Saturday, December 1, 2018

Gene editing: There is no turning back

Recent news (1) that gene editing could successfully create a mutant form of a gene that makes the host, resistant to HIV, is likely to create scientific awe and ethical concerns. It is important to understand that the technology has arrived and there is no turning back. We will use it to solve identified tactical problems and gloss over the unknown and the unanticipated. Logically, this is the best decision.

Humans are in a bind - they have not been able to meaningfully extend life but they have found many band aids that will keep the recipient breathing, pulsating and alive for short periods of time. The constraints are clear and the micro-optimization problem, relatively simple to solve. But the relevance of their innovations and actions in the societal context, is less clear. Now that we can gene edit out of one problem without considering future ones, the technical minds will be happier than ever.

As we manage life bottoms up as the individual desires, we are approaching a discontinuity in which those with resources to accommodate the micro-objectives win over the rest. But the victory is short lived, literally. The larger question is why the individual makes decisions for herself even though the expected outcomes are utility diminishing for her, given the current technology. One reason could be the option value the individual computes with the uncertainty in emerging ideas and technologies. In this case, sustaining life even with debilitating disease states, could be dominant.

However, the individual has to consider the trade-offs systematically. Given a small probability of hitherto unknown technology that could reset pre-existing disease states with potential pain and disutility that are most likely otherwise, it is a difficult problem to solve. This problem is easier to analyze at the societal level, if the objective function can be clearly defined. For most on Earth, it appears to be perpetuating their genes and humanity in general. It is unclear if that is objective.

A thought experiment on the formation of objective functions in an advanced society could be interesting. If the individual is perpetual, you could effectively remove the noise emanating from micro-objectives. In such a society, only the macro-objective remains. Since the individual's desires are already maximized, society can extend overall objectives without constraints. What would an advanced society like to maximize? They will likely incorporate universal ambitions in a beneficial way.

Humans do not have to fear an "attack," from an advanced ET. They are unlikely to "attack," if they are advanced.


(1) https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/11/ethics-aside-does-crispr-baby-experiment-make-scientific-sense