Category Archives: ethics

Genes, intelligence, Chinese CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) babies, and other children

This started out as an update and now it’s something else. What follows is a brief introduction to the Chinese CRISPR twins; a brief examination of parents, children, and competitiveness; and, finally, a suggestion that genes may not be what we thought. I also include a discussion about how some think scientists should respond when they know beforehand that one of their kin is crossing an ethical line. Basically, this is a complex topic and I am attempting to interweave a number of competing lines of query into one narrative about human nature and the latest genetics obsession.

Introduction to the Chinese CRISPR twins

Back in November 2018 I covered the story about the Chinese scientist, He Jiankui , who had used CRISPR technology to edit genes in embryos that were subsequently implanted in a waiting mother (apparently there could be as many as eight mothers) with the babies being brought to term despite an international agreement (of sorts) not to do that kind of work. At this time, we know of the twins, Lulu and Nana but, by now, there may be more babies. (I have much more detail about the initial controversies in my November 28, 2018 posting.)

It seems the drama has yet to finish unfolding. There may be another consequence of He’s genetic tinkering.

Could the CRISPR babies, Lulu and Nana, have enhanced cognitive abilities?

Yes, according to Antonio Regalado’s February 21, 2019 article (behind a paywall) for MIT’s (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Technology Review, those engineered babies may have enhanced abilities for learning and remembering.

For those of us who can’t get beyond the paywall, others have been successful. Josh Gabbatiss in his February 22, 2019 article for independent.co.uk provides some detail,

The world’s first gene edited babies may have had their brains unintentionally altered – and perhaps cognitively enhanced – as a result of the controversial treatment undertaken by a team of Chinese scientists.

Dr He Jiankui and his team allegedly deleted a gene from a number of human embryos before implanting them in their mothers, a move greeted with horror by the global scientific community. The only known successful birth so far is the case of twin girls Nana and Lulu.

The now disgraced scientist claimed that he removed a gene called CCR5 [emphasis mine] from their embroyos in an effort to make the twins resistant to infection by HIV.

But another twist in the saga has now emerged after a new paper provided more evidence that the impact of CCR5 deletion reaches far beyond protection against dangerous viruses – people who naturally lack this gene appear to recover more quickly from strokes, and even go further in school. [emphasis mine]

Dr Alcino Silva, a neurobiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who helped identify this role for CCR5 said the work undertaken by Dr Jiankui likely did change the girls’ brains.

“The simplest interpretation is that those mutations will probably have an impact on cognitive function in the twins,” he told the MIT Technology Review.

The connection immediately raised concerns that the gene was targeted due to its known links with intelligence, which Dr Silva said was his immediate response when he heard the news.

… there is no evidence that this was Dr Jiankui’s goal and at a press conference organised after the initial news broke, he said he was aware of the work but was “against using genome editing for enhancement”.

..

Claire Maldarelli’s February 22, 2019 article for Popular Science provides more information about the CCR5 gene/protein (Note: Links have been removed),

CCR5 is a protein that sits on the surface of white blood cells, a major component of the human immune system. There, it allows HIV to enter and infect a cell. A chunk of the human population naturally carries a mutation that makes CCR5 nonfunctional (one study found that 10 percent of Europeans have this mutation), which often results in a smaller protein size and one that isn’t located on the outside of the cell, preventing HIV from ever entering and infecting the human immune system.

The goal of the Chinese researchers’ work, led by He Jiankui of the Southern University of Science and Technology located in Shenzhen, was to tweak the embryos’ genome to lack CCR5, ensuring the babies would be immune to HIV.

But genetics is rarely that simple.

In recent years, the CCR5 gene has been a target of ongoing research, and not just for its relationship to HIV. In an attempt to understand what influences memory formation and learning in the brain, a group of researchers at UCLA found that lowering the levels of CCR5 production enhanced both learning and memory formation. This connection led those researchers to think that CCR5 could be a good drug target for helping stroke victims recover: Relearning how to move, walk, and talk is a key component to stroke rehabilitation.

… promising research, but it begs the question: What does that mean for the babies who had their CCR5 genes edited via CRISPR prior to their birth? Researchers speculate that the alternation will have effects on the children’s cognitive functioning. …

John Loeffler’s February 22, 2019 article for interestingengineering.com notes that there are still many questions about He’s (scientist’s name) research including, did he (pronoun) do what he claimed? (Note: Links have been removed),

Considering that no one knows for sure whether He has actually done as he and his team claim, the swiftness of the condemnation of his work—unproven as it is—shows the sensitivity around this issue.

Whether He did in fact edit Lulu and Nana’s genes, it appears he didn’t intend to impact their cognitive capacities. According to MIT Technology Review, not a single researcher studying CCR5’s role in intelligence was contacted by He, even as other doctors and scientists were sought out for advice about his project.

This further adds to the alarm as there is every expectation that He should have known about the connection between CCR5 and cognition.

At a gathering of gene-editing researchers in Hong Kong two days after the birth of the potentially genetically-altered twins was announced, He was asked about the potential impact of erasing CCR5 from the twins DNA on their mental capacity.

He responded that he knew about the potential cognitive link shown in Silva’s 2016 research. “I saw that paper, it needs more independent verification,” He said, before adding that “I am against using genome editing for enhancement.”

The problem, as Silva sees it, is that He may be blazing the trail for exactly that outcome, whether He intends to or not. Silva says that after his 2016 research was published, he received an uncomfortable amount of attention from some unnamed, elite Silicon Valley leaders who seem to be expressing serious interest in using CRISPR to give their children’s brains a boost through gene editing. [emphasis mine]

As such, Silva can be forgiven for not quite believing He’s claims that he wasn’t intending to alter the human genome for enhancement. …

The idea of designer babies isn’t new. As far back as Plato, the thought of using science to “engineer” a better human has been tossed about, but other than selective breeding, there really hasn’t been a path forward.

In the late 1800s, early 1900s, Eugenics made a real push to accomplish something along these lines, and the results were horrifying, even before Nazism. After eugenics mid-wifed the Holocaust in World War II, the concept of designer children has largely been left as fodder for science fiction since few reputable scientists would openly declare their intention to dabble in something once championed and pioneered by the greatest monsters of the 20th century.

Memories have faded though, and CRISPR significantly changes this decades-old calculus. CRISPR makes it easier than ever to target specific traits in order to add or subtract them from an embryos genetic code. Embryonic research is also a diverse enough field that some scientist could see pioneering designer babies as a way to establish their star power in academia while getting their names in the history books, [emphasis mine] all while working in relative isolation. They only need to reveal their results after the fact and there is little the scientific community can do to stop them, unfortunately.

When He revealed his research and data two days after announcing the births of Lulu and Nana, the gene-scientists at the Hong Kong conference were not all that impressed with the quality of He’s work. He has not provided access for fellow researchers to either his data on Lulu, Nana, and their family’s genetic data so that others can verify that Lulu and Nana’s CCR5 genes were in fact eliminated.

This almost rudimentary verification and validation would normally accompany a major announcement such as this. Neither has He’s work undergone a peer-review process and it hasn’t been formally published in any scientific journal—possibly for good reason.

Researchers such as Eric Topol, a geneticist at the Scripps Research Institute, have been finding several troubling signs in what little data He has released. Topol says that the editing itself was not precise and show “all kinds of glitches.”

Gaetan Burgio, a geneticist at the Australian National University, is likewise unimpressed with the quality of He’s work. Speaking of the slides He showed at the conference to support his claim, Burgio calls it amateurish, “I can believe that he did it because it’s so bad.”

Worse of all, its entirely possible that He actually succeeded in editing Lulu and Nana’s genetic code in an ad hoc, unethical, and medically substandard way. Sadly, there is no shortage of families with means who would be willing to spend a lot of money to design their idea of a perfect child, so there is certainly demand for such a “service.”

It’s nice to know (sarcasm icon) that the ‘Silicon Valley elite’ are willing to volunteer their babies for scientific experimentation in a bid to enhance intelligence.

The ethics of not saying anything

Natalie Kofler, a molecular biologist, wrote a February 26, 2019 Nature opinion piece and call to action on the subject of why scientists who were ‘in the know’ remained silent about He’s work prior to his announcements,

Millions [?] were shocked to learn of the birth of gene-edited babies last year, but apparently several scientists were already in the know. Chinese researcher He Jiankui had spoken with them about his plans to genetically modify human embryos intended for pregnancy. His work was done before adequate animal studies and in direct violation of the international scientific consensus that CRISPR–Cas9 gene-editing technology is not ready or appropriate for making changes to humans that could be passed on through generations.

Scholars who have spoken publicly about their discussions with He described feeling unease. They have defended their silence by pointing to uncertainty over He’s intentions (or reassurance that he had been dissuaded), a sense of obligation to preserve confidentiality and, perhaps most consistently, the absence of a global oversight body. Others who have not come forward probably had similar rationales. But He’s experiments put human health at risk; anyone with enough knowledge and concern could have posted to blogs or reached out to their deans, the US National Institutes of Health or relevant scientific societies, such as the Association for Responsible Research and Innovation in Genome Editing (see page 440). Unfortunately, I think that few highly established scientists would have recognized an obligation to speak up.

I am convinced that this silence is a symptom of a broader scientific cultural crisis: a growing divide between the values upheld by the scientific community and the mission of science itself.

A fundamental goal of the scientific endeavour is to advance society through knowledge and innovation. As scientists, we strive to cure disease, improve environmental health and understand our place in the Universe. And yet the dominant values ingrained in scientists centre on the virtues of independence, ambition and objectivity. That is a grossly inadequate set of skills with which to support a mission of advancing society.

Editing the genes of embryos could change our species’ evolutionary trajectory. Perhaps one day, the technology will eliminate heritable diseases such as sickle-cell anaemia and cystic fibrosis. But it might also eliminate deafness or even brown eyes. In this quest to improve the human race, the strengths of our diversity could be lost, and the rights of already vulnerable populations could be jeopardized.

Decisions about how and whether this technology should be used will require an expanded set of scientific virtues: compassion to ensure its applications are designed to be just, humility to ensure its risks are heeded and altruism to ensure its benefits are equitably distributed.

Calls for improved global oversight and robust ethical frameworks are being heeded. Some researchers who apparently knew of He’s experiments are under review by their universities. Chinese investigators have said He skirted regulations and will be punished. But punishment is an imperfect motivator. We must foster researchers’ sense of societal values.

Fortunately, initiatives popping up throughout the scientific community are cultivating a scientific culture informed by a broader set of values and considerations. The Scientific Citizenship Initiative at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, trains scientists to align their research with societal needs. The Summer Internship for Indigenous Peoples in Genomics offers genomics training that also focuses on integrating indigenous cultural perspectives into gene studies. The AI Now Institute at New York University has initiated a holistic approach to artificial-intelligence research that incorporates inclusion, bias and justice. And Editing Nature, a programme that I founded, provides platforms that integrate scientific knowledge with diverse cultural world views to foster the responsible development of environmental genetic technologies.

Initiatives such as these are proof [emphasis mine] that science is becoming more socially aware, equitable and just. …

I’m glad to see there’s work being done on introducing a broader set of values into the scientific endeavour. That said, these programmes seem to be voluntary, i.e., people self-select, and those most likely to participate in these programmes are the ones who might be inclined to integrate social values into their work in the first place.

This doesn’t address the issue of how to deal with unscrupulous governments pressuring scientists to create designer babies along with hypercompetitive and possibly unscrupulous individuals such as the members of the ‘Silicon Valley insiders mentioned in Loeffler’s article, teaming up with scientists who will stop at nothing to get their place in the history books.

Like Kofler, I’m encouraged to see these programmes but I’m a little less convinced that they will be enough. What form it might take I don’t know but I think something a little more punitive is also called for.

CCR5 and freedom from HIV

I’ve added this piece about the Berlin and London patients because, back in November 2018, I failed to realize how compelling the idea of eradicating susceptibility to AIDS/HIV might be. Reading about some real life remissions helped me to understand some of He’s stated motivations a bit better. Unfortunately, there’s a major drawback described here in a March 5, 2019 news item on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) online news attributed to Reuters,

An HIV-positive man in Britain has become the second known adult worldwide to be cleared of the virus that causes AIDS after he received a bone marrow transplant from an HIV-resistant donor, his doctors said.

The therapy had an early success with a man known as “the Berlin patient,” Timothy Ray Brown, a U.S. man treated in Germany who is 12 years post-transplant and still free of HIV. Until now, Brown was the only person thought to have been cured of infection with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Such transplants are dangerous and have failed in other patients. They’re also impractical to try to cure the millions already infected.

In the latest case, the man known as “the London patient” has no trace of HIV infection, almost three years after he received bone marrow stem cells from a donor with a rare genetic mutation that resists HIV infection — and more than 18 months after he came off antiretroviral drugs.

“There is no virus there that we can measure. We can’t detect anything,” said Ravindra Gupta, a professor and HIV biologist who co-led a team of doctors treating the man.

Gupta described his patient as “functionally cured” and “in remission,” but cautioned: “It’s too early to say he’s cured.”

Gupta, now at Cambridge University, treated the London patient when he was working at University College London. The man, who has asked to remain anonymous, had contracted HIV in 2003, Gupta said, and in 2012 was also diagnosed with a type of blood cancer called Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

In 2016, when he was very sick with cancer, doctors decided to seek a transplant match for him.

“This was really his last chance of survival,” Gupta told Reuters.

Doctors found a donor with a gene mutation known as CCR5 delta 32, which confers resistance to HIV. About one per cent of people descended from northern Europeans have inherited the mutation from both parents and are immune to most HIV. The donor had this double copy of the mutation.

That was “an improbable event,” Gupta said. “That’s why this has not been observed more frequently.”

Most experts say it is inconceivable such treatments could be a way of curing all patients. The procedure is expensive, complex and risky. To do this in others, exact match donors would have to be found in the tiny proportion of people who have the CCR5 mutation.

Specialists said it is also not yet clear whether the CCR5 resistance is the only key [emphasis mine] — or whether the graft-versus-host disease may have been just as important. Both the Berlin and London patients had this complication, which may have played a role in the loss of HIV-infected cells, Gupta said.

Not only is there some question as to what role the CCR5 gene plays, there’s also a question as to whether or not we know what role genes play.

A big question: are genes what we thought?

Ken Richardson’s January 3, 2019 article for Nautilus (I stumbled across it on May 14, 2019 so I’m late to the party) makes and supports a startling statement, It’s the End of the Gene As We Know It We are not nearly as determined by our genes as once thought (Note: A link has been removed),

We’ve all seen the stark headlines: “Being Rich and Successful Is in Your DNA” (Guardian, July 12); “A New Genetic Test Could Help Determine Children’s Success” (Newsweek, July 10); “Our Fortunetelling Genes” make us (Wall Street Journal, Nov. 16); and so on.

The problem is, many of these headlines are not discussing real genes at all, but a crude statistical model of them, involving dozens of unlikely assumptions. Now, slowly but surely, that whole conceptual model of the gene is being challenged.

We have reached peak gene, and passed it.

The preferred dogma started to appear in different versions in the 1920s. It was aptly summarized by renowned physicist Erwin Schrödinger in a famous lecture in Dublin in 1943. He told his audience that chromosomes “contain, in some kind of code-script, the entire pattern of the individual’s future development and of its functioning in the mature state.”

Around that image of the code a whole world order of rank and privilege soon became reinforced. These genes, we were told, come in different “strengths,” different permutations forming ranks that determine the worth of different “races” and of different classes in a class-structured society. A whole intelligence testing movement was built around that preconception, with the tests constructed accordingly.

The image fostered the eugenics and Nazi movements of the 1930s, with tragic consequences. Governments followed a famous 1938 United Kingdom education commission in decreeing that, “The facts of genetic inequality are something that we cannot escape,” and that, “different children … require types of education varying in certain important respects.”

