A panel of leading experts gathered this week at a sold-out event in downtown Manhattan to talk about the science and the ethics of enhancing human beings -- making people "better than well" through biomedical interventions. Here are the ten most memorable quotes from their lively discussion, which was organized by the New York Academy of Sciences, the Aspen Brain Institute, and the Hastings Center.
1) "It's okay for us to be enhanced relative to our ancestors; we are with the smallpox vaccine." —Dr. George Church, iconic genetics pioneer; professor at Harvard University and MIT
Church was more concerned with equitable access to enhancements than the morality of intervening in the first place. "We missed the last person with polio and now it's spread around the world again," he lamented.
Discussing how enhancements might become part of our species in the near-future, he mentioned the possibility of doctors slightly "overshooting" an intervention to reverse cognitive decline, for example; or younger people using such an intervention off-label. Another way might be through organ transplants, using organs that are engineered to not get cancer, or to be resistant to pain, pathogens, or senescence.
2) "All the technology we will need to fundamentally transform our species already exists. Humans are made of code, and that code is writable, readable and hackable." —Dr. Jamie Metzl, a technology futurist and geopolitical expert; Senior Fellow of the Atlantic Council, an international affairs think tank
The speed of change is on an exponential curve, and the world where we're going is changing at a much faster rate than we're used to, Metzl said. For example, a baby born 1000 years ago compared to one born today would be basically the same. But a baby born 1000 years in the future would seem like superman to us now, thanks to new capabilities that will become embedded in future people's genes over time. So how will we get from here to there?
"We will line up for small incremental benefits. By the time people are that changed, we will have adapted to a whole new set of social norms."
But, he asked, will well-meaning changes dangerously limit the diversity of our species?
3) "We are locked in a competitive arms race on both an individual and communal level, which will make it very difficult to put the brakes on. Everybody needs to be part of this conversation because it's a conversation about the future of our species." —Jamie Metzl
China, for one, plans to genetically sequence half of all newborns by 2020. In the U.S., it is standard to screen for 34 health conditions in newborns (though the exact number varies by state). There are no national guidelines for newborn genomic screening, though the National Institutes of Health is currently funding several research studies to explore the ethical concerns, potential benefits, and limitations of doing so on a large scale.
4) "I find freedom in not directing exactly how my child will be." —Josephine Johnston, Director of Research at the Hastings Center, the world's oldest bioethics research institute
Johnston cautioned against a full-throttled embrace of biomedical enhancements. Parents seeking to remake nature to serve their own purpose would be "like helicopter parenting on steroids," she said. "It could be a kind of felt obligation, something parents don't want to do but feel they must in order to compete." She warned this would be "one way to totally ruin the parenting experience altogether. I would hate to be the kind of parent who selects and controls her child's traits and talents."
Among other concerns, she worried about parents aiming to comply with social norms through technological intervention. Would a black mom, for example, feel pressure to make her child's skin paler to alleviate racial bias?
5) "We need to seriously consider the risks of a future if a handful of private companies own and monetize a map of our thoughts at any given moment." – Meredith Whittaker, Research Scientist, Open Research Lead at Google, and Co-Director of New York University's AI Now Institute, examining the social implications of artificial intelligence
The recent boom in AI research is the result of the consolidation of the tech industry's resources; only seven companies have the means to create artificial intelligence at scale, and one of the innovations on the horizon is brain-computer interfaces.
Facebook, for example, has a team of 60 engineers working on BCIs to let you type with your mind. Elon Musk's company Neuralink is working on technology that is aiming for "direct lag-free interactions between our brains and our devices."
But who will own this data? In the future, could the National Security Agency ask Neuralink, et al. for your thought log?
6) "The economic, political, and social contexts are as important as the tech itself. We need to look at power, who gets to define normal, and who falls outside of this category?" – Meredith Whittaker
Raising concerns about AI bias, Whittaker discussed how data is often coded by affluent white men from the Bay Area, potentially perpetuating discrimination against women and racial minorities.
Facial recognition, she said, is 30 percent less accurate for black women than for white men. And voice recognition systems don't hear women's voices as well as men's, among many other examples. The big question is: "Who gets to decide what's normal? And how do we ensure that different versions of normal can exist between cultures and communities? It is impossible not see the high stakes here, and how oppressive classifications of normal can marginalize people."
