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The Future on Our Doorstep
I did it again today.
I was having lunch with friends and there was a freshman in high school with us. We seniors were talking about how difficult it is to get seals off bottles and I said, “Yeah, it was the Tylenol scare in 1982 that made people put seals on everything.” The teenager across the table nodded politely as if he knew what we were talking about…but he didn’t. Throughout his entire life everything has always been sealed and wrapped up tight…all because some crazy person in the 1980s put poison in Tylenol bottles in Chicago and 7 people died along with several more dying through copycat poisonings. James William Lewis from New York City confessed to the crime, demanding 1 million dollars (I can’t help hearing Dr. Evil in my mind) to stop the killing…but no one was ever convicted of the actual poisonings.
So now everything is sealed for our protection.
After explaining, I looked at the high school sophomore and I told him, “I apologize. I fear that my generation is leaving you a world much worse than what we grew up in.” I tend to do that a lot now…apologizing to the youngers because of the sucky Earth they are inheriting. I do it so they might consider me kindly – or at least not hate me - later when they are dealing with climate change and lack of employment. Of course the young man said that he’d be okay. They all say that.
I will even tell youngers that the next step in human evolution is androids with artificial intelligence. That whatever creature comes next is going to be made of artificial materials that can survive the dystopian Earth humankind is producing right now. If I thought there was hope before, it all disappeared with the current United States’ president. Not so much because of who that one person is, but because he was elected by so many citizens who see science as having no worth, who choose to believe myths from the middle ages rather see science as a viable way to live one’s life.
But even as I was apologizing a glimmer of hope whispered from the back of my mind. CRISPR. CRISPR.
Have you heard of this? I saw it on 60 minutes. It is gene editing that can clip parts of DNA strands and then tack on healthy RNA sequences. Eventually the scientists exploring this field hope to be able to prevent 6000 kinds of harmful genetic disorders, curing everything from genetic blindness to cancer to Alzheimer’s.
In a study with mice who were blind since birth, injecting corrected DNA sequences into the mice caused changes in their DNA and after 3 months the once-blind mice could see. No, really, wow.
Before this discovery, Alzheimer was thought to be ready to bring down the gross national product of the United States. This was due to the large aging population and excessive price of medical treatment necessary to take care of individuals with dementia and Alzheimer. But if it is possible to inject blind mice using CRISPR methods and they receive their vision, anything is possible.
As an example the following is a quote from Wikipedia:
As of 2016 CRISPR had been studied in animal models and cancer cell lines, to learn if it can be used to repair or thwart mutated genes that cause cancer.
The first clinical trial involving CRISPR started in 2016. It involved removing immune cells from people with lung cancer, using CRISPR to edit out the gene expressed PD-1, then administrating the altered cells back to the same person. 20 other trials were under way or nearly ready, mostly in China, as of 2017.
In 2016 the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a clinical trial in which CRISPR would be used to alter T cells extracted from people with different kinds of cancer and then administer those engineered T cells back to the same people. …
In 2016-2017, a CRISPR/Cas-based approach to genetically engineering adult rodent brains in vivo was successfully demonstrated.
Of course CRISPR can’t grow new organs, it is simply working with what is there…but what a remarkable future if humans can live without fear of cancer or dementia or 5,998 other genetic disorders.
Maybe the future will be rosier than I have ever dared to believe.
dandrew72 - To tackle the first part first, just a few years ago a young man (barely 21) I knew related a story about his father. In the story, his father was lost out in the boonies somewhere, circa the early to mid 1980s. In the kid's telling, his dad found a place where he could use his cell phone to call someone to come pick him up. In actuality, his dad must have found something out there somewhere with a payphone or similar with which he used to make the call. There were no cellphones in the early to mid-1980s.
Because the young man was, a young man, that had grown up knowing cell phones, the idea of a world without them was beyond him. Instead, his present day reality infused his view of a story his dad once told him.
So I wonder, with this notion of DNA-RNA "editing", what are we really placing on our doorstep. Some schools of thought believe the arc of humanity always trends toward the good and the better. Others the opposite. I'd say it's both. And as such, the ramifications of non-state actors or criminal elements in any number of ways using or trafficking in edited DNA-RNA are astounding.