Today, 1930s-style policy implications are being drawn once again. Proposals include gene-testing at birth for educational intervention, embryo selection for desired traits, identifying which classes or “races” are fitter than others, and so on. And clever marketizing now sees millions of people scampering to learn their genetic horoscopes in DNA self-testing kits.[emphasis mine]

So the hype now pouring out of the mass media is popularizing what has been lurking in the science all along: a gene-god as an entity with almost supernatural powers. Today it’s the gene that, in the words of the Anglican hymn, “makes us high and lowly and orders our estate.”

… at the same time, a counter-narrative is building, not from the media but from inside science itself.

So it has been dawning on us is that there is no prior plan or blueprint for development: Instructions are created on the hoof, far more intelligently than is possible from dumb DNA. That is why today’s molecular biologists are reporting “cognitive resources” in cells; “bio-information intelligence”; “cell intelligence”; “metabolic memory”; and “cell knowledge”—all terms appearing in recent literature.1,2 “Do cells think?” is the title of a 2007 paper in the journal Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences.3 On the other hand the assumed developmental “program” coded in a genotype has never been described.


It is such discoveries that are turning our ideas of genetic causation inside out. We have traditionally thought of cell contents as servants to the DNA instructions. But, as the British biologist Denis Noble insists in an interview with the writer Suzan Mazur,1 “The modern synthesis has got causality in biology wrong … DNA on its own does absolutely nothing [ emphasis mine] until activated by the rest of the system … DNA is not a cause in an active sense. I think it is better described as a passive data base which is used by the organism to enable it to make the proteins that it requires.”

I highly recommend reading Richardson’s article in its entirety. As well, you may want to read his book, ” Genes, Brains and Human Potential: The Science and Ideology of Intelligence .”

As for “DNA on its own doing absolutely nothing,” that might be a bit of a eye-opener for the Silicon Valley elite types investigating cognitive advantages attributed to the lack of a CCR5 gene. Meanwhile, there are scientists inserting a human gene associated with brain development into monkeys,

Transgenic monkeys and human intelligence

An April 2, 2019 news item on chinadaily.com describes research into transgenic monkeys,

Researchers from China and the United States have created transgenic monkeys carrying a human gene that is important for brain development, and the monkeys showed human-like brain development.

Scientists have identified several genes that are linked to primate brain size. MCPH1 is a gene that is expressed during fetal brain development. Mutations in MCPH1 can lead to microcephaly, a developmental disorder characterized by a small brain.

In the study published in the Beijing-based National Science Review, researchers from the Kunming Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, the University of North Carolina in the United States and other research institutions reported that they successfully created 11 transgenic rhesus monkeys (eight first-generation and three second-generation) carrying human copies of MCPH1.

According to the research article, brain imaging and tissue section analysis showed an altered pattern of neuron differentiation and a delayed maturation of the neural system, which is similar to the developmental delay (neoteny) in humans.

Neoteny in humans is the retention of juvenile features into adulthood. One key difference between humans and nonhuman primates is that humans require a much longer time to shape their neuro-networks during development, greatly elongating childhood, which is the so-called “neoteny.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Transgenic rhesus monkeys carrying the human MCPH1 gene copies show human-like neoteny of brain development by Lei Shi, Xin Luo, Jin Jiang, Yongchang Chen, Cirong Liu, Ting Hu, Min Li, Qiang Lin, Yanjiao Li, Jun Huang Hong Wang, Yuyu Niu, Yundi Shi, Martin Styner, Jianhong Wang, Yi Lu, Xuejin Sun, Hualin Yu, Weizhi Ji, Bing Su. National Science Review, nwz043, https://doi.org/10.1093/nsr/nwz043 Published: 27 March 2019

This appears to be an open access paper,

Transgenic monkeys and an ethical uproar

Predictably, this research set off alarms as Sharon Kirkey’s April 12, 2019 article for the National Post describes in detail (Note: A link has been removed)l,

Their brains may not be bigger than normal, but monkeys created with human brain genes are exhibiting cognitive changes that suggest they might be smarter — and the experiments have ethicists shuddering.

In the wake of the genetically modified human babies scandal, Chinese scientists [as a scientist from the US] are drawing fresh condemnation from philosophers and ethicists, this time over the announcement they’ve created transgenic monkeys with elements of a human brain.

Six of the monkeys died, however the five survivors “exhibited better short-term memory and shorter reaction time” compared to their wild-type controls, the researchers report in the journa.

According to the researchers, the experiments represent the first attempt to study the genetic basis of human brain origin using transgenic monkeys. The findings, they insist, “have the potential to provide important — and potentially unique — insights into basic questions of what actually makes humans unique.”

For others, the work provokes a profoundly moral and visceral uneasiness. Even one of the collaborators — University of North Carolina computer scientist Martin Styner — told MIT Technology Review he considered removing his name from the paper, which he said was unable to find a publisher in the West.

“Now we have created this animal which is different than it is supposed to be,” Styner said. “When we do experiments, we have to have a good understanding of what we are trying to learn, to help society, and that is not the case here.” l

In an email to the National Post, Styner said he has an expertise in medical image analysis and was approached by the researchers back in 2011. He said he had no input on the science in the project, beyond how to best do the analysis of their MRI data. “At the time, I did not think deeply enough about the ethical consideration.”

….

When it comes to the scientific use of nonhuman primates, ethicists say the moral compass is skewed in cases like this.

Given the kind of beings monkeys are, “I certainly would have thought you would have had to have a reasonable expectation of high benefit to human beings to justify the harms that you are going to have for intensely social, cognitively complex, emotional animals like monkeys,” said Letitia Meynell, an associate professor in the department of philosophy at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

“It’s not clear that this kind of research has any reasonable expectation of having any useful application for human beings,” she said.

The science itself is also highly dubious and fundamentally flawed in its logic, she said.
“If you took Einstein as a baby and you raised him in the lab he wouldn’t turn out to be Einstein,” Meynell said. “If you’re actually interested in studying the cognitive complexity of these animals, you’re not going to get a good representation of that by raising them in labs, because they can’t develop the kind of cognitive and social skills they would in their normal environment.”

The Chinese said the MCPH1 gene is one of the strongest candidates for human brain evolution. But looking at a single gene is just bad genetics, Meynell said. Multiple genes and their interactions affect the vast majority of traits.

My point is that there’s a lot of research focused on intelligence and genes when we don’t really know what role genes actually play and when there doesn’t seem to be any serious oversight.

Global plea for moratorium on heritable genome editing

A March 13, 2019 University of Otago (New Zealand) press release (also on EurekAlert) describes a global plea for a moratorium,

A University of Otago bioethicist has added his voice to a global plea for a moratorium on heritable genome editing from a group of international scientists and ethicists in the wake of the recent Chinese experiment aiming to produce HIV immune children.

In an article in the latest issue of international scientific journal Nature, Professor Jing-Bao Nie together with another 16 [17] academics from seven countries, call for a global moratorium on all clinical uses of human germline editing to make genetically modified children.

They would like an international governance framework – in which nations voluntarily commit to not approve any use of clinical germline editing unless certain conditions are met – to be created potentially for a five-year period.

Professor Nie says the scientific scandal of the experiment that led to the world’s first genetically modified babies raises many intriguing ethical, social and transcultural/transglobal issues. His main personal concerns include what he describes as the “inadequacy” of the Chinese and international responses to the experiment.

“The Chinese authorities have conducted a preliminary investigation into the scientist’s genetic misadventure and issued a draft new regulation on the related biotechnologies. These are welcome moves. Yet, by putting blame completely on the rogue scientist individually, the institutional failings are overlooked,” Professor Nie explains.

“In the international discourse, partly due to the mentality of dichotomising China and the West, a tendency exists to characterise the scandal as just a Chinese problem. As a result, the global context of the experiment and Chinese science schemes have been far from sufficiently examined.”

The group of 17 [18] scientists and bioethicists say it is imperative that extensive public discussions about the technical, scientific, medical, societal, ethical and moral issues must be considered before germline editing is permitted. A moratorium would provide time to establish broad societal consensus and an international framework.

“For germline editing to even be considered for a clinical application, its safety and efficacy must be sufficient – taking into account the unmet medical need, the risks and potential benefits and the existence of alternative approaches,” the opinion article states.

Although techniques have improved in recent years, germline editing is not yet safe or effective enough to justify any use in the clinic with the risk of failing to make the desired change or of introducing unintended mutations still unacceptably high, the scientists and ethicists say.

“No clinical application of germline editing should be considered unless its long-term biological consequences are sufficiently understood – both for individuals and for the human species.”

The proposed moratorium does not however, apply to germline editing for research uses or in human somatic (non-reproductive) cells to treat diseases.

Professor Nie considers it significant that current presidents of the UK Royal Society, the US National Academy of Medicine and the Director and Associate Director of the US National Institute of Health have expressed their strong support for such a proposed global moratorium in two correspondences published in the same issue of Nature. The editorial in the issue also argues that the right decision can be reached “only through engaging more communities in the debate”.

“The most challenging questions are whether international organisations and different countries will adopt a moratorium and if yes, whether it will be effective at all,” Professor Nie says.

A March 14, 2019 news item on phys.org provides a précis of the Comment in Nature. Or, you ,can access the Comment with this link

Adopt a moratorium on heritable genome editing; Eric Lander, Françoise Baylis, Feng Zhang, Emmanuelle Charpentier, Paul Berg and specialists from seven countries call for an international governance framework.signed by: Eric S. Lander, Françoise Baylis, Feng Zhang, Emmanuelle Charpentier, Paul Berg, Catherine Bourgain, Bärbel Friedrich, J. Keith Joung, Jinsong Li, David Liu, Luigi Naldini, Jing-Bao Nie, Renzong Qiu, Bettina Schoene-Seifert, Feng Shao, Sharon Terry, Wensheng Wei, & Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker. Nature 567, 165-168 (2019) doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00726-5

This Comment in Nature is open access.

World Health Organization (WHO) chimes in

Better late than never, eh? The World Health Organization has called heritable gene editing of humans ‘irresponsible’ and made recommendations. From a March 19, 2019 news item on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Online news webpage,

A panel convened by the World Health Organization said it would be “irresponsible” for scientists to use gene editing for reproductive purposes, but stopped short of calling for a ban.

The experts also called for the U.N. health agency to create a database of scientists working on gene editing. The recommendation was announced Tuesday after a two-day meeting in Geneva to examine the scientific, ethical, social and legal challenges of such research.

“At this time, it is irresponsible for anyone to proceed” with making gene-edited babies since DNA changes could be passed down to future generations, the experts said in a statement.

Germline editing has been on my radar since 2015 (see my May 14, 2015 posting) and the probability that someone would experiment with viable embryos and bring them to term shouldn’t be that much of a surprise.

Slow science from Canada

Canada has banned germline editing but there is pressure to lift that ban. (I touched on the specifics of the campaign in an April 26, 2019 posting.) This March 17, 2019 essay on The Conversation by Landon J Getz and Graham Dellaire, both of Dalhousie University (Nova Scotia, Canada) elucidates some of the discussion about whether research into germline editing should be slowed down.

Naughty (or Haughty, if you prefer) scientists

There was scoffing from some, if not all, members of the scientific community about the potential for ‘designer babies’ that can be seen in an excerpt from an article by Ed Yong for The Atlantic (originally published in my ,August 15, 2017 posting titled: CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 2 of 3): ‘designer babies’?),

Ed Yong in an Aug. 2, 2017 article for The Atlantic offered a comprehensive overview of the research and its implications (unusually for Yong, there seems to be mildly condescending note but it’s worth ignoring for the wealth of information in the article; Note: Links have been removed),

” … the full details of the experiment, which are released today, show that the study is scientifically important but much less of a social inflection point than has been suggested. “This has been widely reported as the dawn of the era of the designer baby, making it probably the fifth or sixth time people have reported that dawn,” says Alta Charo, an expert on law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “And it’s not.”

Then about 15 months later, the possibility seemed to be realized.

Interesting that scientists scoffed at the public’s concerns (you can find similar arguments about robots and artificial intelligence not being a potentially catastrophic problem), yes? Often, nonscientists’ concerns are dismissed as being founded in science fiction.

To be fair, there are times when concerns are overblown, the difficulty is that it seems the scientific community’s default position is to uniformly dismiss concerns rather than approaching them in a nuanced fashion. If the scoffers had taken the time to think about it, germline editing on viable embryos seems like an obvious and inevitable next step (as I’ve noted previously).

At this point, no one seems to know if He actually succeeded at removing CCR5 from Lulu’s and Nana’s genomes. In November 2018, scientists were guessing that at least one of the twins was a ‘mosaic’. In other words, some of her cells did not include CCR5 while others did.

Parents, children, competition

A recent college admissions scandal in the US has highlighted the intense competition to get into high profile educational institutions. (This scandal brought to mind the Silicon Valey elite who wanted to know more about gene editing that might result in improved cognitive skills.)

Since it can be easy to point the finger at people in other countries, I’d like to note that there was a Canadian parent among these wealthy US parents attempting to give their children advantages by any means, legal or not. (Note: These are alleged illegalities.) From a March 12, 2019 news article by Scott Brown, Kevin Griffin, and Keith Fraser for the Vancouver Sun,

Vancouver businessman and former CFL [Canadian Football League] player David Sidoo has been charged with conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud in connection with a far-reaching FBI investigation into a criminal conspiracy that sought to help privileged kids with middling grades gain admission to elite U.S. universities.

In a 12-page indictment filed March 5 [2019] in the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts, Sidoo is accused of making two separate US$100,000 payments to have others take college entrance exams in place of his two sons.

Sidoo is also accused of providing documents for the purpose of creating falsified identification cards for the people taking the tests.

In what is being called the biggest college-admissions scam ever prosecuted by the U.S. Justice Department, Sidoo has been charged with nearly 50 other people. Nine athletic coaches and 33 parents including Hollywood actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin. are among those charged in the investigation, dubbed Operation Varsity Blues.

According to the indictment, an unidentified person flew from Tampa, Fla., to Vancouver in 2011 to take the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) in place of Sidoo’s older son and was directed not to obtain too high a score since the older son had previously taken the exam, obtaining a score of 1460 out of a possible 2400.

A copy of the resulting SAT score — 1670 out of 2400 — was mailed to Chapman University, a private university in Orange, Calif., on behalf of the older son, who was admitted to and ultimately enrolled in the university in January 2012, according to the indictment.

It’s also alleged that Sidoo arranged to have someone secretly take the older boy’s Canadian high school graduation exam, with the person posing as the boy taking the exam in June 2012.

The Vancouver businessman is also alleged to have paid another $100,000 to have someone take the SAT in place of his younger son.

Sidoo, an investment banker currently serving as CEO of Advantage Lithium, was awarded the Order of B.C. in 2016 for his philanthropic efforts.

He is a former star with the UBC [University of British Columbia] Thunderbirds football team and helped the school win its first Vanier Cup in 1982. He went on to play five seasons in the CFL with the Saskatchewan Roughriders and B.C. Lions.

Sidoo is a prominent donor to UBC and is credited with spearheading an alumni fundraising campaign, 13th Man Foundation, that resuscitated the school’s once struggling football team. He reportedly donated $2 million of his own money to support the program.

Sidoo Field at UBC’s Thunderbird Stadium is named in his honour.

In 2016, he received the B.C. [British Columbia] Sports Hall of Fame’s W.A.C. Bennett Award for his contributions to the sporting life of the province.

The question of whether or not these people like the ‘Silicon Valley elite’ (mentioned in John Loeffler’s February 22, 2019 article) would choose to tinker with their children’s genome if it gave them an advantage, is still hypothetical but it’s easy to believe that at least some might seriously consider the possibility especially if the researcher or doctor didn’t fully explain just how little is known about the impact of tinkering with the genome. For example, there’s a big question about whether those parents in China fully understood what they signed up for.

By the way, cheating scandals aren’t new (see Vanity Fair’s Schools For Scandal; The Inside Dramas at 16 of America’s Most Elite Campuses—Plus Oxford! Edited by Graydon Carter, published in August 2018 and covering 25 years of the magazine’s reporting). On a similar line, there’s this March13, 2019 essay which picks apart some of the hierarchical and power issues at play in the US higher educational system which led to this latest (but likely not last) scandal.

