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Work, health, military: is the augmented human revolution already here?

Biohacking: medical promises or ethical perils?

Andrew Steele, PhD in physics from the University of Oxford, Science Writer and Columnist at Polytechnique Insights
On September 6th, 2023 |
6 min reading time
Andrew Steele
Andrew Steele
PhD in physics from the University of Oxford, Science Writer and Columnist at Polytechnique Insights
Key takeaways
  • The idea of rewriting our DNA dates back to the 20th century, when selection techniques were widely accepted for use on human beings.
  • Despite scientific advances, genetics is still a very poorly understood field because of its complexity.
  • Nevertheless, projects using CRISPR or Neuralink technology are emerging with this objective in mind.
  • From eradicating fatal genetic diseases to improving the cognitive performance of our descendants, biohacking continues to develop and inspire dreams, despite the ethical challenges it poses.

What does the future of human­i­ty look like? Will we sur­vive the next few cen­turies with our descen­dants look­ing rough­ly as we do now, liv­ing out their three score years and ten? Or will biol­o­gy and tech­no­log­i­cal enhance­ment see us sport­ing stronger, faster mechan­i­cal limbs and genet­ic aug­men­ta­tion giv­ing us every­thing from enhanced cog­ni­tion to longer, health­i­er lives?

Advances in sci­ence, com­put­ing and biotech make this future, and the eth­i­cal chal­lenges it might throw up, worth con­sid­er­ing. But they also mean that those will­ing to do some extra leg­work (and some­times take sig­nif­i­cant risks) can try aug­ment­ing their own bod­ies at home. Let’s take a look at some of the pre­dic­tions, promis­es, per­ils and per­son­al­i­ties of bio­hack­ing, and see how they’ve panned out.

Building better babies

With an almost end­less sup­ply of head­lines sug­gest­ing that sci­en­tists have found the ‘gene for’ this and that, rang­ing from com­plex dis­eases to char­ac­ter traits, it’s hard to shake the sense that our des­tiny is writ­ten in our DNA. So, could we rewrite that DNA and improve every­thing from health to intelligence?

This idea took root in the ear­ly 20th Cen­tu­ry, when using sim­i­lar breed­ing tech­niques to those that allowed us to opti­mise farm ani­mals and crops to do the same to human beings was shock­ing­ly wide­ly accept­ed. Eugenic poli­cies were pushed by politi­cians from Win­ston Churchill to William Bev­eridge and stud­ied by giants of sta­tis­tics and genet­ics like Fran­cis Gal­ton and even Fran­cis Crick, co-dis­cov­er­er of the struc­ture of DNA. While the hor­rif­ic crimes of the Nazis trashed the field’s rep­u­ta­tion, eugen­ics adapt­ed and sur­vived, down­play­ing overt ties to race and coer­cive birth con­trol, and empha­sis­ing indi­vid­ual lib­er­ty and the impor­tance of the wel­fare state to max­imise humans’ poten­tial by means oth­er than pure heredity.

Even as the polit­i­cal decline of eugen­ics con­tin­ued, how­ev­er, mod­ern sci­ence has shown us that the whole edi­fice was built on shaky foun­da­tions: most traits and dis­eases we might want to select for or against are incred­i­bly genet­i­cal­ly com­plex. Sad­ly, for those head­lines promis­ing a ‘gene for’ some­thing, most traits of inter­est are high­ly ‘poly­genic’, with hun­dreds or thou­sands of genes act­ing in con­cert with one-anoth­er and the envi­ron­ment to cre­ate a predisposition—not even a cer­tain­ty! —for a giv­en char­ac­ter­is­tic to manifest.

Screen­ing devel­op­ing babies for seri­ous genet­ic prob­lems is already common—but com­pa­nies are already appear­ing that offer more com­pre­hen­sive genet­ic testing.

Even eye colour, which we are taught in school has a very sim­ple pat­tern of inher­i­tance, is pre­dict­ed non-deter­min­is­ti­cal­ly by about 16 genes; height is explained by about 10,000 genet­ic vari­ants spread across around 30% of our DNA, plus diet and more in youth; and intel­li­gence is both hard­er to quan­ti­fy and, even if we take IQ as a good proxy, is genet­i­cal­ly less well-under­stood still. We may not even be able to selec­tive­ly breed for eye colour with certainty—let alone intelligence.