Ironspider - "From each according to ability we'll give away, To each according to his need, Until the years grind into dust..." Leviathan - by the band Redemption. Humans don't have the necessary levels of altruism to make a future where everyone enjoys equality. No matter what we achieve, there will always be those who need to be seen as being above others. Wealth, education, genetics - it doesn't matter what, there have to be losers in order for there to be winners. Rule a house, a company or a country. For every Elon Musk there are a thousand would-be Putins, Mays or Trumps. As a species, humans suck. Perhaps CRISPR will make a difference... but probably only to the wealthy. After all, why would the poor need to be kept healthy - "If they would rather die," said Scrooge, "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.".
Modelling_Mushi - @micheledutcher - I get your point and yes, sad it is. Perhaps it has always been like that, that underneath the veneer of civility the heart of bigotry and bias has always beat. As I have seen, it is one thing to say "all peoples are created equal" when one is in a superior position, quite another to live the words when the possibility of those people becoming equal is a real one. To extend this towards @GordonRowlinson and @micheledutcher reply look at how the trans-national drug companies behave when left to themselves to see how any 'future tech genetics' will be distributed. Add to this the current fad for reducing taxes regardless of the necessity or rightness of doing so; this strips money from the public purse that could be used to provide some level of 'future tech genetics' to all, and reinforces the income divide that entrenches the societal divide. Add it together and you get two quotes from the 'good book': "The poor have ye with you always" and "To those who have, more will be given; to those who have not, even that which they have will be taken away".
'...If I thought there was hope before, it all disappeared with the current United States’ president....' There are one hundred and ninety three-ish countries in the world. The vast majority of them are not without hope. Look beyond your borders. Find your hope there.
micheledutcher - For Gordon- in the TV series Once Upon a Time, rumplestiltskin keeps telling people: "All magic comes with a price". It seems that all advances come with a price as well.
Perhaps with major diseases eliminated, we will have more funds available to make certain that everyone gets the upgrade. If not it will certainly be an unfair system of the rich being healthy and the poor being ...well, like we are now. It's the bread and butter of science fiction novels.
micheledutcher - For modeling mushi: trumps election goes much deeper than just the democratic process. I have lost 40% of my acquaintances because of the divide here in the U.S. Many people who live in the countryside came out as Nazis...emboldened by trump. I believe that all people are created equal but they demand that blacks and Latinos are lazy and rapists. That women have no value besides making babies. That the disabled should starve because they are a drain on the system. We are in the mist of a social civil war. Sad.
Modelling_Mushi - I didn't see the 60 Minutes piece you mentioned, but your comment "If I thought there was hope before, it all disappeared with the current United States’ president" intrigued me. Politics in all its forms sucks, however the democratic or representative democratic processes in both our countries are plagues/blessed by one thing - myopia, short term thinking. On the one hand it cripples all real, meaningful progress as most of that progress (I would suggest) is long term, certainly greater than 4 to 8 years; on the other hand it means that it is possible that the worst excesses of dogma and ideology can be stopped in the same period (with remedial action needing longer, of course).
If you really want to lose hope (or gain it) look to China and Russia. They have heads of state that, for all intents and purposes, are there for life (with the Medvedev-Putin merry-go-round counting as one person). They have the ability, time-frame and power to make long term, real changes to policy and practice. We may disagree with their human rights record; we may feel threatened by their growing military power while ours shrinks (now doesn't that sound familiar to those countries who watched the USA rise and the UK before that?); but the ultimate question is whether or not they have the brains and desire to really make homo sapiens a long term proposition. Pax Romana didn't last forever; Pax Britannica didn't last forever; and neither will Pax Americana.
Be optimistic or depressed as you see fit.
GordonRowlinson - I saw the 60 minutes story too. I found it amazing, hopeful and frightening. This will cure a whole bunch of diseases that plague the human race. But the dark side is where does this lead? Do we all re-engineer our bodies to become smarter, stronger, more attractive? I am reminded of the Ethan Hawke movie Gattaca where the human race becomes two classes. The upper class is the genetically engineered people who get all the good jobs. The non engineered people are looked down upon and become janitors and other lowly jobs. How do we decide what we should engineer? Yes, this might be the future on our doorstep.
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