Here’s links and commentary on what I read this week. Chinese CRISPR babies tops the list. So let’s get started.
1. Embryo selection is a bigger deal than CRISPR. In a surprise announcement yesterday (Nov 25), Chinese researcher He Jiankui claimed to have created the first gene edited babies. He used CRISPR-Cas9 to disable a single gene CCR5 in IVF embryos, which when disabled makes someone less susceptible to HIV. Then he implanted the modified embryos, and the mother gave birth to twins. People were skeptical, but Harvard biologist George Church said the claims were “probably accurate. I’ve been in contact with the Shenzhen team and have seen the data”.
So will gene editing lead to super babies soon? No. CRISPR is an amazing tool to edit genes, but it’s reliability is moderate. This means it should be useful for parents who carry diseases caused by very few genes, such as cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s, BRCA1, sickle cell disease. Editing a single gene or two is feasible. But traits that people might panic about, such as height, athleticism or IQ, are driven by thousands and thousands of genes, each of tiny affect. And nobody can reliably edit thousands of genes. That’s at least a decade out. Perhaps longer.
Hence this was to some extent a proof of concept publicity and technology stunt. If the point was healthy babies, the gene selected for therapy should have been one causing something like cystic fibrosis. And not disabling a correctly functioning gene, even if that gene might potentially be used by HIV as a vector. Ed Yong has a good piece up quoting ethicists and geneticists who are outraged. And it appears He Jiankui’s university in Shenzhen was unaware of his research and is conducting an investigation. With that said, it’s obvious to everyone who follows this research that China is far more open to it than the US and Europe. So in that sense it’s unsurprising China is where this is happening, and where it will continue to happen in the future.
But if CRISPR is not (yet) a big deal for super babies, what’s feasible today? Answer: Embryo selection. Which was also in the news this week. Recall that thousands of genes impact things like health, disease risk, etc. You can’t edit all those genes, but you can roll them up into a single polygenic risk score. PGS scores can assess risk of diabetes, heart disease, and yes, IQ. PGS scores are not perfect predictors, since the randomness of development still drives much of the variance. But they can give an edge. There’s nothing really new to invent. Genetic testing of IVF embryos for disease is already a thing. And if you’re choosing embryos already, why not get PGS score info to help make your choice? Your intuition here should be if a parent could magically see probabilities of say, 25 potential children, and dimly forsee their height, IQ, disease risk, and then could pick the one whose odds are best. They’d still be your kids. But their chances in life would be better than random genetics. Thus the Guardian article this week: Super-smart designer babies could be on offer soon. But is that ethical? Note this article is not about CRISPR. But about PGS scoring against a set of IVF embryos, and selecting as per the parent’s preferences. To be clear, right now the focus is on preventing disease, so picking embryo’s which score well for not having health problems like diabetes or heart disease. But the approach is amenable to selecting any polygenic trait.
Bottom line: I think embryo selection will be the single most socially disruptive technology over the next decade. AI will have to wait its turn. And yes, CRISPR is looming in the wings, possibly useful now for mendelian diseases, or maybe even traits with simple genetics such as skin or eye color. But still not yet able to create super babies. This means using IVF to select for height, athleticism, IQ is what’s most impactful now. It pushes all the right buttons. Just imagine your reaction if the politician you hate the most (or one of their adult children) takes a genetic tourism trip to China to make sure their kids have that extra special IVF selection IQ edge. People will be incredibly angry. And this anger will slice deeper into the existing political realignment going on in the US right now. On both the left and right. The babies won’t disrupt directly, but the second order effects of elites using technology to cement their children’s position at the top will make people flip out. It’s coming. And in fact is here already.
2. China continues making progress on the panopticon. This is an incremental thing. Computers will watch us all the time. It will happen everywhere. But in authoritarian countries it will be the government who watches. In US and Europe it will be regulated tech companies, which hopefully will work out better. In any case, from this story:
China’s plan to judge each of its 1.3 billion people based on their social behavior is moving a step closer to reality, with Beijing set to adopt a lifelong points program by 2021 that assigns personalized ratings for each resident.
The capital city will pool data from several departments to reward and punish some 22 million citizens based on their actions and reputations by the end of 2020, according to a plan posted on the Beijing municipal government’s website on Monday. Those with better so-called social credit will get “green channel” benefits while those who violate laws will find life more difficult.
3. Tanner Greer speaks out for ending the US-Saudi relationship. His piece is titled: The Khashoggi’s Death is the Crisis We Have Been Waiting For. Here’s one bit:
The Middle East is a distraction. America will soon be a net energy exporter. The region’s oil holds no power over us any longer.
Let us have no illusions: Riyadh has more actual American blood on their hands than any other sitting regime in the world (with the exception perhaps of the military machine run out of Rawalpindi). This was all true before the Saudis more recent and more brazen attempts to break down the rules and norms of a civilized international order—kidnapping prime ministers, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians in unnecessary wars, and so forth. If the Saudis are our ‘vital’ friends, we do not need even lukewarm enemies.
Greer sees geopolitical conflict with China as where things are headed, and the sooner the US gets out of the Middle East the better. I found his piece convincing. Worth reading.
4. The future of photography is code. Excellent piece on how capturing the real time data stream coming in from the lens allows software based image creation to exceed what you can do with just better lenses. Excerpt:
Similarly the idea of combining five, 10, or 100 images into a single HDR image seems absurd, but the truth is that in photography, more information is almost always better. If the cost of these computational acrobatics is negligible and the results measurable, why shouldn’t our devices be performing these calculations? In a few years they too will seem ordinary.
If the result is a better product, the computational power and engineering ability has been deployed with success; just as Leica or Canon might spend millions to eke fractional performance improvements out of a stable optical system like a $2,000 zoom lens, Apple and others are spending money where they can create value: not in glass, but in silicon.
Also see this related piece on how Google’s Pixel 3 is able to do amazing dim light photography based on machine learning combined with software based image synthesis. If you’re interested in photography I’d recommend both links above. If you want more, I’d suggest also reading Google’s post here as well.
5. Benedict Evans – The End of the Beginning. Slide shows and video of Evans discussing what the past 20 years of internet tech has done, and what the next 20 years will likely do. I thought it was quite good.
And that’s all for this week. Thanks for reading!