Moving from AI back to biology, how close are we to creating life out of replacement parts? Or nothing at all? Well, we could probably clone a human being any day. This really isn’t the big deal it sounds like: there have been human clones as long as there have been humans: they’re called identical twins. In terms of the ethics, I imagine the worst is that you’d just get some unhealthily grieving people trying to clone their dead Dad, which isn’t a good idea. Clone armies to wage your wars? Well, no, it’s not going to get any faster to grow a human being and raise it to adulthood, and, for the moment, we don’t have those artificial wombs (nor are we likely to, taking an embryo from the moment of conception). You’d probably go for those AI drones instead.

Making a different form of human is another thing entirely. “Designer” babies could happen, and the technology everyone is watching is gene editing via CRISPR/Cas9 systems. Those are getting more refined, but for now people are just trying to fix genetic diseases, which I really don’t see that there can be much argument against, beyond safety aspects. A disease is a disease, no matter the cause. It’s no more ethical to let someone die of cystic fibrosis than TB if you can cure it. And if this genetic change is transmitted through the germ line to the sufferer’s children, well, great, they won’t get CF either. Nobody is allowing “cosmetic” changes now, or, even more controversially, trying to select for “intelligence.” We don’t even know what the genes for intelligence are (we can’t even define intelligence properly, for that matter), but we do know that it is affected by multiple genes, as lot of complex characters are, so something like gene editing, which is working one gene at a time, is not going to be able to make such changes for now. Probably just as well.

There’s a nice little graphic from Science below, summarising the state of our current and future research.

Graphic by Adolfo Arranz, Science magazine

There’s a lot here that I’ve discussed before (always nice to know you’re on the right track) including transplants and prostheses. I will note in passing our own modern day Victor Frankenstein, Sergio Canavero, who intends to perform the first human “head transplant”.  First off, that’s not a head transplant, it’s a whole body transplant, because the person, whose personhood largely resides in the brain, is getting a new body from the neck down. Secondly, there’s a lot of doubt expressed about his capability to do this kind of surgery successfully: think how difficult (if not impossible) it is to restore people who have been paralysed due to spinal injuries. Last but not least: yes, ick. Sometimes the ick factor is worth listening to. This comes out of cruel and unnecessary research and, even if the surgery is successful, the person will have an entirely new body, for which the brain does not have an accurate mental map. People receiving face and hand transplants undergo extensive counselling to deal with the psychological implications of this. A whole body is a major trauma that is asking for suffering at best and psychosis at worst. Sometimes it really is too Frankenstein.

More realistically, mechanical hearts will also continue to improve. Lab-grown organs sound Frankenstein-ish; although a long way off still, research into organoids is making this more of a possibility. Importantly, however, these would be grown for your own tissue, and nobody is going to freak out if their liver doesn’t look like the old one. If you can see it, you probably have other more urgent problems. Alternatively, there is also research into using gene editing to alter pig organs so that they can be safely transplanted. That does sound a bit…icky, to be fair, and I feel it may be a stopgap until we can clone our own organs. Having genetic material from another species mixed with ours could have potentially unintended side-effects, although it’s worth noting that our genomes are riddled with DNA from viruses, so it’s not entirely unnatural.

The man in that figure doesn’t look like a monster, just like someone maybe 20 years down the line who’s had a lot of expensive cutting-edge medical treatment. I suspect the most pressing issues raised by these technologies are more social in basis: will these be treatments only for the rich, widening the gulf between humans even further? One final thought: all this technology would vastly extend health and lifespan – but it wouldn’t stop aging itself. That, with all its implications, is another Frankenfuture entirely.



Graphic from: David Schultz, Science 12 Jan 2018: Vol. 359, Issue 6372, pp. 151 DOI:10.1126/science.359.6372.151

Featured image: Giovanni Aldini, galvanism experimentation, Wellcome collection.




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