Don’t Be Afraid of Our Bright Future

By Charles Mueller

 The story of human history has been about becoming healthier, smarter and stronger.  We have always been searching for ways to overcome the limitations imposed on us by Mother Nature using science and technology.  Through a conscious effort aimed at making us the best we can be, we have proven time and again that we can make what was once impossible, possible, always improving our way of life along the way.

 So then why did a Pew Research Center survey find evidence to support the claim that the majority of American’s are afraid of the technologies on the horizon that will make us healthier, smarter and stronger?  Why are we afraid of enhancing ourselves with bio- and neuro-technologies that can help us fight off disease and/or perform miracles like restoring vision to the blind?   

 The reality is we’ve been using S&T to improve our lives since we could.  Today millions can walk because of prosthetics, they can breathe because of organ transplants and they can access the largest database of human knowledge in the blink of an eye thanks to the Internet and their Smart phones.  We love technology, and modern advancements, while mysterious in how they work for most, are just the next phase in what we’ve always been doing.  

 We need these next generation human enhancement technologies.  Their proper use today could drastically improve the quality of life for billions.  Aside from that, the human species is a fragile, intelligent and creative species.  These technologies, if developed and applied in the right ways, can help us overcome our fragility, increase our intelligence and expand our creativity.  The future versions of us will have very different problems than the ones of today and ensuring they have the tools to survive their challenges, which might range to dealing with a natural ice age to colonizing another planet, is the greatest gift we could hope to give.  These tools, properly developed, are that gift. 

 Using these technologies is the first step in developing the knowledge about how to properly develop, manage and control these awesome technologies.  It is the first step in learning how to control and adapt our human systems to the environments of the future, be they here on Earth or out in the cosmos.  We will never be able to remove all the risk associated with their use, and there are bound to be accidents, but as humans we take equivalent risks all the time, every day.  It is good we are starting this conversation because it means there is public pressure to ensure we evolve these technologies with foresight and caution.  However, we have to ensure the dialogue doesn’t halt the progress these tools promise.  Abandoning a transparent, global pursuit of these technologies will only relegate their development to the shadows, an environment primed to foster our greatest fears. 

 We need to continue to embrace the technologies that will help us grow to be healthier, smarter and stronger, not be afraid of them.  These tools can help us start evolving ourselves with some foresight instead of blindly hoping we get to where we need to go.  We need these human new enhancement technologies so let’s figure out how to manage this reality instead of denying it.  Our future literally depends on it.

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The Box is Open, Now What?

Charles Mueller

Today we have the ability to modify the DNA in any organism we can isolate.  Yet we still don’t have the knowledge to be able to precisely know how these changes will translate into new behaviors. 

In the latest example, the people of Key Haven, Florida are about to be part of new medical experiment, approved by the FDA, and to be carried out by a company called Oxitec.  This company is planning to release millions of genetically modified mosquitos into the wild in hopes of containing the spread of the Zika virus.  Really cool idea, but do we know if there are any potential negative consequences?  Well according the FDAs Environmental Assessment the people of Key Haven have nothing to worry about.  How exactly was the FDA able to make such a call?

Most of the ability to say that certain genetic modifications in other species (or even humans) will not have an impact on human health is based on laboratory data and existing biological theory, not on actual direct evidence, like human clinical trials.  There would be no problem with this except for the fact laboratory data rarely translates into the clinic and our existing biological theory is incomplete, routinely riddled with “exceptions” that are only understood in hindsight.  The process therefore banks on a scientific consensus that boils down to an educated prediction.  So when the FDA reviewed Oxitec’s data and the theories they cited, it is simply not possible for them say with certainty that releasing genetically modified mosquitos into the wild will not have an impact on human health or the environment; no direct evidence exists to support such a claim or even a solid theory to back it up.

As scientists, we want to test our ideas and challenge our theories, but we have to do it wisely.  We have to do it with foresight and we need to accept that we may need to move more slowly towards the really exciting experiments.  It is our job to ensure we don’t become cowboys firing off experiments with unknown consequences whenever we gather enough support or have a nice financial incentive (Oxitec looks to make $400M off this technology).  We need to be humble, we need to move forward, but we must always remain cautious when our experiments are potentially playing in a sandbox we’ve never played in before.

In order to move forward properly we need to accept we probably don’t know as much as we think we do.  If we are going to continue to mess with the DNA of organisms and the nature of ecosystems let’s at least make sure we are doing our best to collect all the data about what is changing when we do this and obtain consent from the people potentially affected.  If we do that, we can use the information to better inform our policies on how to appropriately design and manage these new “experiments”.

Pandora’s box is open and the situation surrounding the use of the Oxitec mosquito is just the hot issue in the news today.  We need a strategy to fill our gaps in the knowledge of biological sciences and in how to manage this awesome power over how life on this planet exists and evolves.