Many of us are familiar with the so-called Internet of Things which allows the connectivity of everyday items like thermostats, lights, and refrigerators. Want your home warm upon arrival? No problem, just bump up the temperature on your smart phone while still in the car.
But are we ready for the Internet of Bodies which would “enable people to be fully integrated into the digital world and become part of the Internet of Things”? Already implants are available which monitor and report blood sugar levels to smart phones, and new developments would allow the app and implant to trigger an electrical signal prompting cells to release needed insulin in diabetics. That is, like we can set the thermostat from the car, we could regulate gene expression of insulin from the very same smart phone.
For a diabetic individual, this could be a life-changing technology. Combined with remarkable advances in artificial intelligence (AI) which have dramatically increased the ability to understand how genes “turn on or off,” as it were, scientists are well on the way to developing molecular therapies using external computers to govern gene regulation in individuals.
This sounds amazing, and, indeed, AI and machine learning are described by some as the “new superpower” in medical treatment, including in the race to discover COVID vaccine, with some projecting that artificial intelligence could shave years off access to vaccinations.
There’s even the possibility of using nanotechnology—think engineering technology at the size of one-billionth of a meter, small enough to “control individual atoms and molecules”—in the treatment of COVID and other viruses. Nanomaterials could deliver medications in extremely precise ways, or slow the spread of the virus, or, even more remarkably, could stimulate or suppress the immune response itself. That is, nanotechnology could control, not simply predict or condition how the immune system functions at the molecular level.
These advances are remarkable, and incredibly promising in many ways. At the same time, concerns abound, particularly about privacy. If AI from Central Command has access to your bodily information—unprecedented data, down to the molecular level—then Central Command possesses a vast array of your personal information, which could be used, or misused, in a variety of ways. Who controls this information? Who has access to this information? How is it safeguarded? For how long is it stored? Would potential employers have access? The questions are numerous.
Furthermore, just as the Internet of Things opens the possibility of your smart speaker being hacked so that others can listen in on private conversations, it’s worth pausing to consider the even more extreme case of your body being hacked. At the point where an external computer can govern your gene regulation, your body could be held victim to ransomware or “viruses” of a completely different kind—the digital variety. Even without the threat of bad-actors, the idea of data and genetic function under the sway of corporations or governments gives rise to multiple concerns about liberty and self-governance.
I’m not advocating a rejection of these developments, but I urge caution. As Hans Jonas once noted, our newfound biotechnological powers are such that we not only have the world as the object of our manipulations, but also ourselves. The human “can remake himself as he can nature. Man today, or very soon, can make man ‘to specification’” according to “his desires and expediencies.”
We have the power to control and direct humans in ways previously only imagined, but along with the possible rewards of this power—health, longevity—so, too, arise dangers never before encountered. It’s not at all clear that we currently possess the wisdom or sound governance to justly and prudently manage ourselves. We cannot even know the long-lasting effects of our self-creation. Really, in the end, all we know, according to Jonas, is that we have the power to “cause incalculable and irreversible consequences. Never was so much power coupled with so little guidance for its use.”
The idea of using artificial intelligence to regulate gene expression in the fight against COVID and other diseases is fascinating and promising. But decisions like these are never just about the science, and science itself cannot tell us about the proper moral use of technology. In a free society, one committed to the dignity and self-governance of every individual person, such technological power must be subjected to sober moral scrutiny and to the consent of the people.
R.J. Snell is Senior Fellow in Natural Law and Ethics at the Culture of Life Foundation and its Institute at the Ave Maria School of Law, the Director of Academic Programs at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, NJ, and Academic Director of the Aquinas Institute for Catholic Life at Princeton University. He is a Contributing Editor of Public Discourse and serves on the editorial board of Method Journal of Lonergan Studies.