Introducing his students to the study of the human brain Jeff Lichtman, a Harvard Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology, once asked: “If understanding everything you need to know about the brain was a mile, how far have we walked?”. He received answers like ‘three-quarters of a mile’, ‘half a mile’, and ‘a quarter of a mile’.
The professor’s response?: “I think about three inches.”
Last month, Lichtman’s quip made it into the pages of a new report by the Royal Society which examines the prospects for neural (or “brain-computer”) interfaces, a hot research area that has seen billions of dollars of funding plunged into it over the last few years, and not without cause. It is projected that the worldwide market for neurotech products – defined as “the application of electronics and engineering to the human nervous system” – will reach as much as $13.3 billion by 2022.
Last month, Oscar Schwartz wrote a byline for OneZero with a familiarly provocative headline: “What If an Algorithm Could Predict Your Unborn Child’s Intelligence?”. The piece described the work of Genomic Prediction, a US company using machine learning to pick through the genetic data of embryos to establish the risk of health conditions. Given the title of the article, the upshot won’t surprise you. Prospective parents can now use this technology to expand their domain over the “design” of new offspring – and “cognitive ability” is among the features up for selection.
Setting aside the contention over whether intelligence is even inheritable, the ethical debate around this sort of pre-screening is hardly new. Gender selection has been a live issue for years now. Way back in 2001, Oxford University bioethicist Julian Savulescu caused controversy by proposing a principle of “Procreative Beneficence” stating that “couples (or single reproducers) should select the child, of the possible children they could have, who is expected to have the best life, or at least as good a life as the others, based on the relevant, available information.” (Opponents to procreative beneficence vociferously pointed out that – regrettably – Savulescu’s principle would likely lead to populations dominated by tall, pale males…).