Scientists under pressure

While Kofler’s February 26, 2019 Nature opinion piece and call to action seems to address the concerns regarding germline editing by advocating that scientists become more conscious of how their choices impact society, as I noted earlier, the ideas expressed seem a little ungrounded in harsh realities. Perhaps it’s time to give some recognition to the various pressures put on scientists from their own governments and from an academic environment that fosters ‘success’ at any cost to peer pressure, etc. (For more about the costs of a science culture focused on success, read this March 2, 2019 blog posting by Jon Tennant on digital-science.com for a breakdown.)

One other thing I should mention, for some scientists getting into the history books, winning Nobel prizes, etc. is a very important goal. Scientists are people too.

Some thoughts

There seems to be a great disjunction between what Richardson presents as an alternative narrative to the ‘gene-god’ and how genetic research is being performed and reported on. What is clear to me is that no one really understands genetics and this business of inserting and deleting genes is essentially research designed to satisfy curiosity and/or allay fears about being left behind in a great scientific race to a an unknown destination.

I’d like to see some better reporting and a more agile response by the scientific community, the various governments, and international agencies. What shape or form a more agile response might take, I don’t know but I’d like to see some efforts.

Back to the regular programme

There’s a lot about CRISPR here on this blog. A simple search of ‘CRISPR ‘in the blog’s search engine should get you more than enough information about the technology and the various issues ranging from intellectual property to risks and more.

The three part series (CRISPR and editing the germline in the US …), mentioned previously, was occasioned by the publication of a study on germline editing research with nonviable embryos in the US. The 2017 research was done at the Oregon Health and Science University by Shoukhrat Mitalipov following similar research published by Chinese scientists in 2015. The series gives relatively complete coverage of the issues along with an introduction to CRISPR and embedded video describing the technique. Here’s part 1 to get you started..

S.NET (Society for the Study of New and Emerging Technologies) 2019 conference in Quito, Ecuador: call for abstracts

Why isn’t the S.NET abbreviation SSNET? That’s what it should be, given the organization’s full name: Society for the Study of New and Emerging Technologies. S.NET smacks of a compromise or consensus decision of some kind. Also, the ‘New’ in its name was ‘Nanoscience’ at one time (see my Oct. 22, 2013 posting).

Now onto 2019 and the conference, which, for the first time ever, is being held in Latin America. Here’s more from a February 4, 2019 S.Net email about the call for abstracts,

2019 Annual S.NET Meeting
Contrasting Visions of Technological Change

The 11th Annual S.NET meeting will take place November 18-20, 2019, at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences in Quito, Ecuador.

This year’s meeting will provide rich opportunities to reflect on technological change by establishing a dialogue between contrasting visions on how technology becomes closely intertwined with social orders.  We aim to open the black box of technological change by exploring the sociotechnical agreements that help to explain why societies follow certain technological trajectories. Contributors are invited to explore the ramifications of technological change, reflect on the policy process of technology, and debate whether or why technological innovation is a matter for democracy.

Following the transnational nature of S.NET, the meeting will highlight the diverse geographical and cultural approaches to technological innovation, the forces driving sociotechnical change, and social innovation.  It is of paramount importance to question the role of technology in the shaping of society and the outcomes of these configurations.  What happens when these arrangements come into being, are transformed or fall apart?  Does technology create contestation?  Why and how should we engage with contested visions of technology change?

This is the first time that the S.NET Meeting will take place in Latin America and we encourage panels and presentations with contrasting voices from both the Global North and the Global South. 

Topics of interest include, but are not limited to:

Sociotechnical imaginaries of innovation
The role of technology on shaping nationhood and nation identities
Decision-making processes on science and technology public policies
Co-creation approaches to promote public innovation
Grassroots innovation, sustainability and democracy
Visions and cultural imaginaries
Role of social sciences and humanities in processes technological change
In addition, we welcome contributions on:
Research dynamics and organization Innovation and use
Governance and regulation
Politics and ethics
Roles of publics and stakeholders

Keynote Speakers
TBA (check the conference website for updates!)

Deadlines & Submission Instructions
The program committee invites contributions from scholars, technology developers and practitioners, and welcome presentations from a range of disciplines spanning the humanities, social and natural sciences.  We invite individual paper submissions, open panel and closed session proposals, student posters, and special format sessions, including events that are innovative in form and content. 

The deadline for abstract submissions is *April 18, 2019* [extended to May 12, 2019].  Abstracts should be approximately 250 words in length, emailed in PDF format to 2019snet@gmail.com.  Notifications of acceptance can be expected by May 30, 2019.

Junior scholars and those with limited resources are strongly encouraged to apply, as the organizing committee is actively investigating potential sources of financial support.

Details on the conference can be found here: https://www.flacso.edu.ec/snet2019/

Local Organizing Committee
María Belén Albornoz, Isarelis Pérez, Javier Jiménez, Mónica Bustamante, Jorge Núñez, Maka Suárez.

Venue
FLACSO Ecuador is located in the heart of Quito.  Most hotels, museums, shopping centers and other cultural hotspots in the city are located near the campus and are easily accessible by public or private transportation.  Due to its proximity and easy access, Meeting participants would be able to enjoy Quito’s rich cultural life during their stay.  

About S.NET
S.NET is an international association that promotes intellectual exchange and critical inquiry about the advancement of new and emerging technologies in society.  The aim of the association is to advance critical reflection from various perspectives on developments in a broad range of new and emerging fields, including, but not limited to, nanoscale science and engineering, biotechnology, synthetic biology, cognitive science, ICT and Big Data, and geo-engineering.  Current S.NET board members are: Michael Bennett (President), Maria Belen Albornoz, Claire Shelley-Egan, Ana Delgado, Ana Viseu, Nora Vaage, Chris Toumey, Poonam Pandey, Sylvester Johnson, Lotte Krabbenborg, and Maria Joao Ferreira Maia.

Don’t forget, the deadline for your abstract is *April 18, 2019* [extended to May 12, 2019].

For anyone curious about what Quito might look like, there’s this from Quito’s Wikipedia entry,

Clockwise from top: Calle La Ronda, Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús, El Panecillo as seen from Northern Quito, Carondelet Palace, Central-Northern Quito, Parque La Carolina and Iglesia y Monasterio de San Francisco. Credit: various authors – montage of various important landmarks of the City of Quito, Ecuador taken from files found in Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0 File:Montaje Quito.png Created: 24 December 2012

Good luck to all everyone submitting an abstract.

*Date for abstract submissions changed from April 18, 2019 to May 12, 2019 on April 24, 2019

Summer (2019) Institute on AI (artificial intelligence) Societal Impacts, Governance, and Ethics. Summer Institute In Alberta, Canada

The deadline for applications is April 7, 2019. As for whether or not you might like to attend, here’s more from a joint March 11, 2019 Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii)/
Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR)/University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) Law School news release
(also on globalnewswire.com),

What will Artificial Intelligence (AI) mean for society? That’s the question scholars from a variety of disciplines will explore during the inaugural Summer Institute on AI Societal Impacts, Governance, and Ethics. Summer Institute, co-hosted by the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii) and CIFAR, with support from UCLA School of Law, takes place July 22-24, 2019 in Edmonton, Canada.

“Recent advances in AI have brought a surge of attention to the field – both excitement and concern,” says co-organizer and UCLA professor, Edward Parson. “From algorithmic bias to autonomous vehicles, personal privacy to automation replacing jobs. Summer Institute will bring together exceptional people to talk about how humanity can receive the benefits and not get the worst harms from these rapid changes.”

Summer Institute brings together experts, grad students and researchers from multiple backgrounds to explore the societal, governmental, and ethical implications of AI. A combination of lectures, panels, and participatory problem-solving, this comprehensive interdisciplinary event aims to build understanding and action around these high-stakes issues.

“Machine intelligence is opening transformative opportunities across the world,” says John Shillington, CEO of Amii, “and Amii is excited to bring together our own world-leading researchers with experts from areas such as law, philosophy and ethics for this important discussion. Interdisciplinary perspectives will be essential to the ongoing development of machine intelligence and for ensuring these opportunities have the broadest reach possible.”

Over the three-day program, 30 graduate-level students and early-career researchers will engage with leading experts and researchers including event co-organizers: Western University’s Daniel Lizotte, Amii’s Alona Fyshe and UCLA’s Edward Parson. Participants will also have a chance to shape the curriculum throughout this uniquely interactive event.

Summer Institute takes place prior to Deep Learning and Reinforcement Learning Summer School, and includes a combined event on July 24th [2019] for both Summer Institute and Summer School participants.

Visit dlrlsummerschool.ca/the-summer-institute to apply; applications close April 7, 2019.

View our Summer Institute Biographies & Boilerplates for more information on confirmed faculty members and co-hosting organizations. Follow the conversation through social media channels using the hashtag #SI2019.

Media Contact: Spencer Murray, Director of Communications & Public Relations, Amii
t: 587.415.6100 | c: 780.991.7136 | e: spencer.murray@amii.ca

There’s a bit more information on The Summer Institute on AI and Society webpage (on the Deep Learning and Reinforcement Learning Summer School 2019 website) such as this more complete list of speakers,

Confirmed speakers at Summer Institute include:

Alona Fyshe, University of Alberta/Amii (SI co-organizer)
Edward Parson, UCLA (SI co-organizer)
Daniel Lizotte, Western University (SI co-organizer)
Geoffrey Rockwell, University of Alberta
Graham Taylor, University of Guelph/Vector Institute
Rob Lempert, Rand Corporation
Gary Marchant, Arizona State University
Richard Re, UCLA
Evan Selinger, Rochester Institute of Technology
Elana Zeide, UCLA

Two questions, why are all the summer school faculty either Canada- or US-based? What about South American, Asian, Middle Eastern, etc. thinkers?

One last thought, I wonder if this ‘AI & ethics summer institute’ has anything to do with the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, which CIFAR administers and where both the University of Alberta and Vector Institute are members.

Call for abstracts: Seventh annual conference on governance of emerging technologies & science (GETS)

The conference itself will be held from May 22 – 24, 2019 at Arizona State University (ASU) and the deadline for abstracts is January 31, 2019. Here’s the news straight from the January 8, 2019 email announcement,

The Seventh Annual Conference on Governance of Emerging Technologies & Science (GETS)

May 22-24, 2019 / ASU / Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law
111 E. Taylor St., Phoenix, AZ
 
The conference will consist of plenary and session presentations and discussions on regulatory, governance, legal, policy, social and ethical aspects of emerging technologies, including nanotechnology, synthetic biology, gene editing, biotechnology, genomics, personalized medicine, digital health, human enhancement, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, internet of things (IoT), blockchain and much, much more!
 
Submit Your Abstract Here: 2019 Abstract
or
Conference Website
 
Call for abstracts:
 
The co-sponsors invite submission of abstracts for proposed presentations. Submitters of abstracts need not provide a written paper, although provision will be made for posting and possible post-conference publication of papers for those who are interested. 
Abstracts are invited for any aspect or topic relating to the governance of emerging technologies, including any of the technologies listed above.
 
·         Abstracts should not exceed 500 words and must contain your name and email address.
·         Abstracts must be submitted by January 31, 2019 to be considered. 
·         The sponsors will pay for the conference registration (including all conference meals and events) for one presenter for each accepted abstract. In addition, we will have limited funds available for travel subsidies (application included in submission form).
For more informationcontact our Executive Director Josh Abbott at Josh.Abbott@asu.edu.

Good luck on your submission!

First CRISPR gene-edited babies? Ethics and the science story

Scientists, He Jiankui and Michael Deem, may have created the first human babies born after being subjected to CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) gene editing.  At this point, no one is entirely certain that these babies  as described actually exist since the information was made public in a rather unusual (for scientists) fashion.

The news broke on Sunday, November 25, 2018 through a number of media outlets none of which included journals associated with gene editing or high impact journals such as Cell, Nature, or Science.The news broke in MIT Technology Review and in Associated Press. Plus, this all happened just before the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing (Nov. 27 – 29, 2018) in Hong Kong. He Jiankui was scheduled to speak today, Nov. 27, 2018.

Predictably, this news has caused quite a tizzy.

Breaking news

Antonio Regalado broke the news in a November 25, 2018  article for MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] Technology Review (Note: Links have been removed),

According to Chinese medical documents posted online this month (here and here), a team at the Southern University of Science and Technology, in Shenzhen, has been recruiting couples in an effort to create the first gene-edited babies. They planned to eliminate a gene called CCR5 in hopes of rendering the offspring resistant to HIV, smallpox, and cholera.

The clinical trial documents describe a study in which CRISPR is employed to modify human embryos before they are transferred into women’s uteruses.

The scientist behind the effort, He Jiankui, did not reply to a list of questions about whether the undertaking had produced a live birth. Reached by telephone, he declined to comment.

However, data submitted as part of the trial listing shows that genetic tests have been carried out on fetuses as late as 24 weeks, or six months. It’s not known if those pregnancies were terminated, carried to term, or are ongoing.

Apparently He changed his mind because Marilynn Marchione in a November 26, 2018 article for the Associated Press confirms the news,

A Chinese researcher claims that he helped make the world’s first genetically edited babies — twin girls born this month whose DNA he said he altered with a powerful new tool capable of rewriting the very blueprint of life.

If true, it would be a profound leap of science and ethics.

A U.S. scientist [Dr. Michael Deem] said he took part in the work in China, but this kind of gene editing is banned in the United States because the DNA changes can pass to future generations and it risks harming other genes.

Many mainstream scientists think it’s too unsafe to try, and some denounced the Chinese report as human experimentation.

There is no independent confirmation of He’s claim, and it has not been published in a journal, where it would be vetted by other experts. He revealed it Monday [November 26, 2018] in Hong Kong to one of the organizers of an international conference on gene editing that is set to begin Tuesday [November 27, 2018], and earlier in exclusive interviews with The Associated Press.

“I feel a strong responsibility that it’s not just to make a first, but also make it an example,” He told the AP. “Society will decide what to do next” in terms of allowing or forbidding such science.

Some scientists were astounded to hear of the claim and strongly condemned it.

It’s “unconscionable … an experiment on human beings that is not morally or ethically defensible,” said Dr. Kiran Musunuru, a University of Pennsylvania gene editing expert and editor of a genetics journal.

“This is far too premature,” said Dr. Eric Topol, who heads the Scripps Research Translational Institute in California. “We’re dealing with the operating instructions of a human being. It’s a big deal.”

However, one famed geneticist, Harvard University’s George Church, defended attempting gene editing for HIV, which he called “a major and growing public health threat.”

“I think this is justifiable,” Church said of that goal.

h/t Cale Guthrie Weissman’s Nov. 26, 2018 article for Fast Company.

Diving into more detail

Ed Yong in a November 26, 2018 article for The Atlantic provides more details about the claims (Note: Links have been removed),

… “Two beautiful little Chinese girls, Lulu and Nana, came crying into the world as healthy as any other babies a few weeks ago,” He said in the first of five videos, posted yesterday {Nov. 25, 2018] to YouTube [link provided at the end of this section of the post]. “The girls are home now with their mom, Grace, and dad, Mark.” The claim has yet to be formally verified, but if true, it represents a landmark in the continuing ethical and scientific debate around gene editing.

Late last year, He reportedly enrolled seven couples in a clinical trial, and used their eggs and sperm to create embryos through in vitro fertilization. His team then used CRISPR to deactivate a single gene called CCR5 in the embryos, six of which they then implanted into mothers. CCR5 is a protein that the HIV virus uses to gain entry into human cells; by deactivating it, the team could theoretically reduce the risk of infection. Indeed, the fathers in all eight couples were HIV-positive.

Whether the experiment was successful or not, it’s intensely controversial. Scientists have already begun using CRISPR and other gene-editing technologies to alter human cells, in attempts to treat cancers, genetic disorders, and more. But in these cases, the affected cells stay within a person’s body. Editing an embryo [it’s often called, germline editing] is very different: It changes every cell in the body of the resulting person, including the sperm or eggs that would pass those changes to future generations. Such work is banned in many European countries, and prohibited in the United States. “I understand my work will be controversial, but I believe families need this technology and I’m willing to take the criticism for them,” He said.

