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Changing life as we know it

Technology is opening a whole new world of possibilities in medical treatments and in our ability to 'cheat' nature. Modifying crops to create more sustainable growth is one thing, but how far can or should this be applied to human life?

By Gemma Milne

For most people, the words ‘artificial’ and ‘life’ only seem to make sense in science fiction movies and dystopian literature.

We all know the story: the lone scientist creates some kind of manufactured being for friendship or military uses; the creation comes to learn about the human race; and ultimately, it takes over the planet, pushing life as we know it into extinction.

With current conversations surrounding genetic editing and artificial intelligence, the words ‘artificial life’ seem to increasingly be coming together, reflecting the reality in which we currently live.

The concept of ‘creating’ life is not something society has only explored in science fiction or just in the last few years, however – it is an idea we have wrestled with time and time again throughout recent history.

2018 marks the 40 year anniversary of IVF – or, rather, the 40th birthday of Louise Brown, the first baby born by IVF on 25 July 1978.

Nowadays, IVF is relatively normal – since Louise’s inception, there have been over 6 million babies born this way – but before she was born, this method of fertilisation outside the female body was seen as fringe science meddling with life, and had very little backing from both the media and the scientific establishment.

Connie Orbach is leading an upcoming Science Museum exhibition all about IVF and its controversial history.

“As with everything, there’s a sliding scale in terms of what’s seen as useful and what’s seen as meddling,” she says.

IVF at its most simple is just allowing two people who for whatever reason can’t have a baby, to have the baby they want to have, in the same way that everyone else is able to do.”

But in 1978, the language around the procedure included phrases such as ‘test-tube babies’, ‘designer babies’ and even ‘Frankenstein science’.

“IVF in the 1960s may have been what genetic editing of embryos is today, but our perceptions do massively change over time.

“Perceptions seem to change when meaningful change is made in people’s lives.”

However, just because one example of life creation worked out well doesn’t necessarily mean all future efforts will follow suit.

Peter Mills, Assistant Director of Nuffield Bioethics, is tasked with investigating the ethical implications for the future of biomedical research.

His team are looking at the implications of artificial life across areas such as human reproduction as well as livestock production - artificial farm animals, as it were.

A key question Peter is asking in his research surrounds the idea of ‘normal’ – what is at the source of the ‘normal’ status we assign to things?

For example, we can already tweak embryos to not have a genetic disease – which arguably levels the playing field and gives that embryo more chance of a ‘normal’ human existence, as opposed to living a ‘scientifically enhanced’ lifestyle.

But at what point does this ‘levelling the playing field’ to ensure fewer people have debilitating conditions, turn into introducing extra ‘super human’ traits?

If we can ‘get rid’ of diseases through genetic manipulation, then surely we can ‘add in’ extra resistance to other forms of illness – and when you think about the cost of vaccination, this seems to be a pretty sensible public health strategy.

But what about adding extra muscle mass to someone who will be born with too little, advancing towards adding extra muscle mass to someone who wants to be stronger?

This seems to be less of a public health concern and rather one linked more to personal choice.

Drawing the line can sometimes be seen as truly simple, but can quite easily, at other times, be quite complex.

“One of the things we need to think about is to consider how much more difficult it is for people to make a decision not to go ahead with some kind of edit, based on knowledge gained from, for example, pre-natal screening for Down’s Syndrome.”

Peter explains, “The norm has changed to limit the number of Down’s Syndrome children, but it’s not a far step from then sterilising people who have the propensity to give birth to children with low IQ.

“There’s nothing wrong with norms changing, but we need to change in an orderly way, and in a way that takes account of those changes, particularly for people in positions of vulnerability – those people who might be collaterally affected without actually being involved in any of these particular choices.”

“An example being, if there are fewer people with Down’s Syndrome, and hence fewer people with genetic disorders, then how do behaviour and resources change for those with other developmental needs which maybe cannot, or have not, been ‘edited’?”

The conversation around artificial life isn’t limited to the advances in biology, however.

Artificial Intelligence is a hot topic in the IT world, and many people are already using technology with AI at its core, without even realising, prompting questions around the ethics of interacting with a human-like digital creation.

Dr Tony Hirst, Senior Lecturer at the Open University and Open Data expert, is interested in the effect that technological systems which humans use every day are having on broader human behaviour.

With some concerns being voiced about how our relationships with voice assistants and chatbots are tending towards being demanding and domineering, many are questioning if that behaviour will translate onto other humans.

“It starts to sound like the same arguments around computer games and violent films,” Tony says.

One set of arguments claim ‘just because I shout at my female-voiced smart speaker in an abusive way, doesn’t mean I will do that to my partner’ and hence the behaviour won’t transfer, but the other side asks the question ‘if you’re engaging with something in a very human way, at what point does it transfer?’”

With recent news surrounding Google Duplex – the virtual assistant which adds in ‘er’s and ‘mhmm-hmm’s to its speech to mimic that of real humans – many questions have arisen around the merging of malicious intent and machines which can essentially trick humans into thinking they are real people.

Amazon’s Alexa has also made news when it was revealed that its ‘Magic Word’ feature rewards children who say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, as well as responds to ‘Awexa’ for kids who haven’t yet learnt the letter L, which prompts questions around a machine making real-world decisions off the back of juvenile requests.

Of course the positive elements of both these examples are clear – more useful digital assistants which save you time, and more polite children.

The ethical implications of creating different forms of artificial life are complex – there doesn’t seem to be a right or wrong answer – and it’s likely the influence and repercussions of these advancements will only be known once they have already made it into society.

Who knows where we’ll be in 40 years’ time – but if we’re to learn anything about the story of IVF, its that sometimes the early views on emerging science can be farfetched and ill thought-out.

But equally, we’ve never seen computational advancement like we’re currently experiencing with AI, so it’s right that concern should be aired and discussed.

Connie believes that despite the more controversial advancements still being far away from fruition, we still must debate them now, in order to shape their future development responsibly:

“A lot of what we’re talking about is a long way off,” she says.

“But equally they may happen at some point, so we need to think about having the right kind of regulation in place, so that whatever we decide to do, it’s done within a framework.”

“One has to be optimistic,” Peter says.

“Generally, people tend to be able to work out their problems – maybe not in the smoothest or least traumatic ways – but generally people do socially respond to each other, and are moral.”

As we move forwards into further realms of artificial life, let’s hope so.

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