AI and Human Gene Editing

Techno-Pessimism and Techno-Scams
Biopolitical Times
A mask featured in the movie

Coded Bias is on Netflix; the trailer is
also at The Algorithmic Justice League

A few weeks ago, Marc Andreessen, a billionaire venture capitalist who got his start helping to create the first successful web browser, published The Techno-Optimist Manifesto on his website and caused something of a sensation. His screed characterizes Artificial Intelligence as, inter alia, “our alchemy, our Philosopher’s Stone” and “a universal problem solver.” 

Not everyone agrees. In fact, the reaction of “techno-pessimists” (or realists) has been surprisingly vigorous. Jag Bhalla and Nathan J. Robinson published a rebuttal in Current Affairs: ‘Techno-Optimism’ is Not Something You Should Believe In. Lucas Ropek at Gizmodo insisted that “Marc Andreessen Is Wrong About Everything” because “he’s too rich to understand that his belief system is stupid.” Ropek backed up his assertions at length. Moreover, some financial analysts are predicting a financial “cold shower” for AI in the near future, indeed that it will cause a “nearly unavoidable” financial crash. 

AI is certainly a hot topic. On October 30, President Biden announced a sweeping executive order to assert US leadership on AI. The same week, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak convened a two-day summit in the UK. Many others are weighing in too, about bioweapons, oversight, lack of profitability, and the coming AI job apocalypse

Meanwhile, some experts deeply steeped in the AI debate are warning about the social justice implications. Joy Buolamwini, the MIT-based founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, which aims to “shift the AI ecosystem towards equitable and accountable AI,” says in an excerpt from her new book, Unmasking AI:

We need to focus on the AI harms that already exist: Fears about potential future existential risk are blinding us to the fact AI systems are already hurting people here and now.

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RAND Europe, a research arm of RAND, falls on the optimist side of the AI discussion.  Their recent report adds an interesting wrinkle by throwing gene editing (which they abbreviate as GE) into the mix, blending its impacts with those of machine learning, aka AI/ML, a subset of AI:

Machine Learning and gene editing at the helm of a societal evolution
The integration of gene editing and machine learning is in an early stage of maturity: Lack of balanced oversight could either stifle innovation or create inequities.

The full report including appendices is 112 pages long; a seven-page executive summary is available separately. The premise of the report is that:

Application of ML (as one aspect of AI) to GE and its underpinning bioinformatics platforms will catapult the revolutionary potential of GE from ‘hypothetical’ to imminent.

That certainly seems possible, and should concentrate the minds of those concerned about the implications. The report identifies 66 technologies “at the intersection of GE and ML.” These include polygenic risk scoring, enabling controlled and predictable medical processes, and potentially global bioterrorism events. RAND is all in favor of heritable human genome editing, and makes that quite obvious. For example: 

Europe’s Oviedo Convention is the only international convention that oversees the ethics of human GE and is employed by the European Union to push the agenda on its member states to highly regulate the use of GE on human DNA.

The report does not cite or mention the CRISPR Journal article disclosing that 70 countries categorically prohibit heritable human genome editing.

RAND slams Europe on agricultural GE too. For example “the EU has a pre-emptive style of policy towards GE, effectively banning the use of GM crops (much of which has been done without scientific justification and primarily motivated by public sentiment).” 

Ouch. Finger on the scale, much?

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On what may perhaps seem a more frivolous note, Malcolm and Simone Collins, who are making a good living out of advocating hipster eugenics and natalism, scored another feature, this time in the magazine section of Le Monde. In addition to many details of their personal opinions, we learn that they plan to vote for Donald Trump in the next US presidential election. More to the point, the article reveals that the Collinses were the beneficiaries in 2022 of a $482,000 grant from Estonian billionaire and “effective altruistJaan Tallin. This support for their initiative came via Tallin’s Survival and Flourishing Fund and the Pragmatist Foundation, which publishes the Collinses’ books. They insist, however, that they derive most of their income from their travel agency and writing. 

We also learn that Simone Collins is pregnant with their fourth child. Clearly boasting, she announces that “to my knowledge, this is the first baby who will be selected for his intelligence.” The Collinses elect not to tell Le Monde where and how the polygenic embryo selection occurred; they say they want to forestall backlash. 

Le Monde quotes Katie Hasson, Associate Director of the Center for Genetics and Society, explaining the links between embryo selection and eugenics: 

To the extent that it’s trying to improve the population or eliminate certain traits through reproduction, it is entirely consistent with eugenics. This is not the same thing as the mass eugenics promoted by the state at the beginning of the 20th century. It’s more of an individual approach, facilitated by technology, but which could lead to the same results.

The article also quotes University of Virginia professor of psychology Eric Turkheimer, who points out that the Collinses may be disappointed in the results of their endeavor. “They will mostly waste their money,” he says. "It’s a scam.”