“Was this a reasonable thing to do? I would say emphatically no,” says Paula Cannon of the University of Southern California. She and others have worked on gene editing, and particularly on trials that knock out CCR5 as a way to treat HIV. But those were attempts to treat people who were definitively sick and had run out of other options. That wasn’t the case with Nana and Lulu.

“The idea that being born HIV-susceptible, which is what the vast majority of humans are, is somehow a disease state that requires the extraordinary intervention of gene editing blows my mind,” says Cannon. “I feel like he’s appropriating this potentially valuable therapy as a shortcut to doing something in the sphere of gene editing. He’s either very naive or very cynical.”

“I want someone to make sure that it has happened,” says Hank Greely, an ethicist at Stanford University. If it hasn’t, that “would be a pretty bald-faced fraud,” but such deceptions have happened in the past. “If it is true, I’m disappointed. It’s reckless on safety grounds, and imprudent and stupid on social grounds.” He notes that a landmark summit in 2015 (which included Chinese researchers) and a subsequent major report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine both argued that “public participation should precede any heritable germ-line editing.” That is: Society needs to work out how it feels about making gene-edited babies before any babies are edited. Absent that consensus, He’s work is “waving a red flag in front of a bull,” says Greely. “It provokes not just the regular bio-Luddites, but also reasonable people who just wanted to talk it out.”

Societally, the creation of CRISPR-edited babies is a binary moment—a Rubicon that has been crossed. But scientifically, the devil is in the details, and most of those are still unknown.

CRISPR is still inefficient. [emphasis mine] The Chinese teams who first used it to edit human embryos only did so successfully in a small proportion of cases, and even then, they found worrying levels of “off-target mutations,” where they had erroneously cut parts of the genome outside their targeted gene. He, in his video, claimed that his team had thoroughly sequenced Nana and Lulu’s genomes and found no changes in genes other than CCR5.

That claim is impossible to verify in the absence of a peer-reviewed paper, or even published data of any kind. “The paper is where we see whether the CCR5 gene was properly edited, what effect it had at the cellular level, and whether [there were] any off-target effects,” said Eric Topol of the Scripps Research Institute. “It’s not just ‘it worked’ as a binary declaration.”

In the video, He said that using CRISPR for human enhancement, such as enhancing IQ or selecting eye color, “should be banned.” Speaking about Nana and Lulu’s parents, he said that they “don’t want a designer baby, just a child who won’t suffer from a disease that medicine can now prevent.”

But his rationale is questionable. Huang [Junjiu Huang of Sun Yat-sen University ], the first Chinese researcher to use CRISPR on human embryos, targeted the faulty gene behind an inherited disease called beta thalassemia. Mitalipov, likewise, tried to edit a gene called MYBPC3, whose faulty versions cause another inherited disease called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM). Such uses are still controversial, but they rank among the more acceptable applications for embryonic gene editing as ways of treating inherited disorders for which treatments are either difficult or nonexistent.

In contrast, He’s team disableda normal gene in an attempt to reduce the risk of a disease that neither child had—and one that can be controlled. There are already ways of preventing fathers from passing HIV to their children. There are antiviral drugs that prevent infections. There’s safe-sex education. “This is not a plague for which we have no tools,” says Cannon.

As Marilynn Marchione of the AP reports, early tests suggest that He’s editing was incomplete [emphasis mine], and at least one of the twins is a mosaic, where some cells have silenced copies of CCR5 and others do not. If that’s true, it’s unlikely that they would be significantly protected from HIV. And in any case, deactivating CCR5 doesn’t confer complete immunity, because some HIV strains can still enter cells via a different protein called CXCR4.

Nana and Lulu might have other vulnerabilities. …

It is also unclear if the participants in He’s trial were fully aware of what they were signing up for. [emphasis mine] The team’s informed-consent document describes their work as an “AIDS vaccine development project,” and while it describes CRISPR gene editing, it does so in heavily technical language. It doesn’t mention any of the risks of disabling CCR5, and while it does note the possibility of off-target effects, it also says that the “project team is not responsible for the risk.”

He owns two genetics companies, and his collaborator, Michael Deem of Rice University,  [emphasis mine] holds a small stake in, and sits on the advisory board of, both of them. The AP’s Marchione reports, “Both men are physics experts with no experience running human clinical trials.” [emphasis mine]

Yong’s article is well worth reading in its entirety. As for YouTube, here’s The He Lab’s webpage with relevant videos.

Reactions

Gina Kolata, Sui-Lee Wee, and Pam Belluck writing in a Nov. 26, 2018 article for the New York Times chronicle some of the response to He’s announcement,

It is highly unusual for a scientist to announce a groundbreaking development without at least providing data that academic peers can review. Dr. He said he had gotten permission to do the work from the ethics board of the hospital Shenzhen Harmonicare, but the hospital, in interviews with Chinese media, denied being involved. Cheng Zhen, the general manager of Shenzhen Harmonicare, has asked the police to investigate what they suspect are “fraudulent ethical review materials,” according to the Beijing News.

The university that Dr. He is attached to, the Southern University of Science and Technology, said Dr. He has been on no-pay leave since February and that the school of biology believed that his project “is a serious violation of academic ethics and academic norms,” according to the state-run Beijing News.

In a statement late on Monday, China’s national health commission said it has asked the health commission in southern Guangdong province to investigate Mr. He’s claims.

“I think that’s completely insane,” said Shoukhrat Mitalipov, director of the Center for Embryonic Cell and Gene Therapy at Oregon Health and Science University. Dr. Mitalipov broke new ground last year by using gene editing to successfully remove a dangerous mutation from human embryos in a laboratory dish. [I wrote a three-part series about CRISPR, which included what was then the latest US news, Mitalipov’s announcement, along with a roundup of previous work in China. Links are at the end of this section.’

Dr. Mitalipov said that unlike his own work, which focuses on editing out mutations that cause serious diseases that cannot be prevented any other way, Dr. He did not do anything medically necessary. There are other ways to prevent H.I.V. infection in newborns.

Just three months ago, at a conference in late August on genome engineering at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, Dr. He presented work on editing the CCR₅ gene in the embryos of nine couples.

At the conference, whose organizers included Jennifer Doudna, one of the inventors of Crispr technology, Dr. He gave a careful talk about something that fellow attendees considered squarely within the realm of ethically approved research. But he did not mention that some of those embryos had been implanted in a woman and could result in genetically engineered babies.

“What we now know is that as he was talking, there was a woman in China carrying twins,” said Fyodor Urnov, deputy director of the Altius Institute for Biomedical Sciences and a visiting researcher at the Innovative Genomics Institute at the University of California. “He had the opportunity to say ‘Oh and by the way, I’m just going to come out and say it, people, there’s a woman carrying twins.’”

“I would never play poker against Dr. He,” Dr. Urnov quipped.

Richard Hynes, a cancer researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who co-led an advisory group on human gene editing for the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine, said that group and a similar organization in Britain had determined that if human genes were to be edited, the procedure should only be done to address “serious unmet needs in medical treatment, it had to be well monitored, it had to be well followed up, full consent has to be in place.”

It is not clear why altering genes to make people resistant to H.I.V. is “a serious unmet need.” Men with H.I.V. do not infect embryos. …

Dr. He got his Ph.D., from Rice University, in physics and his postdoctoral training, at Stanford, was with Stephen Quake, a professor of bioengineering and applied physics who works on sequencing DNA, not editing it.

Experts said that using Crispr would actually be quite easy for someone like Dr. He.

After coming to Shenzhen in 2012, Dr. He, at age 28, established a DNA sequencing company, Direct Genomics, and listed Dr. Quake on its advisory board. But, in a telephone interview on Monday, Dr. Quake said he was never associated with the company.

Deem, the US scientist who worked in China with He is currently being investigated (from a Nov. 26, 2018 article by Andrew Joseph in STAT),

Rice University said Monday that it had opened a “full investigation” into the involvement of one of its faculty members in a study that purportedly resulted in the creation of the world’s first babies born with edited DNA.

Michael Deem, a bioengineering professor at Rice, told the Associated Press in a story published Sunday that he helped work on the research in China.

Deem told the AP that he was in China when participants in the study consented to join the research. Deem also said that he had “a small stake” in and is on the scientific advisory boards of He’s two companies.

Megan Molteni in a Nov. 27, 2018 article for Wired admits she and her colleagues at the magazine may have dismissed CRISPR concerns about designer babies prematurely while shedding more light on this  latest development (Note: Links have been removed),

We said “don’t freak out,” when scientists first used Crispr to edit DNA in non-viable human embryos. When they tried it in embryos that could theoretically produce babies, we said “don’t panic.” Many years and years of boring bench science remain before anyone could even think about putting it near a woman’s uterus. Well, we might have been wrong. Permission to push the panic button granted.

Late Sunday night, a Chinese researcher stunned the world by claiming to have created the first human babies, a set of twins, with Crispr-edited DNA….

What’s perhaps most strange is not that He ignored global recommendations on conducting responsible Crispr research in humans. He also ignored his own advice to the world—guidelines that were published within hours of his transgression becoming public.

On Monday, He and his colleagues at Southern University of Science and Technology, in Shenzhen, published a set of draft ethical principles “to frame, guide, and restrict clinical applications that communities around the world can share and localize based on religious beliefs, culture, and public-health challenges.” Those principles included transparency and only performing the procedure when the risks are outweighed by serious medical need.

The piece appeared in the The Crispr Journal, a young publication dedicated to Crispr research, commentary, and debate. Rodolphe Barrangou, the journal’s editor in chief, where the peer-reviewed perspective appeared, says that the article was one of two that it had published recently addressing the ethical concerns of human germline editing, the other by a bioethicist at the University of North Carolina. Both papers’ authors had requested that their writing come out ahead of a major gene editing summit taking place this week in Hong Kong. When half-rumors of He’s covert work reached Barrangou over the weekend, his team discussed pulling the paper, but ultimately decided that there was nothing too solid to discredit it, based on the information available at the time.

Now Barrangou and his team are rethinking that decision. For one thing, He did not disclose any conflicts of interest, which is standard practice among respectable journals. It’s since become clear that not only is He at the helm of several genetics companies in China, He was actively pursuing controversial human research long before writing up a scientific and moral code to guide it.“We’re currently assessing whether the omission was a matter of ill-management or ill-intent,” says Barrangou, who added that the journal is now conducting an audit to see if a retraction might be warranted. …

“There are all sorts of questions these issues raise, but the most fundamental is the risk-benefit ratio for the babies who are going to be born,” says Hank Greely, an ethicist at Stanford University. “And the risk-benefit ratio on this stinks. Any institutional review board that approved it should be disbanded if not jailed.”

Reporting by Stat indicates that He may have just gotten in over his head and tried to cram a self-guided ethics education into a few short months. The young scientist—records indicate He is just 34—has a background in biophysics, with stints studying in the US at Rice University and in bioengineer Stephen Quake’s lab at Stanford. His resume doesn’t read like someone steeped deeply in the nuances and ethics of human research. Barrangou says that came across in the many rounds of edits He’s framework went through.

… China’s central government in Beijing has yet to come down one way or another. Condemnation would make He a rogue and a scientific outcast. Anything else opens the door for a Crispr IVF cottage industry to emerge in China and potentially elsewhere. “It’s hard to imagine this was the only group in the world doing this,” says Paul Knoepfler, a stem cell researcher at UC Davis who wrote a book on the future of designer babies called GMO Sapiens. “Some might say this broke the ice. Will others forge ahead and go public with their results or stop what they’re doing and see how this plays out?”

Here’s some of the very latest information with the researcher attempting to explain himself.

What does He have to say?

After He’s appearance at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing today, Nov. 27, 2018, David Cyranoski produced this article for Nature,

He Jiankui, the Chinese scientist who claims to have helped produce the first people born with edited genomes — twin girls — appeared today at a gene-editing summit in Hong Kong to explain his experiment. He gave his talk amid threats of legal action and mounting questions, from the scientific community and beyond, about the ethics of his work and the way in which he released the results.

He had never before presented his work publicly outside of a handful of videos he posted on YouTube. Scientists welcomed the fact that he appeared at all — but his talk left many hungry for more answers, and still not completely certain that He has achieved what he claims.

“There’s no reason not to believe him,” says Robin Lovell-Badge, a developmental biologist at the Francis Crick Institute in London. “I’m just not completely convinced.”

Lovell-Badge, like others at the conference, says that an independent body should confirm the test results by performing an in-depth comparison of the parents’ and childrens’ genes.

Many scientists faulted He for a lack of transparency and the seemingly cavalier nature in which he embarked on such a landmark, and potentially risky, project.

“I’m happy he came but I was really horrified and stunned when he described the process he used,” says Jennifer Doudna, a biochemist at the University of California, Berkeley and a pioneer of the CRISPR/Cas-9 gene-editing technique that He used. “It was so inappropriate on so many levels.”

He seemed shaky approaching the stage and nervous during the talk. “I think he was scared,” says Matthew Porteus, who researches genome-editing at Stanford University in California and co-hosted a question-and-answer session with He after his presentation. Porteus attributes this either to the legal pressures that He faces or the mounting criticism from the scientists and media he was about to address.

He’s talk leaves a host of other questions unanswered, including whether the prospective parents were properly informed of the risks; why He selected CCR5 when there are other, proven ways to prevent HIV; why he chose to do the experiment with couples in which the fathers have HIV, rather than mothers who have a higher chance of passing the virus on to their children; and whether the risks of knocking out CCR5 — a gene normally present in people, which could have necessary but still unknown functions — outweighed the benefits in this case.

In the discussion following He’s talk, one scientist asked why He proceeded with the experiments despite the clear consensus among scientists worldwide that such research shouldn’t be done. He didn’t answer the question.

He’s attempts to justify his actions mainly fell flat. In response to questions about why the science community had not been informed of the experiments before the first women were impregnated, he cited presentations that he gave last year at meetings at the University of California, Berkeley, and at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. But Doudna, who organized the Berkeley meeting, says He did not present anything that showed he was ready to experiment in people. She called his defence “disingenuous at best”.

He also said he discussed the human experiment with unnamed scientists in the United States. But Porteus says that’s not enough for such an extraordinary experiment: “You need feedback not from your two closest friends but from the whole community.” …

Pressure was mounting on He ahead of the presentation. On 27 November, the Chinese national health commission ordered the Guangdong health commission, in the province where He’s university is located, to investigate.

On the same day, the Chinese Academy of Sciences issued a statement condemning his work, and the Genetics Society of China and the Chinese Society for Stem Cell Research jointly issued a statement saying the experiment “violates internationally accepted ethical principles regulating human experimentation and human rights law”.

The hospital cited in China’s clinical-trial registry as the that gave ethical approval for He’s work posted a press release on 27 November saying it did not give any approval. It questioned the signatures on the approval form and said that the hospital’s medical-ethics committee never held a meeting related to He’s research. The hospital, which itself is under investigation by the Shenzhen health authorities following He’s revelations, wrote: “The Company does not condone the means of the Claimed Project, and has reservations as to the accuracy, reliability and truthfulness of its contents and results.”

He has not yet responded to requests for comment on these statements and investigations, nor on why the hospital was listed in the registry and the claim of apparent forged signatures.

Alice Park’s Nov. 26, 2018 article for Time magazine includes an embedded video of He’s Nov. 27, 2018 presentation at the summit meeting.

What about the politics?

Mara Hvistendahl’s Nov. 27, 2018 article about this research for Slate.com poses some geopolitical questions (Note: Links have been removed),

The informed consent agreement for He Jiankui’s experiment describes it as an “AIDS vaccine development project” and used highly technical language to describe the procedure that patients would undergo. If the reality for some Chinese patients is that such agreements are glossed over, densely written, or never read, the reality for some researchers working in the country is that the appeal of cutting-edge trials is too great to resist. It is not just Chinese scientists who can be blinded by the lure of quick breakthroughs. Several of the most notable breaches of informed consent on the mainland have involved Western researchers or co-authors. … When people say that the usual rules don’t apply in China, they are really referring to authoritarian science, not some alternative communitarian ethics.