From left: George Church, Jamie Metzl, Josephine Johnston, Meredith Whittaker
7) "We might draw a red line at cloning or germline enhancements, but when you define those or think of specific cases, you realize you threw the baby out with the bathwater." —George Church, answering a question about whether society should agree on any red lines to prohibit certain interventions
"We should be focusing on outcomes," he suggested. "Could enhancement be a consequence of curing a disease like cognitive decline? That would concern me about drawing red lines."
8) "We have the technology to create Black Mirror. We could create a social credit score and it's terrifying." —Meredith Whittaker
In China, she said, the government is calculating scores to rank citizens based on aggregates of data like their educational history, their friend graphs, their employment and credit history, and their record of being critical of the government. These scores have already been used to bar 12 million people from travel.
"If we don't have the ability to make a choice," she said, "it could be a very frightening future."
9) "These tools will make all kinds of wonderful realities possible. Nobody looks at someone dying of cancer and says that's natural." —Jamie Metzl
Using biomedical interventions to restore health is an unequivocal moral good. But other experts questioned whether there should be a limit in how far these technologies are taken to achieve normalcy and beyond.
10) "Cancer's the easy one; what about deafness?" —Josephine Johnston, in retort
Could one person's disability be another person's desired state? "We should be so suspicious" of using technology to eradicate different ways of being in the world, she warned. Hubris has led us down the wrong path in the past, such as when homosexuality was considered a mental disorder.
"If we sometimes make mistakes about disease or dysfunction," she said, "we might make mistakes about what is a valid experience of the human condition."
The white two-seater car that rolls down the street in the Sorrento Valley of San Diego looks like a futuristic batmobile, with its long aerodynamic tail and curved underbelly. Called 'Sol' (Spanish for "sun"), it runs solely on solar and could be the future of green cars. Its maker, the California startup Aptera, has announced the production of Sol, the world's first mass-produced solar vehicle, by the end of this year. Aptera co-founder Chris Anthony points to the sky as he says, "On this sunny California day, there is ample fuel. You never need to charge the car."
If you live in a sunny state like California or Florida, you might never need to plug in the streamlined Sol because the solar panels recharge while driving and parked. Its 60-mile range is more than the average commuter needs. For cloudy weather, battery packs can be recharged electronically for a range of up to 1,000 miles. The ultra-aerodynamic shape made of lightweight materials such as carbon, Kevlar, and hemp makes the Sol four times more energy-efficient than a Tesla, according to Aptera. "The material is seven times stronger than steel and even survives hail or an angry ex-girlfriend," Anthony promises.
Co-founder Steve Fambro opens the Sol's white doors that fly upwards like wings and I get inside for a test drive. Two dozen square solar panels, each the size of a large square coaster, on the roof, front, and tail power the car. The white interior is spartan; monitors have replaced mirrors and the dashboard. An engineer sits in the driver's seat, hits the pedal, and the low-drag two-seater zooms from 0 to 60 in 3.5 seconds.
It feels like sitting in a race car because the two-seater is so low to the ground but the car is built to go no faster than 100 or 110 mph. The finished car will weigh less than 1,800 pounds, about half of the smallest Tesla. The average car, by comparison, weighs more than double that. "We've built it primarily for energy efficiency," Steve Fambro says, explaining why the Sol has only three wheels. It's technically an "auto-cycle," a hybrid between a motorcycle and a car, but Aptera's designers are also working to design a four-seater.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up.
Transportation is currently the biggest source of greenhouse gases. Developing an efficient solar car that does not burden the grid has been the dream of innovators for decades. Every other year, dozens of innovators race their self-built solar cars 2,000 miles through the Australian desert.
More effective solar panels are finally making the dream mass-compatible, but just like other innovative car ideas, Aptera's vision has been plagued with money problems. Anthony and Fambro were part of the original crew that founded Aptera in 2006 and worked on the first prototype around the same time Tesla built its first roadster, but Aptera went bankrupt in 2011. Anthony and Fambro left a year before the bankruptcy and went on to start other companies. Among other projects, Fambro developed the first USDA organic vertical farm in the United Arab Emirates, and Anthony built a lithium battery company, before the two decided to buy Aptera back. Without a billionaire such as Elon Musk bankrolling the risky process of establishing a whole new car production system from scratch, the huge production costs are almost insurmountable.