This hasn’t stopped com­pa­nies from offer­ing ser­vices that may allow par­ents to choose a future child based on genet­ic pre­dic­tions of brain­pow­er. Screen­ing devel­op­ing babies for seri­ous genet­ic prob­lems is already common—but com­pa­nies are already appear­ing that offer more com­pre­hen­sive genet­ic test­ing. Known as ‘pre-implan­ta­tion genet­ic diag­noses, or PGD, cou­ples under­go­ing IVF can have a sam­ple of just a few cells tak­en from a set of embryos devel­op­ing in a test-tube, and get their DNA test­ed for risk of dis­eases like can­cer and diabetes—and also intelligence.

US com­pa­ny Genom­ic Pre­dic­tion offers a num­ber of ser­vices under their ‘Life­View’ brand, up to and includ­ing a deluxe ver­sion called PGT‑P: T stands for ‘test­ing’, and the ‘P’ for ‘poly­genic’. Poly­genic risk scores are cal­cu­lat­ed using a sta­tis­ti­cal tech­nique that search­es for asso­ci­a­tions between changes in hun­dreds of places across our DNA and risk of spe­cif­ic con­di­tions. While this is fas­ci­nat­ing sci­ence at a pop­u­la­tion lev­el to under­stand how dis­eases devel­op, it has sev­er­al short­com­ings for pre­dict­ing the future health of unborn chil­dren. The main one is that these asso­ci­a­tions are pure­ly statistical—the genes used to pre­dict risk are often not causal­ly relat­ed to the con­di­tion of inter­est, mean­ing that even if the risk of, say, can­cer is less­er, you may be unin­ten­tion­al­ly select­ing an embryo with a high­er risk of some­thing else that isn’t mea­sured by the test.

The oth­er prob­lem is that prospec­tive par­ents will almost always end up forced into some kind of trade-off: even if you take the scores at face val­ue, per­haps the embryo pre­dict­ed to be most intel­li­gent will also have the high­est can­cer risk. Not only is this an impos­si­ble dilem­ma for mums and dads, but it illus­trates the oth­er prob­lem with genet­ic screen­ing as social pol­i­cy: even if the tests pro­vid­ed cer­tain­ty (which they don’t), we’d end up forced into decid­ing whether one dis­ease or trait is worth more than anoth­er, for future gen­er­a­tions who may not share our views—especially if we opt to low­er their risk of a dis­ease that’s cured in future at the expense of one that isn’t!


If we’re not com­fort­able choos­ing the DNA we start our lives with, per­haps we’d be hap­pi­er with alter­ing our genet­ic lot as con­sent­ing adults? CRISPR and oth­er gene-edit­ing tech­nolo­gies are mak­ing this process dra­mat­i­cal­ly easier—both for sci­en­tists and doc­tors, who are using first-gen­er­a­tion ther­a­pies to cure dead­ly genet­ic dis­eases, and for garage ‘bio­hack­ers’ look­ing to mod­i­fy their own biol­o­gy at home.

One exam­ple is bio­hack­er Josi­ah Zayn­er, who runs a com­pa­ny pro­vid­ing DNA-edit­ing kits—and once inject­ed him­self on cam­era with a sup­pos­ed­ly mus­cle-boost­ing gene edit using CRISPR tech­nol­o­gy. That this is even a plau­si­ble con­cern shows us how far the tech­nol­o­gy has come, but DIY DNA alter­ation comes with seri­ous risks. For a start, it may sim­ply not have done any­thing: get­ting DNA edit­ing machin­ery into enough cells to make a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence to the biol­o­gy of an adult human is a work in progress, and most gene edit­ing right now hap­pens out­side the human body, by extract­ing some cells and mod­i­fy­ing them in con­trolled con­di­tions in the lab. The biggest risk if it does work might be can­cer from ‘off-tar­get’ genet­ic edits. This kind of extreme bio­hack­ing is very risky, and any ben­e­fits are very hard to quantify—and, for what it’s worth, Zayn­er says that he regrets set­ting such an auda­cious example.

The sec­ond type of bio­hack­ing involves meld­ing human biol­o­gy with tech­no­log­i­cal implants. Elon Musk co-found­ed Neu­ralink, a com­pa­ny mak­ing brain–computer inter­faces, with the long-term goal of enabling a ‘merg­er of bio­log­i­cal intel­li­gence and machine intel­li­gence’. He hopes that this will be the solu­tion to align­ing arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence with human inter­ests, by giv­ing humans a direct inter­face to ensure that AI advances aug­ment rather than oppose our desires.