For the many scientists in China who adhere to recognized international standards, the incident comes as a disgrace. He Jiankui now faces an ethics investigation from provincial health authorities, and his institution, Southern University of Science and Technology, was quick to issue a statement noting that He was on unpaid leave. …

It would seem that US [and from elsewhere]* scientists wanting to avoid pesky ethics requirements in the US have found that going to China could be the answer to their problems. I gather it’s not just big business that prefers deregulated environments.

Guillaume Levrier’s  (he’ studying for a PhD at the Universté Sorbonne Paris Cité) November 16, 2018 essay for The Conversation sheds some light on political will and its impact on science (Note: Links have been removed),

… China has entered a “genome editing” race among great scientific nations and its progress didn’t come out of nowhere. China has invested heavily in the natural-sciences sector over the past 20 years. The Ninth Five-Year Plan (1996-2001) mentioned the crucial importance of biotechnologies. The current Thirteenth Five-Year Plan is even more explicit. It contains a section dedicated to “developing efficient and advanced biotechnologies” and lists key sectors such as “genome-editing technologies” intended to “put China at the bleeding edge of biotechnology innovation and become the leader in the international competition in this sector”.

Chinese embryo research is regulated by a legal framework, the “technical norms on human-assisted reproductive technologies”, published by the Science and Health Ministries. The guidelines theoretically forbid using sperm or eggs whose genome have been manipulated for procreative purposes. However, it’s hard to know how much value is actually placed on this rule in practice, especially in China’s intricate institutional and political context.

In theory, three major actors have authority on biomedical research in China: the Science and Technology Ministry, the Health Ministry, and the Chinese Food and Drug Administration. In reality, other agents also play a significant role. Local governments interpret and enforce the ministries’ “recommendations”, and their own interpretations can lead to significant variations in what researchers can and cannot do on the ground. The Chinese National Academy of Medicine is also a powerful institution that has its own network of hospitals, universities and laboratories.

Another prime actor is involved: the health section of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which has its own biomedical faculties, hospitals and research labs. The PLA makes its own interpretations of the recommendations and has proven its ability to work with the private sector on gene editing projects. …

One other thing from Levrier’s essay,

… And the media timing is just a bit too perfect, …

Do read the essay; there’s a twist at the end.

Final thoughts and some links

If I read this material rightly, there are suspicions there may be more of this work being done in China and elsewhere. In short, we likely don’t have the whole story.

As for the ethical issues, this is a discussion among experts only, so far. The great unwashed (thee and me) are being left at the wayside. Sure, we’ll be invited to public consultations, one day,  after the big decisions have been made.

Anyone who’s read up on the history of science will tell you this kind of breach is very common at the beginning. Richard Holmes’  2008 book, ‘The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science’ recounts stories of early scientists (European science) who did crazy things. Some died, some shortened their life spans; and, some irreversibly damaged their health.  They also experimented on other people. Informed consent had not yet been dreamed up.

In fact, I remember reading somewhere that the largest human clinical trial in history was held in Canada. The small pox vaccine was highly contested in the US but the Canadian government thought it was a good idea so they offered US scientists the option of coming here to vaccinate Canadian babies. This was in the 1950s and the vaccine seems to have been administered almost universally. That was a lot of Canadian babies. Thankfully, it seems to have worked out but it does seem mind-boggling today.

For all the indignation and shock we’re seeing, this is not the first time nor will it be the last time someone steps over a line in order to conduct scientific research. And, that is the eternal problem.

Meanwhile I think some of the real action regarding CRISPR and germline editing is taking place in the field (pun!) of agriculture:

My Nov. 27, 2018 posting titled: ‘Designer groundcherries by CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)‘ and a more disturbing Nov. 27, 2018 post titled: ‘Agriculture and gene editing … shades of the AquAdvantage salmon‘. That second posting features a company which is trying to sell its gene-editing services to farmers who would like cows that  never grow horns and pigs that never reach puberty.

Then there’s this ,

The Genetic Revolution‘, a documentary that offers relatively up-to-date information about gene editing, which was broadcast on Nov. 11, 2018 as part of The Nature of Things series on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation).

My July 17, 2018 posting about research suggesting that scientists hadn’t done enough research on possible effects of CRISPR editing titled: ‘The CRISPR ((clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)-CAS9 gene-editing technique may cause new genetic damage kerfuffle’.

My 2017 three-part series on CRISPR and germline editing:

CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 1 of 3): In the beginning

CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 2 of 3): ‘designer babies’?

CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 3 of 3): public discussions and pop culture

There you have it.

Added on November 30, 2018: David Cyanowski has written one final article (Nov. 30, 2018 for Nature) about He and the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing. He did not make his second scheduled appearance at the summit, returning to China before the summit concluded. He was rebuked in a statement produced by the Summit’s organizing committee at the end of the three-day meeting. The situation with regard to his professional status in China is ambiguous. Cyanowski ends his piece with the information that the third summit will take place in London (likely in the UK) in 2021. I encourage you to read Cyanowski’s Nov. 30, 2018 article in its entirety; it’s not long.

Added on Dec. 3, 2018: The story continues. Ed Yong has written a summary of the issues to date in a Dec. 3, 2018 article for The Atlantic (even if you know the story ift’s eyeopening to see all the parts put together.

J. Benjamin Hurlbut, Associate Professor of Life Sciences at Arizona State University (ASU) and Jason Scott Robert, Director of the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics at Arizona State University have written a provocative (and true) Dec. 3, 2018 essay titled, CRISPR babies raise an uncomfortable reality – abiding by scientific standards doesn’t guarantee ethical research, for The Conversation. h/t phys.org

*[and from elsewhere] added January 17, 2019.

Added on January 23, 2019: He has been fired by his university (Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen) as announced on January 21, 2019.  David Cyranoski provides a details accounting in his January 22, 2019 article for Nature.

Agriculture and gene editing … shades of the AquAdvantage salmon

Salmon are not the only food animals being genetically altered (more about that later in this post) we can now add cows, pigs, and more.

This November 15, 2018 article by Candice Choi on the Huffington Post website illustrates some of the excitement and terror associated with gene editing farm animals,

A company wants to alter farm animals by adding and subtracting genetic traits in a lab. It sounds like science fiction, but Recombinetics sees opportunity for its technology in the livestock industry.

But first, it needs to convince regulators that gene-edited animals are no different than conventionally bred ones. To make the technology appealing and to ease any fears that it may be creating Franken-animals, [emphasis mine] Recombinetics isn’t starting with productivity. Instead, it’s introducing gene-edited traits as a way to ease animal suffering.

“It’s a better story to tell,” said Tammy Lee, CEO of the St. Paul, Minnesota-based company.

For instance, animal welfare advocates have long criticized the way farmers use caustic paste or hot irons to dehorn dairy cows so the animals don’t harm each other. Recombinetics snips out the gene for growing horns so the procedure is unnecessary. [emphases mine]

Last year, a bull gene-edited by Recombinetics to have the dominant hornless trait sired several offspring. All were born hornless as expected, and are being raised at the University of California, Davis. Once the female offspring starts lactating, its milk will be tested for any abnormalities.

Another Recombinetics project: castration-free pigs.

When male piglets go through puberty, their meat can take on an unpleasant odour, something known as “boar taint.” To combat it, farmers castrate pigs, a procedure animal welfare advocates say is commonly performed without painkillers. Editing genes so that pigs never go through puberty would make castration unnecessary.

Also in development are dairy cows that could withstand higher temperatures, so the animals don’t suffer in hotter climates. [emphasis mine]

..

Before food from gene-edited animals can land on dinner tables, however, Recombinetics has to overcome any public unease about the technology.

Beyond worries about “playing God,” it may be an uncomfortable reminder of how modern food production already treats animals, said Paul Thompson, a professor of agriculture at Michigan State University.

“There’s an ethical question that’s been debated for at least the last 20 years, of whether you need to change the animal or change the system,” Thompson said.

Support for gene editing will also likely depend on how the technology is used: whether it’s for animal welfare, productivity or disease resistance. In August, a Pew study found 43 per cent of Americans supported genetically engineered animals for more nutritious meat.

Choi has written an interesting article, which includes a picture of the hornless cows embedded in the piece. One note: Choi makes reference to a milk glut. As far as I’m aware that’s not the case in Canada (at this time) but it is a problem in the US where in 2015 (?) farmers dumped some 43  million gallons of milk (October 12, 2016 article by Martha C. White for Money magazine).

As for the salmon, I’ve covered that story a few times during its journey to being approved for human consumption i Canada (my May 20, 2016 posting) to the discovery in 2017 that the genetically modified product, AquAdvantage salmon, had been introduced into the market, (from my Sept. 13, 2017 posting; scroll down about 40R of the way),

“Since the 2016 approval, AquAdvantage salmon, 4.5M tonnes has been sold in Canada according to an Aug. 8, 2017 article by Sima Shakeri for Huffington Post …”

After decades of trying to get approval by in North America, genetically modified Atlantic salmon has been sold to consumers in Canada.

AquaBounty Technologies, an American company that produces the Atlantic salmon, confirmed it had sold 4.5 tonnes of the modified fish on August 4 [2017], the Scientific American reported.

The fish have been engineered with a growth hormone gene from Chinook salmon to grow faster than regular salmon and require less food. They take about 18 months to reach market size, which is much quicker than the 30 months or so for conventional salmon.

The Washington Post wrote AquaBounty’s salmon also contains a gene from the ocean pout that makes the salmon produce the growth hormone gene all-year-round.

The company produces the eggs in a facility in P.E.I. [Prince Edward Island; a province in Canada], which is currently being expanded, and then they’re shipped to Panama where the fish are raised.

….

There was a bit of a kerfuffle about the whole affair but it seems Canadians have gone on to embrace the genetically modified product. At least that’s Christine Blank’s perspective in her Sept. 13, 2018 article (Canada, US embrace AquAdvantage GMO salmon, Brazil and China may be next) for the Genetic Literacy Project website,

Genetically modified salmon firm AquaBounty has found “very enthusiastic” buyers in Canada, according to president and CEO Ronald Stotish.

The first sale of the Maynard, Massachusetts, U.S.A.-based firm’s AquAdvantage salmon was made last June [2017], when unnamed buyers in Canada bought five metric tons at the going rate of traditional farmed Atlantic salmon, according to the company. Since then, AquaBounty has sold 10 additional metric tons of its AquAdvantage salmon to buyers in Canada

Meanwhile, Stotish revealed that AquAdvantage will be sold in the U.S. through established distributors.

“Once [AquaBounty salmon] is established in the market, the option for branding as a ‘sustainably produced’ food item can be considered,” he told investors.

Alex Gillis’ June 5, 2018 article for Macleans magazine suggests that Canadians may be a bit more doubtful about GM (genetically modified) salmon than Stotish seems to be believe,

An Ipsos Reid poll conducted for the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network in 2015 suggested that Canadians are concerned about GM foods, in spite of government assurances that they’re safe. About 60 per cent of respondents opposed genetically modifying crops and animals for food; nearly half supported a ban on all GM food. More than 20 years of surveys indicate that the vast majority of Canadians want to know when they’re eating GMOs. Fully 88 per cent of those polled in the 2015 survey said they want mandatory labelling.

Their concern hasn’t escaped the notice of those who raise and sell much of the salmon consumed in this country. Five years ago, Marine Harvest, one of the world’s largest producers of farmed salmon, called for labelling of GMOs. Today, it says that it doesn’t grow, sell or research GM salmon, a policy it shares with major salmon producers in Canada. And most big grocery retailers have stated they don’t want GM salmon. When contacted by Maclean’s for this story, Metro, Sobeys, Wal-Mart and Loblaws—four of Canada’s five largest food retailers—declared that none of AquaBounty’s GM salmon from 2017 was sold in their stores, saying neither Sea Delight Canada nor Montreal Fish Co. supplied them with Atlantic salmon at the time.

“I’m happy to report that we don’t source salmon from these two companies,” says Geneviève Grégoire, communications adviser with Metro Richelieu Inc., which operates or supplies 948 food stores in Quebec and Ontario, including Metro, Super C, Food Basics, Adonis and Première Moisson. “As we said before, we didn’t and will not sell GM Atlantic salmon.”

If you’re looking for a more comprehensive and critical examination of the issue, read Lucy Sharratt’s Sept. 1, 2018 article for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA).

Xenotransplantation—organs for transplantation in human patients—it’s a business and a science

The last time (June 18, 2018 post) I mentioned xenotransplantation (transplanting organs from one species into another species; see more here), it was in the context of an art/sci (or sciart) event coming to Vancouver (Canada).,

Patricia Piccinini’s Curious Imaginings Courtesy: Vancouver Biennale [downloaded from http://dailyhive.com/vancouver/vancouver-biennale-unsual-public-art-2018/]

The latest edition of the Vancouver Biennale was featured in a June 6, 2018 news item on the Daily Hive (Vancouver),

Melbourne artist Patricia Piccinini’s Curious Imaginings is expected to be one of the most talked about installations of the exhibit. Her style of “oddly captivating, somewhat grotesque, human-animal hybrid creature” is meant to be shocking and thought-provoking.

Piccinini’s interactive [emphasis mine] experience will “challenge us to explore the social impacts of emerging biotechnology and our ethical limits in an age where genetic engineering and digital technologies are already pushing the boundaries of humanity.”

Piccinini’s work will be displayed in the 105-year-old Patricia Hotel in Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood. The 90-day ticketed exhibition [emphasis mine] is scheduled to open this September [2018].

(The show opens on Sept. 14, 2018.)

At the time, I had yet to stumble across Ingfei Chen’s thoughtful dive into the topic in her May 9, 2018 article for Slate.com,

In the United States, the clock is ticking for more than 114,700 adults and children waiting for a donated kidney or other lifesaving organ, and each day, nearly 20 of them die. Researchers are devising a new way to grow human organs inside other animals, but the method raises potentially thorny ethical issues. Other conceivable futuristic techniques sound like dystopian science fiction. As we envision an era of regenerative medicine decades from now, how far is society willing to go to solve the organ shortage crisis?

I found myself pondering this question after a discussion about the promises of stem cell technologies veered from the intriguing into the bizarre. I was interviewing bioengineer Zev Gartner, co-director and research coordinator of the Center for Cellular Construction at the University of California, San Francisco, about so-called organoids, tiny clumps of organlike tissue that can self-assemble from human stem cells in a Petri dish. These tissue bits are lending new insights into how our organs form and diseases take root. Some researchers even hope they can nurture organoids into full-size human kidneys, pancreases, and other organs for transplantation.

Certain organoid experiments have recently set off alarm bells, but when I asked Gartner about it, his radar for moral concerns was focused elsewhere. For him, the “really, really thought-provoking” scenarios involve other emerging stem cell–based techniques for engineering replacement organs for people, he told me. “Like blastocyst complementation,” he said.

Never heard of it? Neither had I. Turns out it’s a powerful new genetic engineering trick that researchers hope to use for growing human organs inside pigs or sheep—organs that could be genetically personalized for transplant patients, in theory avoiding immune-system rejection problems. The science still has many years to go, but if it pans out, it could be one solution to the organ shortage crisis. However, the prospect of creating hybrid animals with human parts and killing them to harvest organs has already raised a slew of ethical questions. In 2015, the National Institutes of Health placed a moratorium on federal funding of this nascent research area while it evaluated and discussed the issues.

As Gartner sees it, the debate over blastocyst complementation research—work that he finds promising—is just one of many conversations that society needs to have about the ethical and social costs and benefits of future technologies for making lifesaving transplant organs. “There’s all these weird ways that we could go about doing this,” he said, with a spectrum of imaginable approaches that includes organoids, interspecies organ farming, and building organs from scratch using 3D bioprinters. But even if it turns out we can produce human organs in these novel ways, the bigger issue, in each technological instance, may be whether we should.

