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Morals in technology development at the Monadnock Lyceum

  • Kevin M. Esvelt speaks at the Monadnock Lyceum on "Technology and Moral Obligations" at the Peterborough Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday. Staff photo by Ashley Saari

  • Kevin M. Esvelt speaks at the Monadnock Lyceum on "Technology and Moral Obligations" at the Peterborough Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday. Staff photo by Ashley Saari—Monadnock Ledger-Transcript



Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Monday, July 30, 2018 12:3PM

When developing technology that will move the human race forward, and have profound effects, science needs a watchdog, said Kevin Esvelt, during his talk at the Monadnock Lyceum on Sunday.

Esvelt, an assiant professor of the MIT Media Lab, spoke to the crowd in the Peterborough Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday about the implications of a newly emerging technology, the CRISPR “gene drive,” which has the potential to edit genomes.

“That’s a pretty powerful phenomenon,” Esvelt said, during his talk, entitled “Technology and Moral Obligations.”

And immediately brings to mind potential uses to fight global disease – such as changing the genes of mosquitos to wipe out malaria, he said.

The very concept of “editing genes” sounds scary, he said, but gene drives like CRISPR are actually pretty safe, as earth-shaking technologies go, because it’s a slow technology, that would require multiple generations to impact a wild population, and because it’s technically reversible. If a population is released with a dominant gene that has some unintended consequence, then releasing a new population with a reversed gene could send the population back to square one.

But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t need to be looked at closely, Esvelt said.

“It raises an awful lot of moral questions,” he said.

It comes from both sides, Esvelt said. There is the moral question of whether or not people should be altering the genes of wild populations at all. And the question of what the cost is if we don’t. With the mosquito example, for instance, a million people die from malaria every year, with the largest portion of deaths being children under the age of five.

On the other hand, misuse of the technology – even perceived misuse, or just public backlash – could set back gene editing technology being put into use by years, with the heavy consequence of allowing malaria to continue unchecked.

Science, as it stands today, Esvelt said, is usually developed by small groups of specialists, and it’s not encouraged for scientists to share their work, meaning that not only are potential collaborations and knowledgesharing lost, but also that sometimes the moral questions are left for only the developers of the technology to answer.

“Are we wise enough, on our own, to answer those questions? The answer is no,” Esvelt said.

Esvelt is currently involved in a project that would involve editing the genes of white-footed mice to make them resistant to Lyme disease – using currently existing mice antibodies – and releasing them into closed systems like the islands of Nantucket or Martha’s Vinyard. And the watchdogs of that project are the people that live there.

The project is using a system of community feedback, complete with pre-determined stopping points where the communities can call off the venture. It was through that system that the community confirmed that they didn’t want any genes from other organisms injected into the mice, for example, only making more prominent antibodies that already existed within the species.

“We invite people to decide what future they want,” Esvelt said.

A podcast of all of this year’s Lyceum speakers can be found on www.monadnocklyceum.org.

Programs will be broadcast on New Hampshire Public Radio at 10 p.m. on Saturdays.

Next week, the Lyceum speakers will be the musicians of Seven Times Salt speaking on “Pilgrims’ Progress: Music of the Plimoth Colony Settlers.” The talk begins at 11 a.m. at the Peterborough Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday.