Every discussion of CRISPR gene editing technology seems to come with an obligatory but superficial mention of the ethical dilemmas it brings up, especially in the context of applying it to the human germ line. Everyone asks questions like Should we remove sickle cell anemia from the gene pool? Where do we draw the line between curing diseases and building designer babies? What if everyone opts for 6-foot tall blonde-haired, blue-eyed archetype? Should we allow trans-human enhancements like taking genes from the mantis shrimp to give ourselves hyperspectral 16-color vision? What if only the rich have access, and become a ruling cadre of genetic elites, passing heritable enhancements down through their segregated bloodlines? Aren’t we playing God? How can we avoid becoming a society that looks like Gattaca or Brave New World? What thoughtful, proactive regulations can we enact to ensure this technology is used only for good, and that ethical boundaries are respected?
These questions are a fine starting point, but they also seem to be where popular explorations of this technological quandary end. I listened to Ezra Klein’s interview with Walter Isaacson on the topic this morning over coffee, and big chunks of it sounded like they could have been taken verbatim from the recent documentary Human Nature.
This hypothetical ethical discussion feels like it’s taking place in relation to a hypothetical society that makes well-reasoned policy decisions based on a shared idea of what’s right and good in the best long-term interests of society at large. A society that, having made those good decisions, can actually enforce them.
How can anybody think that’s the world we live in?
I just finished reading Alexandra von Meier’s book, Electric Power Systems: A Conceptual Introduction. It’s an overview of how the generation, transmission, and distribution system works, and how it’s worked for pretty much the whole history of the grid, stretching back to the end of the 19th century. More than anything I came away with an appreciation for the gloriously analog nature of the machine. We have a steampunk grid, a massive artifact of the Victorian era, hiding behind and powering our increasingly digital world. This isn’t an engineering textbook, but it’s not exactly meant for a popular audience either. There’s an ongoing stream of complex numbers, calculus references, vectors, matrices, and electromagnetic fields… and without some understanding of them, a lot of the core ideas in the book will probably not come across very well.
At the upstream edge of the grid, we have thousands of gigantic machines, spinning in almost perfect synchronization. Massive amounts of iron and copper, literally turned by steam. They’ve gotten bigger and hotter and more precise and efficient over time, but they’re fundamentally the same type of generation the grid grew up with a century ago.
At the downstream edge of the grid, in large part we have the same kind of machines… but running in reverse, taking the undulating waves of electricity, and turning them back into rotation, through an invisible, smoothly spinning force-field. It’s like magic, but it’s something we’ve all lived with our entire lives. It’s so normal we don’t think about it.
Between these spinning machines we have masses of iron and tightly wound copper stepping voltage up and down, mechanical switches that look like something out of Frankenstein, and very little in the way of instrumentation and automation — at least by present day standards. And with a few exceptions, the electricity really does flow from one edge of the grid to the other in a dendritic network.
Refining metal ores is one of those things that’s really, really hard to do without emitting a huge amount of greenhouse gasses. The energy sources behind our material economies are not as easily substitutable with renewables, because what they often require is extreme heat, and sometimes the carbon itself (in the case of steelmaking and concrete). Researchers at MIT are looking at a way of directly refining molten iron oxide directly into pure iron electrolytically that results in very pure iron, and virtually no emissions, and it might work for other oxide refining processes as well.
A fun little musing from the Atlantic Cities on the difficulty of envisioning a very different world, even when we all know that big changes do take place over time. Old technologies slowly decay, and fade into the background, as a new normalcy takes over. We will see Jane Jacobs’ attrition of cars by cities eventually.
Newell Instruments in Illinois has developed an all-in-one “magic box” heat management appliance, to compete with the ones currently manufactured in Europe, which are often prohibitively expensive in the US. The Newell CERV can both add and remove heat and humidity from a building and provide fresh air supply when needed. It can also be coupled with a heat-pump based hot water heater. Brought together in a super-insulated, airtight building this integration simplifies and increases the efficiency of space conditioning. Here’s hoping they can make it affordable too.
It turns out that there’s a rare variant of a gene involved in Alzheimer’s Disease that protects the carriers against age-related cognitive decline. It even, apparently, protects against other known genetic risk factors for Alzheimer’s. This is totally the kind of thing I can imagine parents paying big bucks to have inserted into their kids — rare genes that already exist in the broader population, that confer disease resistance or other advantages, but which haven’t had time to become prevalent under natural selection, or which confer an advantage that won’t have obvious reproductive consequences. We’re going to start accumulating a library of these potential genetic revisions and, I suspect, within a couple of decades, making sure that our descendants carry them disproportionately.
Twisted light. Polarized in a new and different way? Or a way I just never heard of? Really? Or maybe it’s just a new application of circular polarization? Not sure. But anyway, 2.5 terabits of information a second would be nice to have for communicating in space, between probes and the homeworld. Between homeworlds in the cosmic civilization-scale jetlag.