Gartner crystallized things with a downright creepy example: “We know that the best bioreactor for tissues and organs for humans are human beings,” he said. Hypothetically, “the best way to get you a new heart would be to clone you, grow up a copy of yourself, and take the heart out.” [emphasis mine] Scientists could probably produce a cloned person with the technologies we already have, if money and ethics were of no concern. “But we don’t want to go there, right?” he added in the next breath. “The ethics involved in doing it are not compatible with who we want to be as a society.”

This sounds like Gartner may have been reading some science fiction, specifically, Lois McMaster Bujold and her Barrayar series where she often explored the ethics and possibilities of bioengineering. At this point, some of her work seems eerily prescient.

As for Chen’s article, I strongly encourage you to read it in its entirety if you have the time.

Medicine, healing, and big money

At about the same time, there was a May 31, 2018 news item on phys.org offering a perspective from some of the leaders in the science and the business (Note: Links have been removed),

Over the past few years, researchers led by George Church have made important strides toward engineering the genomes of pigs to make their cells compatible with the human body. So many think that it’s possible that, with the help of CRISPR technology, a healthy heart for a patient in desperate need might one day come from a pig.

“It’s relatively feasible to change one gene in a pig, but to change many dozens—which is quite clear is the minimum here—benefits from CRISPR,” an acronym for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, said Church, the Robert Winthrop Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and a core faculty member of Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. Xenotransplantation is “one of few” big challenges (along with gene drives and de-extinction, he said) “that really requires the ‘oomph’ of CRISPR.”

To facilitate the development of safe and effective cells, tissues, and organs for future medical transplantation into human patients, Harvard’s Office of Technology Development has granted a technology license to the Cambridge biotech startup eGenesis.

Co-founded by Church and former HMS doctoral student Luhan Yang in 2015, eGenesis announced last year that it had raised $38 million to advance its research and development work. At least eight former members of the Church lab—interns, doctoral students, postdocs, and visiting researchers—have continued their scientific careers as employees there.

“The Church Lab is well known for its relentless pursuit of scientific achievements so ambitious they seem improbable—and, indeed, [for] its track record of success,” said Isaac Kohlberg, Harvard’s chief technology development officer and senior associate provost. “George deserves recognition too for his ability to inspire passion and cultivate a strong entrepreneurial drive among his talented research team.”

The license from Harvard OTD covers a powerful set of genome-engineering technologies developed at HMS and the Wyss Institute, including access to foundational intellectual property relating to the Church Lab’s 2012 breakthrough use of CRISPR, led by Yang and Prashant Mali, to edit the genome of human cells. Subsequent innovations that enabled efficient and accurate editing of numerous genes simultaneously are also included. The license is exclusive to eGenesis but limited to the field of xenotransplantation.

A May 30, 2018 Harvard University news release by Caroline Petty, which originated the news item, explores some of the issues associated with incubating humans organs in other species,

The prospect of using living, nonhuman organs, and concerns over the infectiousness of pathogens either present in the tissues or possibly formed in combination with human genetic material, have prompted the Food and Drug Administration to issue detailed guidance on xenotransplantation research and development since the mid-1990s. In pigs, a primary concern has been that porcine endogenous retroviruses (PERVs), strands of potentially pathogenic DNA in the animals’ genomes, might infect human patients and eventually cause disease. [emphases mine]

That’s where the Church lab’s CRISPR expertise has enabled significant advances. In 2015, the lab published important results in the journal Science, successfully demonstrating the use of genome engineering to eliminate all 62 PERVs in porcine cells. Science later called it “the most widespread CRISPR editing feat to date.”

In 2017, with collaborators at Harvard, other universities, and eGenesis, Church and Yang went further. Publishing again in Science, they first confirmed earlier researchers’ fears: Porcine cells can, in fact, transmit PERVs into human cells, and those human cells can pass them on to other, unexposed human cells. (It is still unknown under what circumstances those PERVs might cause disease.) In the same paper, they corrected the problem, announcing the embryogenesis and birth of 37 PERV-free pigs. [Note: My July 17, 2018 post features research which suggests CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing may cause greater genetic damage than had been thought.]

“Taken together, those innovations were stunning,” said Vivian Berlin, director of business development in OTD, who manages the commercialization strategy for much of Harvard’s intellectual property in the life sciences. “That was the foundation they needed, to convince both the scientific community and the investment community that xenotransplantation might become a reality.”

“After hundreds of tests, this was a critical milestone for eGenesis — and the entire field — and represented a key step toward safe organ transplantation from pigs,” said Julie Sunderland, interim CEO of eGenesis. “Building on this study, we hope to continue to advance the science and potential of making xenotransplantation a safe and routine medical procedure.”

Genetic engineering may undercut human diseases, but also could help restore extinct species, researcher says. [Shades of the Jurassic Park movies!]

It’s not, however, the end of the story: An immunological challenge remains, which eGenesis will need to address. The potential for a patient’s body to outright reject transplanted tissue has stymied many previous attempts at xenotransplantation. Church said numerous genetic changes must be achieved to make porcine organs fully compatible with human patients. Among these are edits to several immune functions, coagulation functions, complements, and sugars, as well as the PERVs.

“Trying the straight transplant failed almost immediately, within hours, because there’s a huge mismatch in the carbohydrates on the surface of the cells, in particular alpha-1-3-galactose, and so that was a showstopper,” Church explained. “When you delete that gene, which you can do with conventional methods, you still get pretty fast rejection, because there are a lot of other aspects that are incompatible. You have to take care of each of them, and not all of them are just about removing things — some of them you have to humanize. There’s a great deal of subtlety involved so that you get normal pig embryogenesis but not rejection.

“Putting it all together into one package is challenging,” he concluded.

In short, it’s the next big challenge for CRISPR.

Not unexpectedly, there is no mention of the CRISPR patent fight between Harvard/MIT’s (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Broad Institute and the University of California at Berkeley (UC Berkeley). My March 15, 2017 posting featured an outcome where the Broad Institute won the first round of the fight. As I recall, it was a decision based on the principles associated with King Solomon, i.e., the US Patent Office, divided the baby and UCBerkeley got the less important part of the baby. As you might expect the decision has been appealed. In an April 30, 2018 piece, Scientific American reprinted an article about the latest round in the fight written by Sharon Begley for STAT (Note: Links have been removed),

All You Need to Know for Round 2 of the CRISPR Patent Fight

It’s baaaaack, that reputation-shredding, stock-moving fight to the death over key CRISPR patents. On Monday morning in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit will hear oral arguments in University of California v. Broad Institute. Questions?

How did we get here? The patent office ruled in February 2017 that the Broad’s 2014 CRISPR patent on using CRISPR-Cas9 to edit genomes, based on discoveries by Feng Zhang, did not “interfere” with a patent application by UC based on the work of UC Berkeley’s Jennifer Doudna. In plain English, that meant the Broad’s patent, on using CRISPR-Cas9 to edit genomes in eukaryotic cells (all animals and plants, but not bacteria), was different from UC’s, which described Doudna’s experiments using CRISPR-Cas9 to edit DNA in a test tube—and it was therefore valid. The Patent Trial and Appeal Board concluded that when Zhang got CRISPR-Cas9 to work in human and mouse cells in 2012, it was not an obvious extension of Doudna’s earlier research, and that he had no “reasonable expectation of success.” UC appealed, and here we are.

For anyone who may not realize what the stakes are for these institutions, Linda Williams in a March 16, 1999 article for the LA Times had this to say about universities, patents, and money,

The University of Florida made about $2 million last year in royalties on a patent for Gatorade Thirst Quencher, a sports drink that generates some $500 million to $600 million a year in revenue for Quaker Oats Co.

The payments place the university among the top five in the nation in income from patent royalties.

Oh, but if some people on the Gainesville, Fla., campus could just turn back the clock. “If we had done Gatorade right, we would be getting $5 or $6 million (a year),” laments Donald Price, director of the university’s office of corporate programs. “It is a classic example of how not to handle a patent idea,” he added.

Gatorade was developed in 1965 when many universities were ill equipped to judge the commercial potential of ideas emerging from their research labs. Officials blew the university’s chance to control the Gatorade royalties when they declined to develop a professor’s idea.

The Gatorade story does not stop there and, even though it’s almost 20 years old, this article stands the test of time. I strongly encourage you to read it if the business end of patents and academia interest you or if you would like to develop more insight into the Broad Institute/UC Berkeley situation.

Getting back to the science, there is that pesky matter of diseases crossing over from one species to another. While, Harvard and eGenesis claim a victory in this area, it seems more work needs to be done.

Infections from pigs

An August 29, 2018 University of Alabama at Birmingham news release (also on EurekAlert) by Jeff Hansen, describes the latest chapter in the quest to provide more organs for transplantion,

A shortage of organs for transplantation — including kidneys and hearts — means that many patients die while still on waiting lists. So, research at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and other sites has turned to pig organs as an alternative. [emphasis mine]

Using gene-editing, researchers have modified such organs to prevent rejection, and research with primates shows the modified pig organs are well-tolerated.

An added step is needed to ensure the safety of these inter-species transplants — sensitive, quantitative assays for viruses and other infectious microorganisms in donor pigs that potentially could gain access to humans during transplantation.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires such testing, prior to implantation, of tissues used for xenotransplantation from animals to humans. It is possible — though very unlikely — that an infectious agent in transplanted tissues could become an emerging infectious disease in humans.

In a paper published in Xenotransplantation, Mark Prichard, Ph.D., and colleagues at UAB have described the development and testing of 30 quantitative assays for pig infectious agents. These assays had sensitivities similar to clinical lab assays for viral loads in human patients. After validation, the UAB team also used the assays on nine sows and 22 piglets delivered from the sows through caesarian section.

“Going forward, ensuring the safety of these organs is of paramount importance,” Prichard said. “The use of highly sensitive techniques to detect potential pathogens will help to minimize adverse events in xenotransplantation.”

“The assays hold promise as part of the screening program to identify suitable donor animals, validate and release transplantable organs for research purposes, and monitor transplant recipients,” said Prichard, a professor in the UAB Department of Pediatrics and director of the Department of Pediatrics Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory.

The UAB researchers developed quantitative polymerase chain reaction, or qPCR, assays for 28 viruses sometimes found in pigs and two groups of mycoplasmas. They established reproducibility, sensitivity, specificity and lower limit of detection for each assay. All but three showed features of good quantitative assays, and the lower limit of detection values ranged between one and 16 copies of the viral or bacterial genetic material.

Also, the pig virus assays did not give false positives for some closely related human viruses.

As a start to understanding the infectious disease load in normal healthy animals and ensuring the safety of pig tissues used in xenotransplantation research, the researchers then screened blood, nasal swab and stool specimens from nine adult sows and 22 of their piglets delivered by caesarian section.

Mycoplasma species and two distinct herpesviruses were the most commonly detected microorganisms. Yet 14 piglets that were delivered from three sows infected with either or both herpesviruses were not infected with the herpesviruses, showing that transmission of these viruses from sow to the caesarian-delivery piglet was inefficient.

Prichard says the assays promise to enhance the safety of pig tissues for xenotransplantation, and they will also aid evaluation of human specimens after xenotransplantation.

The UAB researchers say they subsequently have evaluated more than 300 additional specimens, and that resulted in the detection of most of the targets. “The detection of these targets in pig specimens provides reassurance that the analytical methods are functioning as designed,” said Prichard, “and there is no a priori reason some targets might be more difficult to detect than others with the methods described here.”

As is my custom, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Xenotransplantation panel for the detection of infectious agents in pigs by Caroll B. Hartline, Ra’Shun L. Conner, Scott H. James, Jennifer Potter, Edward Gray, Jose Estrada, Mathew Tector, A. Joseph Tector, Mark N. Prichard. Xenotransplantaion Volume 25, Issue 4 July/August 2018 e12427 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/xen.12427 First published: 18 August 2018

This paper is open access.

All this leads to questions about chimeras. If a pig is incubating organs with human cells it’s a chimera but then means the human receiving the organ becomes a chimera too. (For an example, see my Dec. 22, 2013 posting where there’s mention of a woman who received a trachea from a pig. Scroll down about 30% of the way.)

What is it to be human?

A question much beloved of philosophers and others, the question seems particularly timely with xenotransplantion and other developments such neuroprosthetics (cyborgs) and neuromorphic computing (brainlike computing).

As I’ve noted before, although not recently, popular culture offers a discourse on these issues. Take a look at the superhero movies and the way in which enhanced humans and aliens are presented. For example, X-Men comics and movies present mutants (humans with enhanced abilities) as despised and rejected. Video games (not really my thing but there is the Deus Ex series which has as its hero, a cyborg also offer insight into these issues.

Other than popular culture and in the ‘bleeding edge’ arts community, I can’t recall any public discussion on these matters arising from the extraordinary set of technologies which are being deployed or prepared for deployment in the foreseeable future.

(If you’re in Vancouver (Canada) from September 14 – December 15, 2018, you may want to check out Piccinini’s work. Also, there’s ” NCSU [North Carolina State University] Libraries, NC State’s Genetic Engineering and Society (GES) Center, and the Gregg Museum of Art & Design have issued a public call for art for the upcoming exhibition Art’s Work in the Age of Biotechnology: Shaping our Genetic Futures.” from my Sept. 6, 2018 posting. Deadline: Oct. 1, 2018.)

At a guess, there will be pushback from people who have no interest in debating what it is to be human as they already know, and will find these developments, when they learn about them, to be horrifying and unnatural.

A potpourri of robot/AI stories: killers , kindergarten teachers, a Balenciaga-inspired AI fashion designer, a conversational android, and more

Following on my August 29, 2018 post (Sexbots, sexbot ethics, families, and marriage), I’m following up with a more general piece.

Robots, AI (artificial intelligence), and androids (humanoid robots), the terms can be confusing since there’s a tendency to use them interchangeably. Confession: I do it too, but, not this time. That said, I have multiple news bits.

Killer ‘bots and ethics

The U.S. military is already testing a Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System. Credit: Lance Cpl. Julien Rodarte, U.S. Marine Corps

That is a robot.

For the purposes of this posting, a robot is a piece of hardware which may or may not include an AI system and does not mimic a human or other biological organism such that you might, under circumstances, mistake the robot for a biological organism.

As for what precipitated this feature (in part), it seems there’s been a United Nations meeting in Geneva, Switzerland held from August 27 – 31, 2018 about war and the use of autonomous robots, i.e., robots equipped with AI systems and designed for independent action. BTW, it’s the not first meeting the UN has held on this topic.

Bonnie Docherty, lecturer on law and associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection, international human rights clinic, Harvard Law School, has written an August 21, 2018 essay on The Conversation (also on phys.org) describing the history and the current rules around the conduct of war, as well as, outlining the issues with the military use of autonomous robots (Note: Links have been removed),

When drafting a treaty on the laws of war at the end of the 19th century, diplomats could not foresee the future of weapons development. But they did adopt a legal and moral standard for judging new technology not covered by existing treaty language.

This standard, known as the Martens Clause, has survived generations of international humanitarian law and gained renewed relevance in a world where autonomous weapons are on the brink of making their own determinations about whom to shoot and when. The Martens Clause calls on countries not to use weapons that depart “from the principles of humanity and from the dictates of public conscience.”

I was the lead author of a new report by Human Rights Watch and the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic that explains why fully autonomous weapons would run counter to the principles of humanity and the dictates of public conscience. We found that to comply with the Martens Clause, countries should adopt a treaty banning the development, production and use of these weapons.

Representatives of more than 70 nations will gather from August 27 to 31 [2018] at the United Nations in Geneva to debate how to address the problems with what they call lethal autonomous weapon systems. These countries, which are parties to the Convention on Conventional Weapons, have discussed the issue for five years. My co-authors and I believe it is time they took action and agreed to start negotiating a ban next year.

Docherty elaborates on her points (Note: A link has been removed),

The Martens Clause provides a baseline of protection for civilians and soldiers in the absence of specific treaty law. The clause also sets out a standard for evaluating new situations and technologies that were not previously envisioned.