How­ev­er, despite big claims and even FDA approval for a clin­i­cal tri­al, Neu­ralink remains vapour­ware. Musk has promised ‘to address brain injuries or spinal injuries and make up for what­ev­er lost capac­i­ty some­body has with a chip’, but so far the company’s high­est-pro­file demo in 2021 was a mon­key play­ing com­put­er game ‘Pong’ with its mind.

Oth­er bion­ic implants seem to have gar­nered pub­lic­i­ty not through being huge tech­ni­cal advances, but more because they seem weird and under­whelm­ing. One com­pa­ny, Bio­hax Inter­na­tion­al, has implant­ed ID ‘biochips’ in a few thou­sand customers—but use-cas­es range from no longer hav­ing to ever wor­ry about los­ing your keys, to pay­ing for gro­ceries with a wave of your arm. It seems that most of us would rather leave a spare key with a neigh­bour or use our phone to pay than have a minor sur­gi­cal procedure.

Oth­er bio­hack­ers are try­ing to use more con­ven­tion­al med­ical inter­ven­tions to opti­mise them­selves. This ranges from using sup­ple­ments and off-label approved drugs like rapamycin to opti­mise health or cog­ni­tion. There are dozens of com­pa­nies offer­ing every­thing from sup­ple­ments with dubi­ous evi­dence to online phar­ma­cies that will ship you drugs with­out a prescription—or any easy way to check that they are what they say they are, cor­rect­ly dosed, and so on.

Whether from infec­tions from an implant gone wrong, or prob­lems from drug or sup­ple­ment side-effects, do-it-your­self med­i­cine def­i­nite­ly comes with a health warning.

A sliding scale

Most ideas for human enhance­ment exist on a slid­ing scale (or per­haps a slip­pery slope, depend­ing on your out­look): as these tech­nolo­gies approach fea­si­bil­i­ty and wide­spread adop­tion, might they sim­ply cease to be con­sid­ered ‘bio­hack­ing’, and become reg­u­lar med­i­cine, or every­day tech?

When dis­miss­ing the prac­tice of hav­ing an ID chip embed­ded in your hand as dan­ger­ous and eccen­tric, it’s easy to for­get that human–technology inter­faces are already in use every day, like microchip-enabled mod­ern pace­mak­ers keep­ing hearts beat­ing, or cochlear implants wiring an exter­nal micro­phone to the brain and giv­ing some deaf peo­ple the abil­i­ty to hear. Sim­i­lar­ly, implantable glu­cose mon­i­tors, are becom­ing avail­able for dia­bet­ics as a more com­fort­able and con­ve­nient alter­na­tive than fin­ger-prick tests or exter­nal ‘CGM’ devices.

It’s easy to imag­ine the lines becom­ing blur­ri­er as tech­nol­o­gy advances.

It’s easy to imag­ine the lines becom­ing blur­ri­er as tech­nol­o­gy advances. Many of us already wear smart­watch­es that mon­i­tor our heart rate and count our steps—could implantable ver­sions sen­si­tive to blood chem­istry be diag­nos­ing dis­eases or pro­vid­ing diet and exer­cise tips in the next decade or two? Is this bio­hack­ing, or a con­tin­u­a­tion of mod­ern med­ical and tech­no­log­i­cal innovation?

Sim­i­lar­ly, the line between genet­ic treat­ments and enhance­ments isn’t hard and fast. Most peo­ple would agree that it’s OK to use gene ther­a­py to cor­rect a gene that caus­es a fatal genet­ic dis­ease, even if the dis­ease isn’t fatal in all cas­es. Is it OK to low­er risk of death from heart dis­ease by 50% in some­one at genet­i­cal­ly high risk? What about 10% in some­one with no overt genet­ic risk fac­tors? What about if it improves their ath­let­ic abil­i­ties a bit at the same time? Where does the line between treat­ment and enhance­ment lie, and how com­fort­able are we with the lat­ter? These are impor­tant ques­tions, and delin­eation will become increas­ing­ly com­pli­cat­ed as gene-edit­ing tech­nol­o­gy becomes safer and more powerful—maybe even safe enough that, one day, we’ll all be doing DNA mod­i­fi­ca­tion at home.

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