A law professor who studies the ethical, legal, and societal dimensions of new technologies responds to E. Lily Yu’s “Zero in Babel.”
A world of technological fixes in which biotechnology solutions can eradicate injury and disease. A world in which online platforms have accelerated the democratization of science and scientific tools, allowing everyday individuals to experiment on themselves.
But at what cost?
E. Lily Yu’s “Zero in Babel” depicts a futuristic world in which the daily struggles of life have, for the most part, been eradicated. So, too, purpose and meaning. Yet some things remain the same: financial inequity, lives filled with excess, and, for Imogen and her peers, the pressure to fit in, regardless of cost.
Though the techniques are different, the idea of experimenting on your body to enhance it, known as biohacking, isn’t far-out future stuff. If you look on Reddit and YouTube, you’ll find a substantive, and ever-growing, global community interested in biohacking for therapeutic and enhancement purposes. This can come through subtle modifications in their diets and lifestyles, or with technology, like consumption of nootropics (a type of supplement that supposedly improves cognitive function), elimination diets, bulletproof coffee, so-called young-blood transfusions, and various forms of implants. While this movement arguably sits on the fringes, once you’re immersed within this society, you can find a plethora of resources—conferences, workshops, venues, books, websites—designed to make the practice more accessible and safer.
Legends, super hackers, and folklore also exist within this community. Kevin Warwick, an emeritus professor at Coventry University and the University of Reading in the U.K., is arguably one of the most well-known “grinders”—a biohacking subcategory in which individuals hack their bodies with foreign objects, including hardware and chemicals. In 1988, Warwick had an RFID transmitter inserted into his arm as part of a program of research called Cyborg 1.0. Warwick and his team sought to explore “what happens when man is merged with a computer.” The chip allowed Warwick to, through his computer, control certain mundane activities within his immediate environment—turning lights on and off, opening doors. As part of a follow-up, Cyborg 2.0, “a one hundred electrode array was surgically implanted into the median nerve fibres of [his] left arm,” creating a direct link between Warwick’s neural network and a computer.
Warwick’s willingness to experiment on himself has paved the way for more sophisticated research on the interactions of brain-computer interfacing, including that of Mark Gasson, a proponent of technology-enabled biohacking. (Disclosure: Gasson and I, along with Eleni Kosta, co-edited a book on tech implants.) In 2009, Gasson was implanted with an RFID chip designed to interact with university infrastructure for the purposes of granting him physical access to certain buildings and spaces. Not content to highlight the ways the RFID implants can be used as identifying devices, Gasson went on to demonstrate how the chip, while still in situ, could be compromised with a computer virus and subsequently spread to other devices. Not too unlike the experience of Patient Zero in Babel and beyond.
RFID implants remain one of the most common biohacks, because of their versatility: They can be used for identification purposes as well as payment, security, and even interfacing with smartphones and other connected devices. But they are not the only type of implants. Aided by step-by-step instructions and access to cheap and readily components, it is not unheard of, for example, for grinders to implant magnets (so-called biomagnets) beneath the skin on their fingertips in order to increase tactile sensations with the world around them. Others have implanted small arrays of LED lights beneath the skin of their hands that, once activated, emulate a low-level bioluminescence. There is also a growing trend of individuals experimenting with transcranial direct current stimulation technologies, or tDCS. People who practice DIY tDCS are, it would seem, primarily interested in improving their cognitive functions. And with such home experimentation typically falling outside the scope of regulatory bodies such as the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission, very little oversight currently exists to ensure safety and efficacy of these practices when undertaken outside of the clinical setting.
Biohacking that employs gene-editing tools such as those used by Imogen and the citizens of Babel aren’t that far away. The past eight years have seen rapid advances in the field of gene editing, with tools such as CRISPR-Cas9 providing the scientific community with relatively cheap, easy-to-use, and more-precise ways to selectively modify DNA within living cells. These advances offer unprecedented therapeutic potential. Clinical trials targeting adult (somatic) cells having already begun. Current trials are targeted at congenital blindness, numerous forms of cancer, and HIV-1 infections. Recognizing that therapeutic applications often blur the boundaries with enhancement, the World Anti-Doping Agency, in 2018, modified its code of conduct so as to implement a ban on all forms of gene editing in sport (so-called gene doping).
Much more controversial has been the selected editing of viable human embryonic cells (“germline editing”). In November, a Chinese scientist named He Jiankui announced the birth of twin girls whose embryos had been altered, ostensibly to protect them from HIV. The revelation was met with intense criticism from scientific communities across the world, with many pioneers within the field denouncing the scientist’s actions.
He was a rogue actor pushing the scientific boundaries, with little concern about the moral and ethical dimensions of his actions. But what he did was not illegal. What’s orally repugnant (at least for some) does not autonomically give rise to moratoriums. And with little consensus between state actors over how—indeed, if at all—human germline editing should be regulated, the November announcement will be the first of many, with one Russian scientist, Denis Rebrikov, having already declared his intent to create gene-edited babies within a matter of months.
Artificial intelligence, which encompasses everything from general A.I. to machine learning, deep learning, and neural networks; the “internet of things,” in which everyday objects are purposely engineered so as to be connected with the internet and controlled wirelessly; gene editing; and other emerging technologies pose myriad challenges to those who wish to regulate them. Dynamic and global in nature, they don’t fit neatly into one regulatory box. And while policymakers, academics, and other key stakeholders continue to disagree among themselves on what constitutes “good governance” for any one of these technologies, each day there are new reports of massive data breaches. Of unknown individuals accessing highly secured and confidential information. Or of foreign individuals and entities taking over connected systems. All with the intent of doing harm.
The increasing democratization of science, as illustrated by Imogen and her friends, creates an additional layer of complexity to the regulatory challenges posed by the technologies: Tools and knowledge once held tightly by a small community are increasingly available to all, for their own experimentation and public dissemination, with limited oversight and protections.
For those of us who work at the intersection of law, regulation, and emerging technologies, “Zero in Babel” should be viewed as a cautionary tale illustrating how innovation is rapidly accelerating and traditionally distinct fields of technology are rapidly converging. While such convergence will enable society to better address grand challenges such as communicable diseases and climate change, they represent a black box in terms of governance, especially at the international level. There is no one body today that is vested with the necessary authority and legitimacy to develop an effectively and equitable global governance framework for A.I. What happens when, as depicted by Yu in “Zero in Babel,” we see a convergence of A.I., IoT, and gene editing? What will be the consequences of policymakers’ failure to act now on a deeply connected world about 35 years into the future?
How today’s technology will look tomorrow is impossible to guess. But we do know a few things: The scientific community will always push boundaries regardless of ethics and morals. Our individual desires to be better, stronger, or live longer will drive people to experiment on themselves, regardless of risk. And the more integrated our technological systems are, the greater our chance of being hacked, as the perpetrator in “Zero in Babel” describes in his manifesto: “I uploaded these edits to the same repositories where biohackers drop unapproved, unreviewed cosmedits for free or cheap download. Anyone can copy those sequences. Anyone can order customized RNA. But you’d have to be reckless, foolish, or shallow.” Yu’s words should be read as a forewarning of the challenges, tensions, and trade-offs that we, as individuals, will be forced to make in a world where technology is ubiquitous and where risks, physical or virtual, will be ever present.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.