Fully autonomous weapons, sometimes called “killer robots,” would select and engage targets without meaningful human control. They would be a dangerous step beyond current armed drones because there would be no human in the loop to determine when to fire and at what target. Although fully autonomous weapons do not yet exist, China, Israel, Russia, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the United States are all working to develop them. They argue that the technology would process information faster and keep soldiers off the battlefield.

The possibility that fully autonomous weapons could soon become a reality makes it imperative for those and other countries to apply the Martens Clause and assess whether the technology would offend basic humanity and the public conscience. Our analysis finds that fully autonomous weapons would fail the test on both counts.

I encourage you to read the essay in its entirety and for anyone who thinks the discussion about ethics and killer ‘bots is new or limited to military use, there’s my July 25, 2016 posting about police use of a robot in Dallas, Texas. (I imagine the discussion predates 2016 but that’s the earliest instance I have here.)

Teacher bots

Robots come in many forms and this one is on the humanoid end of the spectum,

Children watch a Keeko robot at the Yiswind Institute of Multicultural Education in Beijing, where the intelligent machines are telling stories and challenging kids with logic problems  [donwloaded from https://phys.org/news/2018-08-robot-teachers-invade-chinese-kindergartens.html]

Don’t those ‘eyes’ look almost heart-shaped? No wonder the kids love these robots, if an August  29, 2018 news item on phys.org can be believed,

The Chinese kindergarten children giggled as they worked to solve puzzles assigned by their new teaching assistant: a roundish, short educator with a screen for a face.

Just under 60 centimetres (two feet) high, the autonomous robot named Keeko has been a hit in several kindergartens, telling stories and challenging children with logic problems.

Round and white with a tubby body, the armless robot zips around on tiny wheels, its inbuilt cameras doubling up both as navigational sensors and a front-facing camera allowing users to record video journals.

In China, robots are being developed to deliver groceries, provide companionship to the elderly, dispense legal advice and now, as Keeko’s creators hope, join the ranks of educators.

At the Yiswind Institute of Multicultural Education on the outskirts of Beijing, the children have been tasked to help a prince find his way through a desert—by putting together square mats that represent a path taken by the robot—part storytelling and part problem-solving.

Each time they get an answer right, the device reacts with delight, its face flashing heart-shaped eyes.

“Education today is no longer a one-way street, where the teacher teaches and students just learn,” said Candy Xiong, a teacher trained in early childhood education who now works with Keeko Robot Xiamen Technology as a trainer.

“When children see Keeko with its round head and body, it looks adorable and children love it. So when they see Keeko, they almost instantly take to it,” she added.

Keeko robots have entered more than 600 kindergartens across the country with its makers hoping to expand into Greater China and Southeast Asia.

Beijing has invested money and manpower in developing artificial intelligence as part of its “Made in China 2025” plan, with a Chinese firm last year unveiling the country’s first human-like robot that can hold simple conversations and make facial expressions.

According to the International Federation of Robots, China has the world’s top industrial robot stock, with some 340,000 units in factories across the country engaged in manufacturing and the automotive industry.

Moving on from hardware/software to a software only story.

AI fashion designer better than Balenciaga?

Despite the title for Katharine Schwab’s August 22, 2018 article for Fast Company, I don’t think this AI designer is better than Balenciaga but from the pictures I’ve seen the designs are as good and it does present some intriguing possibilities courtesy of its neural network (Note: Links have been removed),

The AI, created by researcher Robbie Barat, has created an entire collection based on Balenciaga’s previous styles. There’s a fabulous pink and red gradient jumpsuit that wraps all the way around the model’s feet–like a onesie for fashionistas–paired with a dark slouchy coat. There’s a textural color-blocked dress, paired with aqua-green tights. And for menswear, there’s a multi-colored, shimmery button-up with skinny jeans and mismatched shoes. None of these looks would be out of place on the runway.

To create the styles, Barat collected images of Balenciaga’s designs via the designer’s lookbooks, ad campaigns, runway shows, and online catalog over the last two months, and then used them to train the pix2pix neural net. While some of the images closely resemble humans wearing fashionable clothes, many others are a bit off–some models are missing distinct limbs, and don’t get me started on how creepy [emphasis mine] their faces are. Even if the outfits aren’t quite ready to be fabricated, Barat thinks that designers could potentially use a tool like this to find inspiration. Because it’s not constrained by human taste, style, and history, the AI comes up with designs that may never occur to a person. “I love how the network doesn’t really understand or care about symmetry,” Barat writes on Twitter.

You can see the ‘creepy’ faces and some of the designs here,

Image: Robbie Barat

In contrast to the previous two stories, this all about algorithms, no machinery with independent movement (robot hardware) needed.

Conversational android: Erica

Hiroshi Ishiguro and his lifelike (definitely humanoid) robots have featured here many, many times before. The most recent posting is a March 27, 2017 posting about his and his android’s participation at the 2017 SXSW festival.

His latest work is featured in an August 21, 2018 news news item on ScienceDaily,

We’ve all tried talking with devices, and in some cases they talk back. But, it’s a far cry from having a conversation with a real person.

Now a research team from Kyoto University, Osaka University, and the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute, or ATR, have significantly upgraded the interaction system for conversational android ERICA, giving her even greater dialog skills.

ERICA is an android created by Hiroshi Ishiguro of Osaka University and ATR, specifically designed for natural conversation through incorporation of human-like facial expressions and gestures. The research team demonstrated the updates during a symposium at the National Museum of Emerging Science in Tokyo.

Here’s the latest conversational android, Erica

Caption: The experimental set up when the subject (left) talks with ERICA (right) Credit: Kyoto University / Kawahara lab

An August 20, 2018 Kyoto University press release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, offers more details,

When we talk to one another, it’s never a simple back and forward progression of information,” states Tatsuya Kawahara of Kyoto University’s Graduate School of Informatics, and an expert in speech and audio processing.

“Listening is active. We express agreement by nodding or saying ‘uh-huh’ to maintain the momentum of conversation. This is called ‘backchanneling’, and is something we wanted to implement with ERICA.”

The team also focused on developing a system for ‘attentive listening’. This is when a listener asks elaborating questions, or repeats the last word of the speaker’s sentence, allowing for more engaging dialogue.

Deploying a series of distance sensors, facial recognition cameras, and microphone arrays, the team began collecting data on parameters necessary for a fluid dialog between ERICA and a human subject.

“We looked at three qualities when studying backchanneling,” continues Kawahara. “These were: timing — when a response happens; lexical form — what is being said; and prosody, or how the response happens.”

Responses were generated through machine learning using a counseling dialogue corpus, resulting in dramatically improved dialog engagement. Testing in five-minute sessions with a human subject, ERICA demonstrated significantly more dynamic speaking skill, including the use of backchanneling, partial repeats, and statement assessments.

“Making a human-like conversational robot is a major challenge,” states Kawahara. “This project reveals how much complexity there is in listening, which we might consider mundane. We are getting closer to a day where a robot can pass a Total Turing Test.”

Erica seems to have been first introduced publicly in Spring 2017, from an April 2017 Erica: Man Made webpage on The Guardian website,

Erica is 23. She has a beautiful, neutral face and speaks with a synthesised voice. She has a degree of autonomy – but can’t move her hands yet. Hiroshi Ishiguro is her ‘father’ and the bad boy of Japanese robotics. Together they will redefine what it means to be human and reveal that the future is closer than we might think.

Hiroshi Ishiguro and his colleague Dylan Glas are interested in what makes a human. Erica is their latest creation – a semi-autonomous android, the product of the most funded scientific project in Japan. But these men regard themselves as artists more than scientists, and the Erica project – the result of a collaboration between Osaka and Kyoto universities and the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International – is a philosophical one as much as technological one.

Erica is interviewed about her hope and dreams – to be able to leave her room and to be able to move her arms and legs. She likes to chat with visitors and has one of the most advanced speech synthesis systems yet developed. Can she be regarded as being alive or as a comparable being to ourselves? Will she help us to understand ourselves and our interactions as humans better?

Erica and her creators are interviewed in the science fiction atmosphere of Ishiguro’s laboratory, and this film asks how we might form close relationships with robots in the future. Ishiguro thinks that for Japanese people especially, everything has a soul, whether human or not. If we don’t understand how human hearts, minds and personalities work, can we truly claim that humans have authenticity that machines don’t?

Ishiguro and Glas want to release Erica and her fellow robots into human society. Soon, Erica may be an essential part of our everyday life, as one of the new children of humanity.

Key credits

  • Director/Editor: Ilinca Calugareanu
  • Producer: Mara Adina
  • Executive producers for the Guardian: Charlie Phillips and Laurence Topham
  • This video is produced in collaboration with the Sundance Institute Short Documentary Fund supported by the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation

You can also view the 14 min. film here.

Artworks generated by an AI system are to be sold at Christie’s auction house

KC Ifeanyi’s August 22, 2018 article for Fast Company may send a chill down some artists’ spines,

For the first time in its 252-year history, Christie’s will auction artwork generated by artificial intelligence.

Created by the French art collective Obvious, “Portrait of Edmond de Belamy” is part of a series of paintings of the fictional Belamy family that was created using a two-part algorithm. …

The portrait is estimated to sell anywhere between $7,000-$10,000, and Obvious says the proceeds will go toward furthering its algorithm.

… Famed collector Nicolas Laugero-Lasserre bought one of Obvious’s Belamy works in February, which could’ve been written off as a novel purchase where the story behind it is worth more than the piece itself. However, with validation from a storied auction house like Christie’s, AI art could shake the contemporary art scene.

“Edmond de Belamy” goes up for auction from October 23-25 [2018].

Jobs safe from automation? Are there any?

Michael Grothaus expresses more optimism about future job markets than I’m feeling in an August 30, 2018 article for Fast Company,

A 2017 McKinsey Global Institute study of 800 occupations across 46 countries found that by 2030, 800 million people will lose their jobs to automation. That’s one-fifth of the global workforce. A further one-third of the global workforce will need to retrain if they want to keep their current jobs as well. And looking at the effects of automation on American jobs alone, researchers from Oxford University found that “47 percent of U.S. workers have a high probability of seeing their jobs automated over the next 20 years.”

The good news is that while the above stats are rightly cause for concern, they also reveal that 53% of American jobs and four-fifths of global jobs are unlikely to be affected by advances in artificial intelligence and robotics. But just what are those fields? I spoke to three experts in artificial intelligence, robotics, and human productivity to get their automation-proof career advice.

Creatives

“Although I believe every single job can, and will, benefit from a level of AI or robotic influence, there are some roles that, in my view, will never be replaced by technology,” says Tom Pickersgill, …

Maintenance foreman

When running a production line, problems and bottlenecks are inevitable–and usually that’s a bad thing. But in this case, those unavoidable issues will save human jobs because their solutions will require human ingenuity, says Mark Williams, head of product at People First, …

Hairdressers

Mat Hunter, director of the Central Research Laboratory, a tech-focused co-working space and accelerator for tech startups, have seen startups trying to create all kinds of new technologies, which has given him insight into just what machines can and can’t pull off. It’s lead him to believe that jobs like the humble hairdresser are safer from automation than those of, says, accountancy.

Therapists and social workers

Another automation-proof career is likely to be one involved in helping people heal the mind, says Pickersgill. “People visit therapists because there is a need for emotional support and guidance. This can only be provided through real human interaction–by someone who can empathize and understand, and who can offer advice based on shared experiences, rather than just data-driven logic.”

Teachers

Teachers are so often the unsung heroes of our society. They are overworked and underpaid–yet charged with one of the most important tasks anyone can have: nurturing the growth of young people. The good news for teachers is that their jobs won’t be going anywhere.

Healthcare workers

Doctors and nurses will also likely never see their jobs taken by automation, says Williams. While automation will no doubt better enhance the treatments provided by doctors and nurses the fact of the matter is that robots aren’t going to outdo healthcare workers’ ability to connect with patients and make them feel understood the way a human can.

Caretakers

While humans might be fine with robots flipping their burgers and artificial intelligence managing their finances, being comfortable with a robot nannying your children or looking after your elderly mother is a much bigger ask. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that even today’s most advanced robots don’t have the physical dexterity to perform the movements and actions carers do every day.

Grothaus does offer a proviso in his conclusion: certain types of jobs are relatively safe until developers learn to replicate qualities such as empathy in robots/AI.

It’s very confusing

There’s so much news about robots, artificial intelligence, androids, and cyborgs that it’s hard to keep up with it let alone attempt to get a feeling for where all this might be headed. When you add the fact that the term robots/artificial inteligence are often used interchangeably and that the distinction between robots/androids/cyborgs is not always clear any attempts to peer into the future become even more challenging.

At this point I content myself with tracking the situation and finding definitions so I can better understand what I’m tracking. Carmen Wong’s August 23, 2018 posting on the Signals blog published by Canada’s Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM) offers some useful definitions in the context of an article about the use of artificial intelligence in the life sciences, particularly in Canada (Note: Links have been removed),

Artificial intelligence (AI). Machine learning. To most people, these are just buzzwords and synonymous. Whether or not we fully understand what both are, they are slowly integrating into our everyday lives. Virtual assistants such as Siri? AI is at work. The personalized ads you see when you are browsing on the web or movie recommendations provided on Netflix? Thank AI for that too.

AI is defined as machines having intelligence that imitates human behaviour such as learning, planning and problem solving. A process used to achieve AI is called machine learning, where a computer uses lots of data to “train” or “teach” itself, without human intervention, to accomplish a pre-determined task. Essentially, the computer keeps on modifying its algorithm based on the information provided to get to the desired goal.

Another term you may have heard of is deep learning. Deep learning is a particular type of machine learning where algorithms are set up like the structure and function of human brains. It is similar to a network of brain cells interconnecting with each other.

Toronto has seen its fair share of media-worthy AI activity. The Government of Canada, Government of Ontario, industry and multiple universities came together in March 2018 to launch the Vector Institute, with the goal of using AI to promote economic growth and improve the lives of Canadians. In May, Samsung opened its AI Centre in the MaRS Discovery District, joining a network of Samsung centres located in California, United Kingdom and Russia.

There has been a boom in AI companies over the past few years, which span a variety of industries. This year’s ranking of the top 100 most promising private AI companies covers 25 fields with cybersecurity, enterprise and robotics being the hot focus areas.

Wong goes on to explore AI deployment in the life sciences and concludes that human scientists and doctors will still be needed although she does note this in closing (Note: A link has been removed),

More importantly, empathy and support from a fellow human being could never be fully replaced by a machine (could it?), but maybe this will change in the future. We will just have to wait and see.

Artificial empathy is the term used in Lisa Morgan’s April 25, 2018 article for Information Week which unfortunately does not include any links to actual projects or researchers working on artificial empathy. Instead, the article is focused on how business interests and marketers would like to see it employed. FWIW, I have found a few references: (1) Artificial empathy Wikipedia essay (look for the references at the end of the essay for more) and (2) this open access article: Towards Artificial Empathy; How Can Artificial Empathy Follow the Developmental Pathway of Natural Empathy? by Minoru Asada.

Please let me know in the comments if you should have an insights on the matter in the comments section of this blog.

Sexbots, sexbot ethics, families, and marriage

Setting the stage

Can we? Should we? Is this really a good idea? I believe those ships have sailed where sexbots are concerned since the issue is no longer whether we can or should but rather what to do now that we have them. My Oct. 17, 2017 posting: ‘Robots in Vancouver and in Canada (one of two)’ features Harmony, the first (I believe) commercial AI (artificial intelligence)-enhanced sex robot n the US. They were getting ready to start shipping the bot either for Christmas 2017 or in early 2018.

Ethical quandaries?

Things have moved a little more quickly that I would have expected had I thought ahead. An April 5, 2018 essay  (h/t phys.org) by Victoria Brooks, lecturer in law at the University of Westminster (UK) for The Conversation lays out some of ethical issues (Note: Links have been removed),

Late in 2017 at a tech fair in Austria, a sex robot was reportedly “molested” repeatedly and left in a “filthy” state. The robot, named Samantha, received a barrage of male attention, which resulted in her sustaining two broken fingers. This incident confirms worries that the possibility of fully functioning sex robots raises both tantalising possibilities for human desire (by mirroring human/sex-worker relationships), as well as serious ethical questions.