But Aptera's founders believe they have found solutions for the entire production process as well as the car design. Most parts of the Sol's body can be made by 3D printers and assembled like a Lego kit. If this makes you think of a toy car, Anthony assures potential buyers that the car aced stress tests and claims it's safer than any vehicle on the market, "because the interior is shaped like an egg and if there is an impact, the pressure gets distributed equally." However, Aptera has yet to release crash test safety data so outside experts cannot evaluate their claims.
Instead of building a huge production facility, Anthony and Fambro envision "micro-factories," each less than 10,000 square feet, where a small crew can assemble cars on demand wherever the orders are highest, be it in California, Canada, or China.
If a part of the Sol breaks, Aptera promises to send replacement parts to any corner of the world within 24 hours, with instructions. So a mechanic in a rural corner in Arkansas or China who never worked on a solar car before simply needs to download the instructions and replace the broken part. At least that's the idea. "The material does not rust nor fatigue," Fambro promises. "You can pass the car onto your grandchildren. When more efficient solar panels hit the market, we simply replace them."
More than 11,000 potential buyers have already signed up; the cheapest model costs around $26,000 USD and Aptera expects the first cars to ship by the end of the year.
Two other solar carmakers are vying for the pole position in the race to be the first to market: The German startup Sono has also announced it will also produce its first solar car by the end of this year. The price tag for the basic model is also around $26,000, but its concept is very different. From the outside, the Sion looks like a conservative minivan for a family; only a closer look reveals that the dark exterior is made of solar panels. Sono, too, nearly went bankrupt a few years ago and was saved through a crowdfunding campaign by enthusiastic fans.
Meanwhile, Norwegian company Lightyear wants to produce a sleek solar-powered luxury sedan by the end of the year, but its price of around $180,000 makes it unaffordable for most buyers.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up. How often will the cars need to be repaired? What happens when snow and ice cover the solar panels? Also, you can't park the car in a garage if you need the sun to charge it.
Critics, including students at the Solar Car team at the University of Michigan, say that mounting solar panels on a moving vehicle will never yield the most efficient results compared to static panels. Also, they are quick to point out that no company has managed to overcome the production hurdles yet. Others in the field also wonder how well the solar panels will actually work.
"It's important to realize that the solar mileage claims by these companies are likely the theoretical best case scenario but in the real world, solar range will be significantly less when you factor in shading, parking in garages, and geographies with lower solar irradiance," says Evan Stumpges, the team coordinator for the American Solar Challenge, a competition in which enthusiasts build and race solar-powered cars. "The encouraging thing is that I have seen videos of real working prototypes for each of these vehicles which is a key accomplishment. That said, I believe the biggest hurdle these companies have yet to face is successfully ramping up to volume production and understanding what their profitability point will be for selling the vehicles once production has stabilized."
Professor Daniel M. Kammen, the founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the world's foremost experts on renewable energy, believes that the technical challenges have been solved, and that solar cars have real advantages over electric vehicles.
"This is the right time to be bullish. Cutting out the charging is a natural solution for long rides," he says. "These vehicles are essentially solar panels and batteries on wheels. These are now record low-cost and can be built from sustainable materials." Apart from Aptera's no-charge technology, he appreciates the move toward no-conflict materials. "Not only is the time ripe but the youth movement is pushing toward conflict-free material and reducing resource waste....A low-cost solar fleet could be really interesting in relieving burden on the grid, or you could easily imagine a city buying a bunch of them and connecting them with mass transit." While he has followed all three new solar companies with interest, he has already ordered an Aptera car for himself, "because it's American and it looks the most different."
After taking a spin in the Sol, it is startling to switch back into a regular four-seater. Rolling out of Aptera's parking lot onto the freeway next to all the oversized gas guzzlers that need to stop every couple of hundreds of miles to fill up, one can't help but think: We've just taken a trip into the future.
Last summer, when fast and cheap Covid tests were in high demand and governments were struggling to manufacture and distribute them, a group of independent scientists working together had a bit of a breakthrough.
Working on the Just One Giant Lab platform, an online community that serves as a kind of clearing house for open science researchers to find each other and work together, they managed to create a simple, one-hour Covid test that anyone could take at home with just a cup of hot water. The group tested it across a network of home and professional laboratories before being listed as a semi-finalist team for the XPrize, a competition that rewards innovative solutions-based projects. Then, the group hit a wall: they couldn't commercialize the test.
