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REASONS FOR REFORMATION: AN ANALYSIS OF THE BENEFITS OF BIOTECHNOLOGY

By Anne Rothschild
  

Today’s society faces a unique situation unlike any other presented in the sphere of man’s existence. For the first time, options concerning how to guide development and steer society are in the hands of the people, rather than the few elite. Previously, the small, distinct upper class held all of the responsibility concerning every aspect of society. They enacted laws, maintained the economy, controlled the media, and through nationalistic efforts, they attempted to sway public opinion. Perhaps they incorporated elections or other democratic rights and processes into society as a mirage of power shared between people of all classes. Consequently, rarely was a true democracy fully instated because the power was kept out of the hands of the general public. Such a case no longer prevails today. Through the advancement of various democracies and capitalistic efforts, industrialized societies have emerged around the globe. These societies are ones that take pride in empowering their people; ones who encourage the public to take part in their democracy by voting and allocating various forums for public discussion. What the public must realize, however, is that with this powerful privilege also comes responsibility. A responsibility is held by the people to steer our ever-changing society to its most rational direction in three key aspects: the development of medical sciences, the sustainability of environmental resources, and continuous economic growth through technological advances.

Thus, the general public is faced with a choice about their future world. As we delve into an existence where advances in science and technology are becoming capable to solve many of life’s most threatening problems, it is easy for some to have questions about such research. Sadly, informational infrastructure has yet to be built for the public to facilitate updates of technological advances, and therefore the awesome possibilities of advancement through biotechnology often remain hidden behind laboratory doors. In the interest of the media, exciting news stories are ones that usually constitute possibilities of catastrophe concerning these issues. Since much of public opinion is shaped through the media, it is hardly surprising that skepticism continues to exist.

And as if the debate was not hot enough, Bill Joy’s article “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us? refueled the fire when it exploded onto the scene last April. Joy, a respected computer scientist, prophesized irreversible catastrophes in society were the continuation of biotechnological research allowed. Many of his points are valid; it is true that this technology is highly superior to any other in the past. It is also true that these developments will make an extraordinary impact on society. However, it is untrue that the effects will be catastrophic. This field still resides in it’s infancy, and yet has already been proven capable of solving some of our world’s greatest concerns such as environmental sustainability, cures for diseases, and continuous economic growth. Far more scary is it to wonder what the future will bring if we do not take advantage of our discoveries and innovations. For example, try to analyze today’s society had we never proceeded with the Industrial Revolution.

Nevertheless, Mr. Joy makes an unequivocal error in his analysis of the biotechnological revolution. He assumes that society would not be able to control the situation once it is fully developed, and asserts that these risks should be avoided. However, while we are in the infancy of biotechnology, we have the ability to build the structure needed to control this type of revolution and bypass the risks. Joy believes that catastrophes are caused by unintentional acts; therefore, it is the time to act intentionally and take the steps to avoid catastrophe, thus reaping the remarkable benefits that biotechnology can attain. Through precise control of the revolution, these risks will ultimately disappear and the public will be able to evolve to a new phase of life. The first step, however, is to rectify the attitude of the general public through publicity of positive outcomes. It is hypothesized that society is too afraid to take the risk to biotechnologically revolutionize because they have been over-exposed to possible risks and ethicality concerns, and are less aware of potential benefits in the areas of stem cell research, genetically modified organisms, and robotics.

Perhaps the most exciting technological advance comes from the discovery of the uses of stem cells. Defined as the first ten cells in a human embryo, they have the unique possibility of being able to become any different type of organ or tissue. However, this raises an ethical controversy eerily familiar to topics in abortion disputes. The question exists: Is it moral to manipulate cells from a human embryo for the promotion of scientific knowledge in curing human beings of their handicaps? Conservationists believe that in this manner scientists thereby treat embryos as property rather than life. In actuality, by not acting to use these cells true disrespect is put on life. By denying aid to sufferers of disease, it shows that the public is more willing to take action to respect the rights of unborn life rather than fully developed life. In my opinion, this is the definition of immorality. I only hope that I will never be in the situation to tell a child that he must wait on a list for an organ, when a potential cure for his ailment is in the lab next door. I shudder to imagine what a family might go through during that time period. Perhaps conservationists are too high by the drug of organized religion that they fail to see the importance of growth in this area. As they try to protect morality, it is in fact slipping away in front of them through the denial of aid to the suffering.

What is true, however, is that through medical modification, a stem cell has endless potential benefits. It can be engineered, for example, to be a specific part of the human spine that could allow a paralyzed person to again be able to walk. Or, perhaps as a diminutive part of the eye, allowing a blind person to see. These remedies are miniscule by comparison. Much more attractive are the possibilities of curing various diseases such as leukemia, Alzheimer’s, and AIDS. Moreover, this research has given us insight into strategies of curing cancer. How can part of our country oppose an idea that could bring hope to cancer victims? People who have dealt with cancer in their family can understand the horror of watching a life rot away and being unable to do anything about it but wait. Thus, it is imperative that we learn what real ethicality is rather than subscribing to the belief that abstaining from helping the less fortunate is actually moral.

