When I was growing up in the 50s, I loved the New Yorker cartoonist Chas Addams and his quirky but insightful brand of dark humor; at one point I had the wall next to my bed plastered with his cartoons, a mini-gallery of Chas Addams of my very own. One I particularly liked featured a smiling suburban couple opening their front door on Halloween to what appears as a small, otherworld alien in a spacesuit; a flying saucer sits in their yard, unseen by them. “Sorry, sonny, we’re all out of candy” reads the caption.
Another cartoon I found provocative and simultaneously disturbing I recall having no caption at all. It showed what was obviously a huge factory in which large human-shaped metal robots were being manufactured on an assembly line. The disturbing part was that constructing them were identical, large robots. Long before the “Terminator” movies, Chas Addams presented the picture of a dehumanized future where technology takes command.
In a great sense, Addams’ vision has come to pass. The modern assembly line has been dehumanized and instead populated with robotic equipment operated by sophisticated software. Our communications technology is dehumanized as well; the days of pressing “0” for a human operator are quickly drawing to a close. In fact, everywhere we look we see technology coming to bear on what once were activities of human labor and effort. While the human drudgery and danger of difficult tasks has been reduced, so have the work opportunities once filled by people. As the trend continues, it’s difficult to imagine how there will be enough jobs and work for the world’s growing population.
Robotic manufacturing is one way technology takes command, but not its most disturbing. Of far greater consequence is the revolution in genetics and the manipulation of genes, where technological advancement is racing ahead without adequate understanding, regulations or safeguards. GMO technology, the genetic modification of organisms, once a laborious and clumsy affair of splicing genes from one organism into another to produce a desired effect, has advanced into simpler territory. With the implementation of what’s called Crispr-cas9 technology, genes can be simply edited, nearly as easily as making corrections in a Word document.
Crispr is a gene-editing technique lifted from the world of bacteria and adapted to allow for gene-editing of any living organism. Gone are the days of laborious cross-breeding or gene-splicing; Crispr, the key that unlocks the genetic code, is so easy to use an undergraduate with a good lab can do it, and human nature being what it is, that’s exactly what will happen. We have no idea of what kind of newly manipulated life-forms might be unleashed, or their effects.
We regularly implement using sophisticated technologies prior to examining their benefits or liabilities. The current international terrorism crisis provides an example; digital communication has transformed ordinary life, but the unbreakable encryption it uses is now also employed by terrorists to secretly plan their attacks. Will Crispr be used by terrorists to create new, lethal viruses and bacteria? Perhaps the greater risk is a simple accident. The FDA just approved the unlabeled sale of GMO created Atlantic Salmon grown on farms in Peru. It’s not Crispr-developed Atlantic Salmon, by the way, but soon it will be.
Humanity stands at the edge of an unstable genetic precipice, and if we slip, it will be a long fall down.