Genetic Engineering: Klara and the Enhanced | Opinion

Researchers in a laboratory in Brazil.
Researchers in a laboratory in Brazil.Raphael Alves / EFE

On Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro plays with literary elegance, and generating an authentic character, the narrator, a humanoid with emotional Artificial Intelligence (AI) and even something that is very close to what we understand by conscience, some topics that are in the debate, although still do not correspond yet? to reality. Or maybe yes, in part. In any case, we should already be thinking about them and regulating to avoid creating new inequalities and even monstrosities: genetic engineering to improve, or augment, the humans who can afford it; technological unemployment; education, or immortality. It is not a science fiction novel in its traditional sense. The technology is behind it. It is taken for granted. The important thing is its moral consequences and for human relationships. Human-machine relationships stunt family and social relationships.

The general obsession is now with digitization, artificial intelligence, automation. But perhaps the most important thing is the possibility of editing human genes, thanks to new technologies such as CRISPR, not to prevent diseases, but to make people more intelligent or with other “improvements”. Josie is one of those girls, whose parents decided to genetically edit to ensure a more advanced professional life, with access to the best universities in which, with some exceptions, only “improved” students enter, and allow them greater employability in a world dominated by AI. Clara’s father is a “post-employee”, an advanced engineer whom the AI ​​- increasingly less comprehensible and more black box -, “replaced”, that is to say, led him to unemployment, and to an armed, ethnocentric and para-fascist group.

In this novel, the genetic engineering is flawed. If you solve some things you can, unintended consequences, disrupt others. Josie’s sister died from it. She is sick, and it is to take care of her that they buy Klara, an artificial friend. To care for her, and to learn to mimic her, and into a new fabricated body, eventually relocate Klara’s AI to, in the event of her death, make an artificial Josie that would satisfy her mother, a kind of quest for immortality, though you already know that she will never be like her daughter, because identity is not only in each one, but in those who see us. Ishiguro already dealt with clones and their consequences in his dystopian novel Never leave me.

Editing our genes, how and when to do it is going to be, if not already, one of the most important questions of the 21st century. We must remember the scandal that was organized when the Chinese geneticist Jiankui He announced that he had edited two embryos of girls (who later were born, Lulu and Nana) to make them immune to the HIV AIDS virus. Yes, he got into trouble when he tried to publish his results in the magazine NatureAnd as a hero, He ended up sentenced to four years in prison. Yes, the Chinese government asked for legislation on the manipulation of human genes. But, without waiting for these norms, China has research programs in this field. Even in the US there are genetic experiments to strengthen human muscles from genes of animals with high degrees of the protein myostatin, or to genetically control populations, as the American anthropologist Eben Kirksey recalls in The Mutant Project, a disturbing book.

Regulating human genetic engineering is essential, and it has to be done globally, but it will be difficult to achieve. The National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine in the US have proposed seven principles for the governance of human genome editing: promoting well-being, transparency, patient care, responsible science, respect for people, fairness or equity, and transnational cooperation, with the consequent responsibilities in each of them. In fact, this falls within the “new era of inequalities” that the French sociologist, Pierre Rosanvallon, has been warning about for years. Ishiguro points to education, which, in this approach to be the biggest element of inequality. The novelist is not entirely pessimistic when, on Rick, the close friend of Josie, says “it has not been improved, but still can go far, succeed in life.” But it reflects suffering for what can no longer be.

If these “genetic enhancements” become, or become, hereditary, they can lead to what some visionaries fear, namely, reproductive incompatibilities between types of humans, between the enhanced and the non-enhanced. That is, to the division between different species. Homo Deus, as Harari advertises? Or Homo Diabolus? If a thing can be done, it will be done, even if it has unwanted and even undesirable consequences. That is Kazuo Ishiguro’s starting point.

Andres Ortega He is a writer, senior researcher at the Elcano Royal Institute and director of the Ideas Observatory.

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