So what should be done? The campaign to “ban” sex robots, as the computer scientist Kate Devlin has argued, is only likely to lead to a lack of discussion. Instead, she hypothesises that many ways of sexual and social inclusivity could be explored as a result of human-robot relationships.

To be sure, there are certain elements of relationships between humans and sex workers that we may not wish to repeat. But to me, it is the ethical aspects of the way we think about human-robot desire that are particularly key.

Why? Because we do not even agree yet on what sex is. Sex can mean lots of different things for different bodies – and the types of joys and sufferings associated with it are radically different for each individual body. We are only just beginning to understand and know these stories. But with Europe’s first sex robot brothel open in Barcelona and the building of “Harmony”, a talking sex robot in California, it is clear that humans are already contemplating imposing our barely understood sexual ethic upon machines.

I think that most of us will experience some discomfort on hearing Samantha’s story. And it’s important that, just because she’s a machine, we do not let ourselves “off the hook” by making her yet another victim and heroine who survived an encounter, only for it to be repeated. Yes, she is a machine, but does this mean it is justifiable to act destructively towards her? Surely the fact that she is in a human form makes her a surface on which human sexuality is projected, and symbolic of a futuristic human sexuality. If this is the case, then Samatha’s [sic] case is especially sad.

It is Devlin who has asked the crucial question: whether sex robots will have rights. “Should we build in the idea of consent,” she asks? In legal terms, this would mean having to recognise the robot as human – such is the limitation of a law made by and for humans.

Suffering is a way of knowing that you, as a body, have come out on the “wrong” side of an ethical dilemma. [emphasis mine] This idea of an “embodied” ethic understood through suffering has been developed on the basis of the work of the famous philosopher Spinoza and is of particular use for legal thinkers. It is useful as it allows us to judge rightness by virtue of the real and personal experience of the body itself, rather than judging by virtue of what we “think” is right in connection with what we assume to be true about their identity.

This helps us with Samantha’s case, since it tells us that in accordance with human desire, it is clear she would not have wanted what she got. The contact Samantha received was distinctly human in the sense that this case mirrors some of the most violent sexual offences cases. While human concepts such as “law” and “ethics” are flawed, we know we don’t want to make others suffer. We are making these robot lovers in our image and we ought not pick and choose whether to be kind to our sexual partners, even when we choose to have relationships outside of the “norm”, or with beings that have a supposedly limited consciousness, or even no (humanly detectable) consciousness.

Brooks makes many interesting points not all of them in the excerpts seen here but one question not raised in the essay is whether or not the bot itself suffered. It’s a point that I imagine proponents of ‘treating your sex bot however you like’ are certain to raise. It’s also a question Canadians may need to answer sooner rather than later now that a ‘sex doll brothel’ is about to open Toronto. However, before getting to that news bit, there’s an interview with a man, his sexbot, and his wife.

The sexbot at home

In fact, I have two interviews the first I’m including here was with CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) radio and it originally aired October 29, 2017. Here’s a part of the transcript (Note: A link has been removed),

“She’s [Samantha] quite an elegant kind of girl,” says Arran Lee Squire, who is sales director for the company that makes her and also owns one himself.

And unlike other dolls like her, she’ll resist sex if she isn’t in the mood.

“If you touch her, say, on her sensitive spots on the breasts, for example, straight away, and you don’t touch her hands or kiss her, she might say, ‘Oh, I’m not ready for that,'” Arran says.

He says she’ll even synchronize her orgasm to the user’s.

But Arran emphasized that her functions go beyond the bedroom.

Samantha has a “family mode,” in which she can can talk about science, animals and philosophy. She’ll give you motivational quotes if you’re feeling down.

At Arran’s house, Samantha interacts with his two kids. And when they’ve gone to bed, she’ll have sex with him, but only with his wife involved.

There’s also this Sept. 12, 2017 ITV This Morning with Phillip & Holly broadcast interview  (running time: 6 mins. 19 secs.),

I can imagine that if I were a child in that household I’d be tempted to put the sexbot into ‘sexy mode’, preferably unsupervised by my parents. Also, will the parents be using it, at some point, for sex education?

Canadian perspective 1: Sure, it could be good for your marriage

Prior to the potential sex doll brothel in Toronto (more about that coming up), there was a flurry of interest in Marina Adshade’s contribution to the book, Robot Sex: Social and Ethical Implications, from an April 18, 2018 news item on The Tyee,

Sex robots may soon be a reality. However, little research has been done on the social, philosophical, moral and legal implications of robots specifically designed for sexual gratification.

In a chapter written for the book Robot Sex: Social and Ethical Implications, Marina Adshade, professor in the Vancouver School of Economics at the University of British Columbia, argues that sex robots could improve marriage by making it less about sex and more about love.

In this Q&A, Adshade discusses her predictions.

Could sex robots really be a viable replacement for marriage with a human? Can you love a robot?

I don’t see sex robots as substitutes for human companionship but rather as complements to human companionship. Just because we might enjoy the company of robots doesn’t mean that we cannot also enjoy the company of humans, or that having robots won’t enhance our relationships with humans. I see them as very different things — just as one woman (or one man) is not a perfect substitute for another woman (or man).

Is there a need for modern marriage to improve?

We have become increasingly demanding in what we want from the people that we marry. There was a time when women were happy to have a husband that supported the family and men were happy to have a caring mother to his children. Today we still want those things, but we also want so much more — we want lasting sexual compatibility, intense romance, and someone who is an amazing co-parent. That is a lot to ask of one person. …

Adshade adapted part of her text  “Sexbot-Induced Social Change: An Economic Perspective” in Robot Sex: Social and Ethical Implications edited by John Danaher and Neil McArthur for an August 14, 2018 essay on Slate.com,

Technological change invariably brings social change. We know this to be true, but rarely can we make accurate predictions about how social behavior will evolve when new technologies are introduced. …we should expect that the proliferation of robots designed specifically for human sexual gratification means that sexbot-induced social change is on the horizon.

Some elements of that social change might be easier to anticipate than others. For example, the share of the young adult population that chooses to remain single (with their sexual needs met by robots) is very likely to increase. Because social change is organic, however, adaptations in other social norms and behaviors are much more difficult to predict. But this is not virgin territory [I suspect this was an unintended pun]. New technologies completely transformed sexual behavior and marital norms over the second half of the 20th century. Although getting any of these predictions right will surely involve some luck, we have decades of technology-induced social change to guide our predictions about the future of a world confronted with wholesale access to sexbots.

The reality is that marriage has always evolved alongside changes in technology. Between the mid-1700s and the early 2000s, the role of marriage between a man and a woman was predominately to encourage the efficient production of market goods and services (by men) and household goods and services (by women), since the social capacity to earn a wage was almost always higher for husbands than it was for wives. But starting as early as the end of the 19th century, marriage began to evolve as electrification in the home made women’s work less time-consuming, and new technologies in the workplace started to decrease the gender wage gap. Between 1890 and 1940, the share of married women working in the labor force tripled, and over the course of the century, that share continued to grow as new technologies arrived that replaced the labor of women in the home. By the early 1970s, the arrival of microwave ovens and frozen foods meant that a family could easily be fed at the end of a long workday, even when the mother worked outside of the home.

Some elements of that social change might be easier to anticipate than others. For example, the share of the young adult population that chooses to remain single (with their sexual needs met by robots) is very likely to increase. Because social change is organic, however, adaptations in other social norms and behaviors are much more difficult to predict. But this is not virgin territory. New technologies completely transformed sexual behavior and marital norms over the second half of the 20th century. Although getting any of these predictions right will surely involve some luck, we have decades of technology-induced social change to guide our predictions about the future of a world confronted with wholesale access to sexbots.

The reality is that marriage has always evolved alongside changes in technology. Between the mid-1700s and the early 2000s, the role of marriage between a man and a woman was predominately to encourage the efficient production of market goods and services (by men) and household goods and services (by women), since the social capacity to earn a wage was almost always higher for husbands than it was for wives. But starting as early as the end of the 19th century, marriage began to evolve as electrification in the home made women’s work less time-consuming, and new technologies in the workplace started to decrease the gender wage gap. Between 1890 and 1940, the share of married women working in the labor force tripled, and over the course of the century, that share continued to grow as new technologies arrived that replaced the labor of women in the home. By the early 1970s, the arrival of microwave ovens and frozen foods meant that a family could easily be fed at the end of a long workday, even when the mother worked outside of the home.

There are those who argue that men only “assume the burden” of marriage because marriage allows men easy sexual access, and that if men can find sex elsewhere they won’t marry. We hear this prediction now being made in reference to sexbots, but the same argument was given a century ago when the invention of the latex condom (1912) and the intrauterine device (1909) significantly increased people’s freedom to have sex without risking pregnancy and (importantly, in an era in which syphilis was rampant) sexually transmitted disease. Cosmopolitan magazine ran a piece at the time by John B. Watson that asked the blunt question, will men marry 50 years from now? Watson’s answer was a resounding no, writing that “we don’t want helpmates anymore, we want playmates.” Social commentators warned that birth control technologies would destroy marriage by removing the incentives women had to remain chaste and encourage them to flood the market with nonmarital sex. Men would have no incentive to marry, and women, whose only asset is sexual access, would be left destitute.

Fascinating, non? Should you be interested, “Sexbot-Induced Social Change: An Economic Perspective” by Marina Adshade  can be found in Robot Sex: Social and Ethical Implications (link to Amazon) edited by John Danaher and Neil McArthur. © 2017 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, reprinted courtesy of the MIT Press

Canadian perspective 2: What is a sex doll brothel doing in Toronto?

Sometimes known as Toronto the Good (although not recently; find out more about Toronto and its nicknames here) and once a byword for stodginess, the city is about to welcome a sex doll brothel according to an August 28, 2018 CBC Radio news item by Katie Geleff and John McGill,

On their website, Aura Dolls claims to be, “North America’s first known brothel that offers sexual services with the world’s most beautiful silicone ladies.”

Nestled between a massage parlour, nail salon and dry cleaner, Aura Dolls is slated to open on Sept. 8 [2018] in an otherwise nondescript plaza in Toronto’s north end.

The company plans to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and will offer customers six different silicone dolls. The website describes the life-like dolls as, “classy, sophisticated, and adventurous ladies.” …

They add that, “the dolls are thoroughly sanitized to meet your expectations.” But that condoms are still “highly recommended.”

Toronto city councillor John Filion says people in his community are concerned about the proposed business.

Filion spoke to As It Happens guest host Helen Mann. Here is part of their conversation.

Councillor Filion, Aura Dolls is urging people to have “an open mind” about their business plan. Would you say that you have one?

Well, I have an open mind about what sort of behaviours people want to do, as long as they don’t harm anybody else. It’s a totally different matter once you bring that out to the public. So I think I have a fairly closed mind about where people should be having sex with [silicone] dolls.

So, what’s wrong with a sex doll brothel?

It’s where it is located, for one thing. Where it’s being proposed happens to be near an intersection where about 25,000 people live, all kinds of families, four elementary schools are very near by. And you know, people shouldn’t really need to be out on a walk with their families and try to explain to their kids why someone is having sex with a [silicone] doll.

But Aura Dolls says that they are going to be doing this very discreetly, that they won’t have explicit signage, and that they therefore won’t be bothering anyone.

They’ve hardly been discreet. They were putting illegal posters all over the neighbourhood. They’ve probably had a couple of hundred of thousands of dollars of free publicity already. I don’t think there’s anything at all discreet about what they are doing. They’re trying to be indiscreet to drum up business.

Can you be sure that there aren’t constituents in your area that think this is a great idea?

I can’t be sure that there aren’t some people who might think, “Oh great, it’s just down the street from me. Let me go there.” I would say that might be a fraction of one per cent of my constituents. Most people are appalled by this.

And it’s not a narrow-minded neighbourhood. Whatever somebody does in their home, I don’t think we’re going to pass moral judgment on it, again, as long as it’s not harming anyone else. But this is just kind of scuzzy. ..

….

Aura Dolls says that it’s doing nothing illegal. They say that they are being very clear that the dolls they are using represent adult women and that they are actually providing a service. Do you agree that they are doing this legally?

No, they’re not at all legal. It’s an illegal use. And if there’s any confusion about that, they will be getting a letter from the city very soon. It is clearly not a legal use. It’s not permitted under the zoning bylaw and it fits the definition of adult entertainment parlour, for which you require a license — and they certainly would not get one. They would not get a license in this neighbourhood because it’s not a permitted use.

The audio portion runs for 5 mins. 31 secs.

I believe these dolls are in fact sexbots, likely enhanced with AI. An August 29, 2018 article by Karlton Jahmal for hotnewhiphop.com describes the dolls as ‘fembots’ and provides more detail (Note: Links have been removed),

Toronto has seen the future, and apparently, it has to do with sex dolls. The Six [another Toronto nickname] is about to get blessed with the first legal sex doll brothel, and the fembots look too good to be true. If you head over to Aura Dolls website, detailed biographies for the six available sex dolls are on full display. You can check out the doll’s height, physical dimensions, heritage and more.

Aura plans to introduce more dolls in the future, according to a statement in the Toronto Star by Claire Lee, a representative for the compnay. At the moment, the ethnicities of the sex dolls feature Japanese, Caucasian American, French Canadian, Irish Canadian, Colombian, and Korean girls. Male dolls will be added in the near future. The sex dolls look remarkably realistic. Aura’s website writes, “Our dolls are made from the highest quality of TPE silicone which mimics the feeling of natural human skin, pores, texture and movement giving the user a virtually identical experience as being with a real partner.”

There are a few more details about the proposed brothel and more comments from Toronto city councillor John Filion in an August 28, 2018 article by Claire Floody and Jenna Moon with Alexandra Jones and Melanie Green for thestar.com,

Toronto will soon be home to North America’s [this should include Canada, US, and Mexico] first known sex doll brothel, offering sexual services with six silicone-made dolls.

According to the website for Aura Dolls, the company behind the brothel, the vision is to bring a new way to achieve sexual needs “without the many restrictions and limitations that a real partner may come with.”

The brothel is expected to open in a shopping plaza on Yonge St., south of Sheppard Ave., on Sept. 8 [2018]. The company doesn’t give the exact location on its website, stating it’s announced upon booking.

Spending half an hour with one doll costs $80, with two dolls running $160. For an hour, the cost is $120 with one doll. The maximum listed time is four hours for $480 per doll.

Doors at the new brothel for separate entry and exit will be used to ensure “maximum privacy for customers.” While the business does plan on having staff on-site, they “should not have any interaction,” Lee said.

“The reason why we do that is to make sure that everyone feels comfortable coming in and exiting,” she said, noting that people may feel shy or awkward about visiting the site.

… Lee said that the business is operating within the law. “The only law stating with anything to do with the dolls is that it has to meet a height requirement. It can’t resemble a child,” she said. …

Councillor John Filion, Ward 23 Willowdale, said his staff will be “throwing the book at (Aura Dolls) for everything they can.”

“I’ve still got people studying to see what’s legal and what isn’t,” Filion said. He noted that a bylaw introduced in North York in the ’90s prevents retail sex shops operating outside of industrial areas. Filion said his office is still confirming that the bylaw is active following harmonization, which condensed the six boroughs’ bylaws after amalgamation in 1998.

“If the bylaw that I brought in 20 years ago still exists, it would prohibit this,” Filion said.

“There’s legal issues,” he said, suggesting that people interested in using the sex dolls might consider doing so at home, rather than at a brothel.

The councillor said he’s received complaints from constituents about the business. “The phone’s ringing off the hook today,” Filion said.

It should be an interesting first week at school for everyone involved. I wonder what Ontario Premier, Doug Ford who recently rolled back the sex education curriculum for the province by 20 years will make of these developments.

As for sexbots/fembots/sex dolls or whatever you want to call them, they are here and it’s about time Canadians had a frank discussion on the matter. Also, I’ve been waiting for quite some time for any mention of male sexbots (malebots?). Personally, I don’t think we’ll be seeing male sexbots appear in either brothels or homes anytime soon.