We Risk Programming Inequality into Our DNA

The rich will be able to pay to live longer, healthier lives, and the poor might not.

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Sep 7 2016, 2:30pm

This article appeared in the September issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

Imagine having a chip in your brain to boost your concentration, or pumping artificial blood into your veins to improve stamina. With gene editing, this may be possible.

Scientists are pioneering the ability to tweak our DNA to wipe out disease and maybe even allow us to choose desirable traits in our unborn children, like height or intelligence. None of these technologies have moved out of the lab, but Americans are already uncomfortable with them. In a survey from Pew Research Center, almost half said they wouldn't want to edit their baby's genes—whether it were to combat disease or shop for traits.

Nearly 70 percent of survey participants also said they were more worried than enthusiastic about the possibility of synthetic-blood and brain-chip implants. They saw these options as "meddling with nature," even though we've been using technology to enhance our lives for thousands of years.

But to me, the more important point raised was the concern that technological enhancements could lead to greater inequality—that the rich could pay to live longer, healthier lives, and the poor couldn't. This consideration is important because technologies like gene editing are becoming a reality faster than many of us realize.

Already Chinese scientists have twice reported that they used CRISPR, a powerful gene-editing tool, to tinker with human embryos—most recently in April. They were trying to make nonviable embryos (which couldn't have led to a live birth) impervious to HIV and then destroyed them, in keeping with policies that limit this type of research.

Another team in China is using CRISPR in the first human trial of its kind, to combat deadly lung cancer. Brain implants are still mostly speculative (though scientists have made strides in using implants that help paralyzed patients control prosthetics with their minds). But science is moving fast, so we need to vigorously debate the implications of these technologies sooner rather than later, or we'll risk programming inequality deep into our DNA.