When defining ethics, I tend to think of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s phrase: I know it when I see it.
Ethics are a subset of human interaction that underpin our work, relationships, and politics. Major companies and governments strive to make ethical decisions, often creating “Ethics Boards” — groups of people whose job it is to define and enforce ethical behavior.
It seems as though these groups should be able to clearly identify what is ethical and what is not. However, different frameworks can directly contradict, giving conflicting advice. Google’s AI Ethics Board was disbanded after only a few weeks, due to a mismatch of viewpoints among the members. This is coming from a company with the unofficial motto of “Don’t Be Evil.” If your committee can’t agree on the definition of “evil”, then the committee has no purpose.
The problem with defining ethics is that the concept is slippery. Formally, ethics is defined as “the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group”. Informally, it means making the right decision, even when no one is looking.
Ethics, like culture, are a set of principles that change based on circumstance. To make matters more complicated, they also change based on time.
Circumstances are the set of conditions surrounding the decision maker(s) at the time of decision. For example, consider the original Model T automobile. A fantastic invention, the affordable price of the machine resulted in cascading productivity among the middle class, massively increasing the range that individuals could travel for work and leisure.
Yet, in the first year of Model T production, automobile accidents were responsible for 725 deaths. It took 60 years for the first seatbelt laws to be passed in the United States. The auto industry lobbied against this change for decades, claiming that seatbelts were ineffective despite clear evidence to the contrary.
Same invention, different circumstances. At their inception, automobiles were not expected to have seatbelts. Despite the deaths caused by crashes, the lack of seatbelts wasn’t an ethical decision that Henry Ford made. Decades later, the executives of the automobile companies faced the same decision, but the decision was now an ethical one. Once the circumstances changed, executives were expected to change their opinion to match the prevailing view.
Ethics do not remain constant. Maintaining an ethical viewpoint that agrees with public opinion on even simple topics requires constant readjustment. When information about the underlying topic is evolving just as quickly, ethics become very difficult to enforce.
Technology complicates things because of how rapidly it evolves. Questions that seem simple at a small scale become complex when billions of people are involved. For emerging technologies, there are often groups of users that disproportionately benefit from their early involvement. When the positive impact of a technology has compounding benefits, this creates inequality in the form of wealth, health, or access.
Engineering biology is no different. Specifically, synthetic biology poses two fundamental ethical questions:
- How do we ensure that the benefits of the technology are maximally distributed?
- How do we minimize the potential harm caused by malicious uses of the technology?
When the technology works well, but is expensive
Techniques to produce synthetic biology mostly live in academic labs and require expensive, specialized equipment. At this phase, government subsidies and grants are one of the best ways to shape research direction and intent.
Once techniques are proven to work, they are commercialized by private companies. The techniques are still prohibitively expensive, but there are customers willing to foot the bill if the benefits prove valuable.
In the case of synthetic biology, the potential upside is huge: creating new life forms, improving intelligence, and providing disease resistance. Naturally, those that can afford these treatments will be willing to foot the bill for these perks.
If we only let the super rich benefit from the advancement of genetic therapies and augmentation, then that is obviously a problem. On the other hand, it is exactly these types of early customers that enable research to continue while companies develop more cost effective techniques.
We don’t mind these people providing the original subsidies, but once they work, we want everyone to have access. The natural tensions begin if the benefits from the technology outpace the rate of adoption. Consider a scenario:
Imagine there is a magical substance that will make you smarter, healthier, and happier. It’s abundant, and people are free to produce it as they wish. Better yet, there are companies devoted to packaging it and distributing it to as many people as possible. The problem is that this substance is also expensive. Different tiers of the substance pass on different benefits to their users. The cheapest versions still work, but only provide a fraction of utility compared to the best stuff. Because of the prohibitive costs, people are unwilling to share it with the poorest countries, instead choosing to destroy it.
The ethical choice seems obvious: we should work to evenly distribute this substance to everyone. Limiting this substance to only the rich leads to inequality and differences in quality of life and mortality.
In reality, this substance exists. It’s called “food”, and malnutrition contributes to nearly a third of all child deaths worldwide.
Improving access is not just a question of “to who” but also “how quickly.” Ethics means continuing down the path of access, even when the profit motive is lower.
When many people have the technology, including the people who don’t agree
In 2010, Barack Obama directed the Commission of Bioethical Issues to investigate the topic of syn bio and provide recommendations. The resulting document is 192 pages, and is the result of extensive conversations with scientists, policy makers, and and ethicists. Unsurprisingly, the committee discovered that experts had dissenting viewpoints.
Notice a trend here?
In November 2018, two twin babies named Lulu and Nana became international celebrities. A Chinese scientist had modified their CCR5 gene in the first ever germline genetic modification of human embryos. This distinction is important because it means that they may pass the mutation on to their children, their grandchildren, and so on. The effects from this experiment will enter the human genepool, for better or for worse.
The intention of the edit was to modify a specific gene that has been shown to inhibit the uptake of the HIV virus in affected patients. If done correctly, this change could confer disease resistance to the babies, preventing them for contracting HIV during their lifetimes.
Unfortunately, the experiment was done with incomplete evidence. Recent papers suggest that the CCR5 edit may have negative consequences in humans. For now, the scientific community is nearly universally against the edits made on the now famous “CRISPR” babies — Lulu and Nana. In the future, the evidence may not always be so clear.
As we look forward to the future of syn bio, we need to understand which topics raise ethical questions, but also why they do so. Disagreements arise not only when the evidence is incomplete, but when our interpretations of the result differs. Ethics is not a problem to be solved, but a set of questions to ask.
The only way to maintain an ethical compass is to question decisions, even when “experts” tell you otherwise.
Every once in a while I take some time to read different perspectives on “Deep” or “Frontier” technology. This particular fund has an entire section on “What will Elon do next?” I posted my favorite slide below 👇 It’s like Bumble, but for cows. Welcome to the future!!
I referred to Girard’s work in my post “Climbing The Right Hill” and his explanation of Mimetic Theory as a driving force for human desire. This book (and summary) provides answers to questions like:
- “What are the foundations of religion?”
- “Why is there violence amongst those who are similar?”
- “Why do we desire certain things and not others?”
- “Why are we often not fulfilled by the objects we desire so strongly?”
Fermat’s Library is a website that publishes summarized and annotated versions of popular academic papers.
Research papers have a readability problem. Too much content is locked up in academic jargon and published without marketing or simplified explanations for the general public. Fermat’s Library crowdsources readers and aggregates comments on academic papers across topics like economics, math, computer science, biology, and more.
🛫 Want to know how airplanes fly? Here’s an explanation of lift.
💰 What are the origins of money? Learn from Nick Szabo, an early contributor to cryptocurrencies.
🔬 What is the value of science? An explanation from famous physicist Richard Feynman.
John Carmack is a video game designer and the creator of Doom, Quake, and popular virtual reality systems like the Oculus Quest. He is now leaving his position at Facebook to work on Artificial General Intelligence. Here’s a recent podcast on the Joe Rogan Experience. It’s a long interview, but I’ve skipped forward to the part that I found interesting: John talking about his work ethic and process for creating hit after hit.
Do not be deceived: bad company corrupts good morals.
1 Corinthians 15:33
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