Big Tech Stories, Even Bigger Controversy

For the past three months, some of my classwork has consisted of researching exponential technologies and their potential impact on the world. Specifically, I have been focusing in synthetic biology. Due to all this research, I have been asked to reflect on what I think the largest tech story of 2017 might be. When I started to contemplate what I would say, I really wanted to say it would be a breakthrough in quantum computing, but I was having difficulty establishing why.

With D-Wave’s opening of an open source quantum software environment, I figured there will almost certainly be an individual out there who creates a fantastic algorithm that maximizes the quantum abilities of the D-Wave system. However, even though such a development would accelerate our current computing capabilities, it is ultimately just a continuation of Moore’s law. Our computers will be faster, but such a development is not particularly new. I do appreciate magnitude of accomplishment that quantum computing is, but I already sort of expect quantum computing to be a success. An announcement of quantum computing would be akin to me hearing that LEDs have gotten less expensive. It is a trend that I expect.

Knowing that quantum computing is a likely eventuality, my thoughts went back to synthetic biology. Much of the research I have done has centered around growing human tissue. From repurposing the vascular systems of leaves to growing human organs in pig embryos, there is a vast amount of work going into saving human lives through synthetic biology. What is driving these new and amazing developments is a technology known as CRISPR. With the ability to edit the DNA of any organism, CRISPR is about to shake up our moral compass. While many of the experiments performed with CRISPR have not involved human DNA, many of them have. I believe experiments performed with human DNA will be the source of 2017’s biggest story.

There are already scientist manipulating human DNA with CRISPR. Recently, there have not been any experiments that have rattled the minds of regulators. By the end of 2017, I believe that experiments performed with CRISPR and human DNA will come to public attention and cause a massive out cry for increased regulation. What these experiments might be is anyone’s guess. It could be a resurgence of human cloning attempts or the accidental inclusion of human brain tissue in a different animal. Whatever the experiment is, it will cause governments worldwide to reconsider what genetic regulations they have in place. Currently, genetic research is highly unregulated. For example, the United States does not allow federal funds to be used to modify human embryos, but it does not have any regulations for genome editing with private funds.

The tech news story that will rock 2017 will not necessarily be known for the work that went into accomplishing the breakthrough in genomic editing, but rather the fear that surrounds the result. Science fiction has done well to fuel our imaginations with the extreme “eventualities” of genetic manipulation. In the novel “Oryx and Crake,” pigs are bred with human organs that can be harvested and used in humans. The dystopic side effect of this genetic manipulation is that the pigs inherit some of our intelligence and become unusually aggressive. Human-pig chimeras (or organisms with DNA from multiple species) are already being made in the real world. Sometime this year a research program will be reviled that will challenge our views on what qualifies as moral experimentation and what is not. Technological advancements have a way of sparking our imaginations into new realms of innovation. Whatever genetic breakthrough we see, it is bound to make the news over its controversy.

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