Another exciting technological breakthrough is the development of genetically modified organisms, or GMO’s. Through extensive research, scientists have concluded that they are able to guide organisms to create genes that can benefit animals, ecospheres, and overall plant and human health. However, again conservatists look for disaster. They believe to meddle with the creations of God could have disastrous effects. In their view, nature should be left alone to evolve and adapt accordingly. Sadly, it is much too late for that. Man has already had irreversible effects on the environment; thus, the only thing left to learn is the process by which to manipulate nature in order to buy time for future generations. The adaptation of GMO’s into the environment is the first step in achieving this global sustainability. The fact is that no one is able to accurately predict the effects of these modifications. However, as our population rises and renewable resources continue to decline, it is imperative to implore alternative methods of environmentally safe food production. Currently, the best answer is genetic modification. For instance, scientists have discovered a process by which to inject amounts of beta-carotene into rice to increase levels of vitamin A. In poorer countries, rice is eaten for many meals and therefore a vitamin A deficiency is common. This is a low-cost step that a 2nd or 3rd world government could easily take to improve the general health of its people. It is impractical to think that negative effects of this could outweigh positive ones. Increasing the vitamin content in ones body can only improve health by strengthening the immune system, thereby fighting dangerous disease causing bacteria. One misunderstanding is held in concern to antibiotic resistance transferring from genetically modified plants to bacteria in the stomach. There is no reason to believe that this risk is greater in genetically modified foods that in non-modified ones, and such a situation has never been demonstrated in either instance. With concern to environmental safety, GMO’s are of great benefit because they can also reduce the need for pesticides. By inserting an anti-pest gene into the genetic code of various plants, scientists are able to fend off insect predators automatically. When pesticide is sprayed, chemicals leak into the ground and can seep down into the local acquifer, therefore polluting the ground water. Thus, to increase efficiency and sustainability in global food production and in the environment, genetic modification is an excellent answer to the long-standing question of how to achieve sustainable growth.

Finally, in recent years robotic technology has advanced dramatically. This “robotic revolution?has validated many of the fantasies that the film industry and science fiction novels have instilled in us for many years. The potential benefits and higher qualities of life that can surely be achieved through this revolution are endless. Artificial intelligence, (AI), currently has the brain power of an insect, and many scientists have affirmed it will be at human level by the year 2040. Like a disturbing science fiction movie, the possibility of robotic evolution eventually steering humans out of the picture is a bizarre idea. However, the transformation will happen slowly. First, robots will filter into the home, assisting with minor chores and duties. Soon, they will increase their capability and take jobs such as bus drivers and security guards, thus stepping up to low class workers in society. They will creep into our lives by infiltrating society through aid and efficiency. Although many scientists are afraid of our technology surpassing basic human intelligence, highly esteemed scientist Hans Moravec holds that this is not something we should fear. Rather, it is the optimum form of human transcendence. Within forty years, he states, we should have a robot that mimics complex thoughts such as planning and foresight, and therefore will surpass humans in efficiency for various jobs. One obvious problem, however, is what will happen to the economy when most of our jobs will be taken over? Easy, Moravec asserts.

“People who retire are supported wealth that is ultimately created by industry. As industry becomes more efficient, there will be more wealth, allowing people to retire earlier. When industry is totally automated and hyper-efficient, it will create so much wealth that retirement can begin at birth. We’ll levy a tax on corporations, and distribute the money to everyone as lifetime social security payments (www.wired.com/archive/3.10/moravec_pr.html. P6).?

Thus, the only thing holding us back from accepting and embracing the robotic revolution is infrastructure. It is imperative that we build a social and political framework of rules and objectives to ensure our advantage from this technology. Inevitably, robots will totally surpass our capability and look to explore new worlds outside of Earth. However, Moravec predicts many years of a perfect world with health, comfort, and a growing economy. Paradoxically, just as we imagine cavemen as primitive and archaic, robots will probably jest about our inefficiency in achieving small tasks and duties. Perhaps after we are gone, they will look back on us fondly as their bright ancient ancestors similar to the praise we give the founding fathers of our country like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

In conclusion, today’s world is developing at an exponential rate. Tremendous bridges are being crossed in the biotechnological areas of stem cell research, GMO’s, and robotics. The trend is already beginning; the general public is becoming fearful as they learn more about these advancements. We must act now to build the institutions for them to facilitate the learning process of the awesome social, environmental, and economical achievements yielded by these innovations. We must be proactive and take advantage of our inventions; otherwise, they will surely take advantage of us. Bill Joy is correct in many of his catastrophic processes; currently, society is completely unable to control this revolution. Disaster will surely strike if we do not implement barriers to channel these advancements through mass publications of information about potential benefits. Regardless of what we do, there are underlying social factors that will ensure that the revolution will take place. Thus, the only answer is to take the political initiative to control and contain. Otherwise, any other option will result in catastrophe.

 

 


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