Biotechnology and Ethics


1. Real-time satellite surveillance video

What if Google Earth gave you real-time images instead of a snapshot 1-3 years old? Companies such as Planet Labs, Skybox Imaging (recently purchased by Google), and Digital Globe have launched dozens of satellites in the last year with the goal of recording the status of the entire Earth in real time (or near real-time). The satellites themselves are getting cheaper, smaller, and more sophisticated (with resolutions up to 1 foot). Commercial satellite companies make this data available to corporations (or, potentially, private citizens with enough cash), allowing clients to see useful images of areas coping with natural disasters and humanitarian crises, but also data on the comings and goings of private citizens.

  • How do we decide what should be monitored and how often?
  • Should we use this data to solve crimes?
  • What is the potential for abuse by corporations, governments, police departments, private citizens, or terrorists and other bad actors?

2. Astronaut bioethics (of colonising Mars)

Plans for long-term space missions to and the colonization of Mars are already underway. On December 5, NASA launched the Orion spacecraft and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden declared it "Day One of the Mars era." The company Mars One (along with Lockheed Martin and Surrey Satellite Technology) is planning to launch a robotic mission to Mars in 2018, with humans following in 2025. 418 men and 287 women from around the world are currently vying for four spots on the first one-way human settlement mission.

But as we watch with interest as this unfolds, we might ask ourselves the following:

  • Is it ethical to expose people to unknown levels of human isolation and physical danger (including exposure to radiation) for such a purpose?
  • Will these pioneers lack privacy for the rest of their lives so that we might watch what happens?
  • Is it ethical to conceive or birth a child in space or on Mars? And, if so, who protects the rights of a child not born on Earth and who did not consent to the risks? If we say no to children in space, does that mean we sterilize all astronauts who volunteer for the mission?
  • Given the potential dangers of setting up a new colony severely lacking in resources, how would sick colonists be cared for? And beyond bioethics, we might ask how an off-Earth colony would be governed.

3. Enhanced pathogens

On October 17, the White House suspended research that would enhance the pathogenicity of viruses such as influenza, SARS, and MERS (often referred to as gain-of-function (GOF) research). Gain-of-function research, in itself, is not harmful; in fact, it is used to provide vital insights into viruses and how to treat them.

But when it is used to increase mammalian transmissibility and virulence, the altered viruses pose serious security and biosafety risks:

  • Those fighting to resume research claim that GOF research on viruses is both safe and important to science, insisting that no other form of research would be as productive.
  • Those who argue against this type of research note that the biosafety risks far outweigh the benefits. They point to hard evidence of human fallibility and the history of laboratory accidents and warn that the release of such a virus into the general population would have devastating effects.

4. Non-lethal weapons

At first it may seem absurd that types of weapons that have been around since WWI and not designed to kill could be an emerging ethical or policy dilemma. But consider the recent development and proliferation of non-lethal weapons such as laser missiles, blinding weapons, pain rays, sonic weapons, electric weapons, heat rays, disabling malodorants, as well as the use of gases and sprays in both the military and domestic police forces (which are often the beneficiaries of older military equipment).

These weapons may not kill (then again, there have been fatalities from non-lethal weapons), but they can cause serious pain, physical injuries, and long-term health consequences (the latter has not been fully investigated). We must also consider that non-lethal weapons may be used more liberally in situations that could be diffused by peaceful means (since there is technically no intent to kill), used indiscriminately (without regard for collateral damage), or be used as a means of torture (since the harm they cause may be undetectable after a period of time). These weapons can also be misused as a lethal force multiplier - a means of effectively incapacitating the enemy before employing lethal weapons.

Non-lethal weapons are certainly preferable to lethal ones, given the choice, but should we continue to pour billions of dollars into weapons that increase the use of violence altogether?

5. Robot swarms

Researchers at Harvard University recently created a swarm of over 1000 robots, capable of communicating with each other to perform simple tasks such as arranging themselves into shapes and patterns. These "kilobots" require no human intervention beyond the original set of instructions and work together to complete tasks. These tiny bots are based on the swarm behaviour of insects and can be used to perform environmental clean-ups or respond to disasters where humans fear to tread.

The concept of driverless cars also relies on this system, where the cars themselves (without human intervention, ideally) would communicate with each other to obey traffic laws and deliver people safely to their destinations.

  • But should we be worried about the ethical and policy implications of letting robots work together without humans running interference?
  • What happens if a bot malfunctions and causes harm?
  • Who would be blamed for such an accident?
  • What if tiny swarms of robots could be set up to spy or sabotage? 

6. Artificial life forms

Research on artificial life forms is an area of synthetic biology focused on custom-building life forms to address specific purposes. Craig Venter and colleagues announced the first synthetic life form in 2010, created from an existing organism by introducing synthetic DNA. Synthetic life allows scientists to study the origins of life by building it rather than breaking it down, but this technique blurs the line between life and machines and scientists foresee the ability to program organisms.

The ethical and policy issues surrounding innovations in synthetic biology renew concerns raised previously with other biological breakthroughs and include safety issues and risk factors connected with releasing artificial life forms into the environment. Making artificial life forms has been deemed “playing God” because it allows individuals to create life that does not exist naturally. Gene patents have been a concern for several years now and synthetic organisms suggest a new dimension of this policy issue.  While customized organisms may one day cure cancer, they may also be used as biological weapons.