They wanted to keep their project open source, making it accessible to people around the world, so they decided to forgo traditional means of intellectual property protection and didn't seek patents. (They couldn't afford lawyers anyway). And, as a loose-knit group that was not supported by a traditional scientific institution, working in community labs and homes around the world, they had no access to resources or financial support for manufacturing or distributing their test at scale.
But without ethical and regulatory approval for clinical testing, manufacture, and distribution, they were legally unable to create field tests for real people, leaving their inexpensive, $16-per-test, innovative product languishing behind, while other, more expensive over-the-counter tests made their way onto the market.
Who Are These Radical Scientists?
Independent, decentralized biomedical research has come of age. Also sometimes called DIYbio, biohacking, or community biology, depending on whom you ask, open research is today a global movement with thousands of members, from scientists with advanced degrees to middle-grade students. Their motivations and interests vary across a wide spectrum, but transparency and accessibility are key to the ethos of the movement. Teams are agile, focused on shoestring-budget R&D, and aim to disrupt business as usual in the ivory towers of the scientific establishment.
Ethics oversight is critical to ensuring that research is conducted responsibly, even by biohackers.
Initiatives developed within the community, such as Open Insulin, which hopes to engineer processes for affordable, small-batch insulin production, "Slybera," a provocative attempt to reverse engineer a $1 million dollar gene therapy, and the hundreds of projects posted on the collaboration platform Just One Giant Lab during the pandemic, all have one thing in common: to pursue testing in humans, they need an ethics oversight mechanism.
These groups, most of which operate collaboratively in community labs, homes, and online, recognize that some sort of oversight or guidance is useful—and that it's the right thing to do.
But also, and perhaps more immediately, they need it because federal rules require ethics oversight of any biomedical research that's headed in the direction of the consumer market. In addition, some individuals engaged in this work do want to publish their research in traditional scientific journals, which—you guessed it—also require that research has undergone an ethics evaluation. Ethics oversight is critical to ensuring that research is conducted responsibly, even by biohackers.
Bridging the Ethics Gap
The problem is that traditional oversight mechanisms, such as institutional review boards at government or academic research institutions, as well as the private boards utilized by pharmaceutical companies, are not accessible to most independent researchers. Traditional review boards are either closed to the public, or charge fees that are out of reach for many citizen science initiatives. This has created an "ethics gap" in nontraditional scientific research.
Biohackers are seen in some ways as the direct descendents of "white hat" computer hackers, or those focused on calling out security holes and contributing solutions to technical problems within self-regulating communities. In the case of health and biotechnology, those problems include both the absence of treatments and the availability of only expensive treatments for certain conditions. As the DIYbio community grows, there needs to be a way to provide assurance that, when the work is successful, the public is able to benefit from it eventually. The team that developed the one-hour Covid test found a potential commercial partner and so might well overcome the oversight hurdle, but it's been 14 months since they developed the test--and counting.
In short, without some kind of oversight mechanism for the work of independent biomedical researchers, the solutions they innovate will never have the opportunity to reach consumers.
In a new paper in the journal Citizen Science: Theory & Practice, we consider the issue of the ethics gap and ask whether ethics oversight is something nontraditional researchers want, and if so, what forms it might take. Given that individuals within these communities sometimes vehemently disagree with each other, is consensus on these questions even possible?
We learned that there is no "one size fits all" solution for ethics oversight of nontraditional research. Rather, the appropriateness of any oversight model will depend on each initiative's objectives, needs, risks, and constraints.
We also learned that nontraditional researchers are generally willing (and in some cases eager) to engage with traditional scientific, legal, and bioethics experts on ethics, safety, and related questions.
We suggest that these experts make themselves available to help nontraditional researchers build infrastructure for ethics self-governance and identify when it might be necessary to seek outside assistance.
Independent biomedical research has promise, but like any emerging science, it poses novel ethical questions and challenges. Existing research ethics and oversight frameworks may not be well-suited to answer them in every context, so we need to think outside the box about what we can create for the future. That process should begin by talking to independent biomedical researchers about their activities, priorities, and concerns with an eye to understanding how best to support them.
Christi Guerrini, JD, MPH studies biomedical citizen science and is an Associate Professor at Baylor College of Medicine. Alex Pearlman, MA, is a science journalist and bioethicist who writes about emerging issues in biotechnology. They have recently launched outlawbio.org, a place for discussion about nontraditional research.