At a time when people are still frantically searching for the cure for cancer, still trying to halt the ever incessant march of climate change and still trying to reconcile the rapid mobilization of over € 1 billion euros worth of funding to save a once beautiful, now destroyed and fallen monument in Paris. Nearby refugees in Calais remain displaced and forgotten, whilst scientists elsewhere have gathered to celebrate their recent unparalleled feats in Biotechnology. At Cornell University, they have been able to create self-reproducing machines capable of eating, growing and evolving themselves, whilst at Yale the once very literal concept of death has been smoked and blurred by the revival of decapitated pig brains hours after their ‘deaths’.
The Yale Study
In the Yale study researchers took 32 slaughtered pig brains and connected them to a system called BrainEx. The system circulated oxygen, nutrients and other protective chemicals through the pig brains until 6 hours later, in a scene slightly reminiscent of Mary shelleys Frankenstein, the brains finally began showing signs of life. The brain cells were able to perform basic tasks, take up oxygen and produce carbon dioxide. Importantly however, the pig brains were not fully conscious – yet.
The legal and ethical issues
The techniques around BrainEx’s procedure can work with species other than just pigs and this raises very strong ethical, moral and legal questions, especially if these were ever to be used in a similar way on humans. Would a person still be able to recover their identity, thoughts and memories after being restored and would they still have the same legal status and rights currently afforded to living people – should they?
Whilst the international law arena and the scientific community already has some resistance measures in place for the most brazen of scientific experimentation involving living human subjects in the form of key human rights treaties and ethical guidelines contained within the Nuremberg Code, the cornerstone declaration of Helsinki and the recommendations on the rights of human subjects by the National institute of Justice published in 2010.
The position regarding experimentation once a person has already died, is much more ambiguous and much of the governing international legal structures, only act as informal guideline standards. As such, there would be clear issues if the currently unpublished brain techniques were to get out to the sentimental public, or equally vindictive persons out for revenge, who wouldn’t mind spending a little time trying to emulate the findings, to keep the brains of their loved (or hated) ones alive. Such an occurrence, could only be described as what would be the ultimate sensory deprivation experience for the poor person involved; being completely devoid of sound, sight, smell, sense of hearing, or even a voice to cry out with.
Whilst in the Yale study scientists remained poised nearby armed with anesthesia in case any form of globalized brain activity indicating consciousness, flagged in the readings, it’s unlikely that others outside of the formal laboratory setting would also choose to be quite as cautious. Clear legal guidelines and succinct international policy would therefore be needed to combat the craziest possibilities that could occur in what is currently a loosely regulated yet rapidly growing area in biotechnology. This should work towards increasing transparency in the industry and sensibly shaping the development of future processes surrounding human cadaver experimentation, and its continued development around the world in the years to come.
The Cornell Study
In the Cornell study, the Cornell team were able to grow their own robots using a DNA-based bio-material and then observe the robots as as they grew, decayed and metabolized other resources for energy.
The legal issues
The Lead author of the study Shogo Hamada noted the implications of the research quite succinctly in that “ultimately, the system [could] lead to lifelike self-reproducing machines.”The Cornell team have only just started their work in this area, yet as exciting or terrifying as this initial research might sound, very real questions of whether robots could eventually be considered as “alive” will soon quickly need to be answered. Likewise, as with the dead pig experiments in the Yale study, the relevant biotech law will also need to adapt in advance of these technologies to govern the challenges ahead appropriately but without stifling what could eventually be very significant technical progress in the field.
Whilst the search for the cure for cancer; the Notre-Dame burning; the battle against climate change and significant progress being made in the study of Biotechnology might appear to be quite unrelated events, a single unifying thread is that they all raise very real questions about human mortality, our boundaries and what it means to be alive in today’s age. Globally, world events appear to be at the edge of a tipping point where once the relevant thresholds have been passed, there will be no turning back.
Will the Notre-Dame still be the same building after the fire has taken its toll and work to restore it is complete? or will it be something entirely different? Likewise, will the meaning of being human still be the same years down the line once Yale scientists have finally been able to restore human consciousness, ultimately also curing death in the process too, or will we as a species be forever changed? And furthermore, will the way that we currently view machines, as inherently inanimate ‘objects’ and tools also have to be reconfigured? As in the future, we might develop the ability to grow our very own ‘organic’ household robots that can ‘think’ feel and grow older.
Whilst this brief doesn’t attempt to answer these very difficult questions in any great depth, it hopefully leaves you with an interesting fresh perspective surrounding recent unfolding events so that you will ultimately be able to come to your own informed conclusions around the complexities. Please feel free to leave a comment and share your views.