In a world overrun with so many immediate problems -- climate change, war, disease, hunger, poverty, etc. -- it can be difficult to see why we ought to wrestle with a technology that can seem distantly futuristic and abstract. Events this week have reminded us, though, that we are at most decades from the emergence of powerful molecular manufacturing capabilities. And one doesn't have to believe that the Diamond Age is right around the corner to recognize that bottled genies deserve caution, and we can no longer let nanotechnology go unregulated.
Denise Caruso holds a somewhat legendary status among tech journalists. A columnist for the NY Times (her old Information Industries column was a must-read for years, while her new column Re:Framing just kicked off on a bang with a piece titled Someone (Other Than You) May Own Your Genes) and founder of the Hybrid Vigor Institute (an NGO dedicated to facilitating interdisciplinary and collaborative approaches to scientific problem solving), it's not going too far to say that Caruso's work has helped shape our society's thinking about the future of science.
That future may be riskier than we like to think. In her new book, Intervention: Confronting the Real Risks of Genetic Engineering and Life on a Biotech Planet, Caruso lays out in chilling detail exactly why even (perhaps especially) those of us who are strong supporters of science and innovation ought to be extremely concerned about the unintended consequences of contemporary biotechnological industrial research.
With some regularity these days, I get calls from reporters wanting to know my thoughts about various schemes for attempting to use enormous technofixes -- vast space mirrors, mountains of iron filings dumped into the oceans, newly planted forests of trees gene-hacked to suck in more carbon dioxide, intentionally filling the atmosphere with sulfate pollution (creating a sort of artificial volcano), etc. -- to combat climate change. And, increasingly, my opinion has grown stronger: they're all dumb, dangerous ideas.
I generally believe we ought to keep an open mind about matters scientific, and I'm prepared still to be convinced that one or more of these ideas can work and work well. That said, as the evidence currently stands, I think the intelligent stance regarding debate on these matters is one of extreme skepticism.
First of all, geo-engineering is a lousy term. It implies the certainties of engineering. It makes profound alteration of the Earth's climate and biological systems sound as easy as building a bridge or tunnel or skyscraper, when the reality is that we don't know anywhere near enough about the impacts on systems we're talking about changing to be sure of the results of our meddling. The term "geo-experimentation" or "geo-gambling" might be more accurate.
There are clear risks to releasing bio-engineered orginisms into the environment.
The best use of such science is to design "devices", which is what synthetic biology attemps to do, using more of an engineering discipline, as oppossed to the cut-and-splice-and-see-what-happens approach of more classical genetic "engineering" with gene splicing.
The industry could be regulated to use only engineered bio-devices that can't live in a normal atmospheric and aquatic environment, and can't replicate on thier own.
We could use the potential devices to help dispose of many forms of waste, and produce energy, and be tools for nano-engineering.
As far as my genes go, I should own them, and also, in the future modify them for my own use.
I am a strong proponent of adult gene doping, in which whatever modifications one comes up with, are not transmitted via reproduction.
One could imagine a future in which "designer babies" are largely discouraged, but genetic "normalization" would be used liberally.
If a woman is pregnant and has a zygot that has down syndrom, than some intervention could normalize the condition so that the moral delema of aborting the zygot (one could debate whether or not such a concept really applies to a pre-fetus) and repair it instead.
The normal child would grow up to be an adult, and than choose whatever enhancements, modifications they would like for themselves.
I like that idea, it would balance the self determination of the individual, and minimize the risk of genetically engineered mistakes being transmitted to future generations.
However, one could argue that non-conscious genetic evolution produces many mistakes, and perhaps, conscious modification would be more desirable.
An open question.