It is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain pace with technology and its moral and ethical implications. Genetic engineers have already created chimerical creatures, part one species, part another, and pigs and rats and other animals have been used to grow Dr. Moreau-like "manimals", animals growing this or that human body part; we've seen glow-=in-the-dark rabbits, cloned sheep, pigs with human blood, super-mice with bits of human brains able to run labyrinths faster than their ordinary counterparts; we've seen robots run over toddlers and even a robot killing recently (Isaac Asimov, where are you?). And of course there is the whole transhumanist movement's advocacy of human-machine "interfaces".
Well, this isn't quite a human-machine interface, but the real question is, what is it? (This article was shared by many readers here):
Note that this little creaturoid (for want of a better term), was created using both genetic engineering and three-d printing. But that isn't the problem; the problem is this:
Like most disruption, it started with a simple idea. Kit Kevin Parker, PhD, a Harvard professor researching how to build a human heart, saw his daughter entranced by watching stingrays at the New England Aquarium in Boston. He wondered if he could engineer a muscle that could move in the same sinuous, undulating fashion. The quest for a material led to creating an artificial ray with a 3-D-printed rubber body at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard. Scientists from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Michigan, and Stanford University's Medical Center joined the team.
They reinforced the soft rubber body with a 3-D-printed gold skeleton so thin it functions like cartilage. Geneticists adapted rat heart cells so they could respond to light by contracting. Then, they were grown in a carefully arranged pattern on the rubber and around the gold skeleton.
And of course, this all comes with the now predictable appeal for everyone to think in terms of how wonderful all this is, and of all the potential health benefits it might bring:
Science of this type is fundamental for engineering special-purpose creations such as artificial worms that sniff out and eat cancer. Or bionic body parts for those who have suffered accidents or disease. Imagine having little swimmers in your system that rush to the site of a medical emergency such as a stroke. The promise of sensor-rich soft tissue frees robots to move more easily and yet not be cut off from needed input. Sensitized robot soft tissue could perform without the energy-sucking heaviness of metal or the artificial barrier of hard-plastic exoskeletons.
Thanks to disruptive, cross-disciplinary applied science like this, entrepreneurs in the next few years will be able to play on the border of what life is, what alive means, and what life can be.
The problem here isn't confined simply to what this little creaturoid is - is it animal? machine? - the problem begins to take on moral and ethical and jurisprudential aspects when one "upscales" this to engineered robots with human brains (or brain tissue) used to form its central processors. The inevitable result will be a philosophical discussion as to whether such hybrids are indeed conscious persons, or not. I've blogged about such problems before on this site, so today I want to concentrate on yet another looming issue, one brought home by GMOs:
Over the past decades, as GMOs were introduced into the food chain, we've seen increasing studies that have suggested that they, and their accompanying pesticides, have disrupted the complex environmental biospheres in which all life lives: it is now clear that there is some relationship between GMo introduction and colony collapse disorder in bee and other pollinator populations; declining bee and butterfly populations have been the result, as has declining yields and cost-to-productivity ratios in GMO vs non-GMO fields. There have also been studies documenting the rise of certain types of cancers correlating to the rise of the use of glyphosate, and so on.
The point is, one cannot just tinker with one aspect of life, without affecting all of it: individual types of life are not closed systems, they live in complex eco-spheres in highly complex symbiotic relationships. It is, in a word, a true "butterfly effect. The question of the creation of such "creaturoids" thus needs to be expanded: how will such forms affect the current system of symbiotic relationships? What are the long term effects not only to it, but to human life? Will the purported "health benefits" of such technologies really help over the long term, or will they result only in more virulent forms of the very diseases they are designed to combat. Most readers here are probably already aware of the fact that current anti-biotics are losing their potency as nature has adapted to them.
My point here is that before we rush headlong to buy into the warm and cozy reassurances that this will have health benefits, we'd better do the careful intergenerational studies of their effects, and we'd be ill-advised to entrust such studies to the very people - like we did with Mon(ster)santo and other GMO corporation-sponsored "science" - involved with the process.
See you on the flip side...