and just see how they coped. Reduced to such real-life debugging, expect inevitable tragedies.

Greg Egan was thinking along similar lines when he discussed his novel, 'Permutation City'.
Q6: What do you regret most about Permutation City?

A6: Something quite separate from the issues with the Dust Theory mentioned above, although these are all valid points. What I regret most is my uncritical treatment of the idea of allowing intelligent life to evolve in the Autoverse. Sure, this is a common science-fictional idea, but when I thought about it properly (some years after the book was published), I realised that anyone who actually did this would have to be utterly morally bankrupt. To get from micro-organisms to intelligent life this way would involve an immense amount of suffering, with billions of sentient creatures living, struggling and dying along the way. Yes, this happened to our own ancestors, but that doesn’t give us the right to inflict the same kind of suffering on anyone else.

This is potentially an important issue in the real world. It might not be long before people are seriously trying to “evolve” artificial intelligence in their computers. Now, it’s one thing to use genetic algorithms to come up with various specialised programs that perform simple tasks, but to “breed”, assess, and kill millions of sentient programs would be an abomination. If the first AI was created that way, it would have every right to despise its creators.
So what do you think? If the prize was to colonise a new planet, one which could not be terraformed but which could be occupied by suitably-modified people, would the ethics committee approve? Wouldn't it be insane not to go ahead, accepting the inevitable (but hopefully short-term) suffering?

By coincidence, The Economist wrote about similar issues in this week's edition.

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