A new survey reveals public opinion about gene editing, brain chips and synthetic blood
"More people were worried than enthusiastic," one expert says
Designer babies, brain-boosting chips and “superhuman” synthetic blood may sound like science fiction, but due to advances in biomedical technologies, they could soon be a reality.
However, Americans are more concerned than enthusiastic about that happening, according to a poll released by the Pew Research Center on Tuesday.
The national survey revealed that adults across the United States are wary of using the controversial innovations of gene editing, brain chip implants and artificial blood to provide certain enhancements.
“Certainly, there are some people who are more enthusiastic about these technologies, but when you are looking overall, more people were worried than enthusiastic,” said Cary Funk, Pew associate director for research and lead author of the survey.
“We were surprised by the extent to which we saw the same pattern across the three,” she added, “because they are very different things.”
For instance, many experts view gene-editing as more of a therapeutic enhancement, since the approach – which includes using techniques such as CRISPR – could be used to reduce a child’s risk of various diseases.
On the other hand, implanted brain devices would be used to sharpen thinking skills, such as concentration, and synthetic blood would be used to enhance physical skills, such as strength. Therefore, those innovations tend to be labeled as performance enhancements.
None of these emerging technologies is yet available to enhance human abilities, but they are rapidly developing. Many experts have debated what public health benefits such technologies would offer and how quickly they should be developed, but the opinions of the general public have been something of a mystery – until now.
Americans wary of emerging science
The new survey, conducted in March, included 4,243 adults who responded to questions online and 483 who responded via the mail. Additionally, six focus groups, with a total of 47 participants, were held across the country for supplemental information.
The survey results revealed that about 50% of respondents would not want gene-editing techniques used on their own baby to reduce his or her risk of developing serious diseases. About 48% would want the innovation for their baby, and about 2% didn’t know.
When it came to the idea of improving cognitive abilities with brain chips, about 66% of respondents would not want an implanted device to boost their brain power, 32% would, and again 2% didn’t know.
How about using synthetic blood to improve speed and stamina? About 63% would turn down the offer, 35% would accept, and 2% don’t know.
The researchers noticed that respondents who were more religious tended to be more wary of the emerging technologies and the more extreme or permanent the enhancement, the more likely it was to be seen as less acceptable.
The survey also showed that men tended to express more enthusiasm about potential human enhancements than women.
Since the gene-editing option was linked to preventing disease and the brain chip implant and synthetic blood interventions were not, Dr. Gregor Wolbring, an associate professor at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine in Canada, said he wasn’t surprised that gene editing had more support.
It would be interesting to see what the results would be for non-disease-related gene editing, said Wolbring, who was not involved in the survey.
“Brain chip implants were offered as improving cognitive abilities in healthy adults, and synthetic blood was offered as improving physical abilities. It seems more like doping,” he said. “So I would have actually expected for the support to be higher for gene-editing because the target is different, it’s disease risk, but if we explained gene editing as improving performance, I would have expected the numbers to be lower.”
Gene editing could be a performance enhancement if the technology were used to give a baby capabilities beyond what humans would normally have, said Max Mehlman, a professor of law and bioethics at Case Western Reserve University who was not involved in the survey.
Some experts call that making a “designer baby.”
“That raises all kinds of very thorny, ethical questions,” Mehlman said. “One I’m chiefly concerned about is the way that could further divide us into the haves and the have-nots, because it’s unlikely people already at a disadvantage could afford, or have access to, those kinds of changes.”
Roughly half of respondents in the survey said they predict that such enhancements – from implanted chips to genetically modifying babies – will be commonplace in the future.
Mehlman said he expects developments in cognitive enhancements and performance enhancements in the next 10 to 15 years. He also said these enhancements might be first used in a military setting.
What the future may hold
“These kinds of converging technologies are raising questions that aren’t limited to the scientific community,” Funk said. “They’re questions for everyone. So I think that’s part of why this is a useful study to show where the public sits in terms of thinking through some of these future possibilities.”
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Wolbring predicts that brain chip implants and synthetic blood will become available to the public sooner than gene editing but says all require more serious debate and discussion.
“The brain chip and synthetic blood change ability expectations and could make it harder for some people who don’t have these enhancements to compete with those who do,” Wolbring said.
“The real debate is about ability expectations and competition, and who moves forward and who gets left behind,” he added. “Same with gene editing. The important part is that there would be a governance issue. We might use gene editing just for disease at first, but it could be used for more things without governance. So we need not just a safety debate, but also an ability-expectation governance debate.”