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Is it easier than ever to be a mad scientist?

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Martin Rees
Martin Rees

Maybe He Jiankui, who “who claims to have genetically ‘edited’ two twin baby girls,” is the way of the future?

In conversation with the astronomer Sir Martin Rees for my new podcast series, Confessions, the other day, he spoke of his fear that future science will become increasingly deregulated. And that in the global village of future science, there will inevitably be more ‘village idiots’ who do their own thing. In other words, as some scientific techniques get so much cheaper to reproduce, and as massive computing power is available in our own bedrooms, the threat of rogue science becomes ever-greater.

A few days after the work was made public, He gave a presentation to the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong. He received a decidedly chilly reception. The organisers denounced the “unexpected and deeply disturbing” intervention, and called for closer supervision of genetic experimentation. “Even if the modifications are verified, the procedure was irresponsible and failed to conform with international norms,” they said.Giles Fraser, “Here come the rogue scientists” at Unherd

Fraser wonders if He is the first of Rees’s “village idiots.” Well, that guy certainly picked the wrong crowd if his intention was to just inform everyone that he can do as he likes. Word on the street is, He is currently missing. Some mutter about “re-education.”

Fraser’s and Rees’s basic point seems sound: New information, digitization, and affordable advanced machinery have crashed entry costs for many fields, including tinkering with people. So we can expect more of this. That said, we’d be a teensy cautious about making Sir Martin Rees the authoritative source. He tends to be something of an apocalypse hobbyist, inclined more to think in terms of cyborg on Mars than cronyism on the local science ethics board. But then he is an eminent astronomer, after all.

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See also: Citizen’s panel on the ethics of synthetic cell development urged


Noted astronomer envisions cyborg on Mars

Yes, it is a concern. How long until some Jihadist supported by our oil money via Saudi Arabia or elsewhere gets enough smarts and equipment and starts tinkering with viruses to spread Ebola or Smallpox to western countries? And then there will be attempts to genetically modify Chimps to be more human-like. How about a talking dog? Eventually, will anyone be able to prevent people somewhere attempting to enhance humans for athletic ability or intelligence? "O Brave new world that has such people in it". Fasteddious

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