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Tech for Autonomous Systems – Advanced Interaction Capabilities XI

A variety of studies are focussing on genetics to understand ageing and to increase the life span. In the drawing the impact of mitochondria stress in ageing of cells. Experiments with gene modification in mice have achieved an extension of life span by 30%. Although still far from human trials there is a growing agreement among scientists that life can be extended through genetic manipulation. Image credit: Berkeley


Possibly the ultimate technology for augmentation could be the genetic manipulation. Clearly this is also the one that brings to the fore most ethical issues and concern.

Genetic manipulation has become easier with the CRISPR/Cas 9 technology and laboratory procedures are now becoming standardised and (economically) affordable to scale up.

Because of this there could be no doubt that sometime, somewhere, the genetic manipulation that is now common for bacteria, plants and some animals will overflow into humans in what is called human genetic engineering. The first steps have already been taken with experiments in China on human’s embryos and discussion is raging in many Countries on longer on the ban/permission but on the boundaries.

Germinal choice technology, another name for reprogenetic technologies –the ones looking at human reproduction, are already being considered as a way to avoid genetic disorders by tweaking the genes before fertilising the egg.

Experiments on mice have shown that through genetic manipulation it is possible to create species that live longer and even extend the life span to a mouse by working on the telomeres.

The possibility offered by an ever growing genome data base, now already populated with hundreds of thousands of genomes a number to grow fast into millions in the next few years, to compare genomes and identify “problematic” genes associated to a variety of syndromes or predisposing a person to certain pathologies will boost the interest to edit the genome, both at fertilisation time and after that as a way to cure or contain symptoms.

These interventions, motivated by avoiding or recovering from undesired pathologies, are likely to be culturally accepted and approved by regulatory body since they are considered nothing more than a different “medicine”  (more effective and sometimes the only cure).

A different story is the use of genetics to augment the human being. Here, as well, there are a lot of grey areas, like the possibility of extending human life that culturally may not be seen as “bad” although it brings social and economic issues (in addition to the aspects of different degree of affordability that will create gaps in the society).

What about the possibility to augment resistance to fatigue? Or improvement to muscle strength (this is a genetic modification that occurs in a few cases, involving myostatin gene deletion, leading to increased strength)?

By observing the overall gene pool and identifying those combinations resulting in a more performant human it would be possible to extend those combinations to future generations thus augmenting their capabilities, both in physical as in thinking performance. In some cases it will be like moving artificial intelligence to the brain.

In this scenario one could claim that it would not be about modifying the human species, rather giving the advantage of selection to many more. This, however, is suspiciously resembling the selection nightmares of the past, just achieved in a more effective way (and therefore even more worrysome).

It should be noted that human augmentation through genetics can also happen through the modification of bacterial genes. Our bodies are overwhelmed by bacteria living in a symbiotic relationship. There are ten times as many microbial cells in our body as there are our own cells. Some of these microbial cells are essential to our life. And some of these microbial cells, in principles might be modified to augment human capabilities. As an example one could modify symbiotic bacterial living in our gut to have them process cellulose (like it happen for cows). That would give that human the possibility to eat cellulose, expanding his nourishment capability. Indeed that might be seen as a solution to a growing population and quest for food. Although this gene manipulation may seem to rise fewer ethical concerns it would still lead into unexpected surprises.

Indeed, the tweaking with the gene pool can obviously lead to unexplored path, moving into areas where natural selection never went or if it did it backtracked since they are not existent now. This is even more scaring.

The whole area of genetics, as soon as it shifts from the curing goal (including avoiding genetic diseases), is fraught with concerns. And for some, even if limited to curing it is difficult to accept.

Nevertheless technologies are evolving in this area as well, may be even faster than in other areas and need to be considered at a social, cultural and ethical level.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. He's currently Head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital, chair of the Symbiotic Autonomous Systems Initiative of IEEE-FDC. Until Aprile 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books. He writes a daily blog,  http://sites.ieee.org/futuredirections/category/blog/, with commentary on innovation in various technology and market areas.

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