Moore’s Law is the law that computing power will double every 18 months. In recent years, we’ve actually seen computing power accelerate such that we’re doing better than Moore’s Law. The real-world ramifications of this are seen in cell phones that contain more features and intelligence every year. Its impact on genetic engineering is both more and less obvious.

The dramatic rise in processing power has in part powered the genetic revolution. The cost of genetic testing has come down to the point that people can use genetic testing to find people not cleaning up after their pets.

Genetic genealogy has been expanding rapidly. The stories of family reunions and proof one way or the other on family lore may make the news. Stories of “non-paternal events” and finding out you’re not an eighth Cherokee affect individuals but don’t hit the headlines.

The identification of genes linked to genetic disorders has been accelerated by the same advances in computing. It is easy to argue that we’ve seen growth in de facto eugenics because of this genetic testing, and we would see even more of it when fetal DNA testing through analysis of the mother’s blood becomes possible. However, the science fiction stories promising genetically-engineered super-humans remain far in the future if they will happen at all.

So what happened?

One answer is that the horrors of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany turned us off to public eugenics, though it certainly occurs privately and can be incentivized through a mix of public policies and private ones like being encouraged to terminate by a health insurance company when the results are bad.

Another answer is that we’ve applied the precautionary principle to biotech. We’ve recently started to allow limited mitochondrial DNA transfers to allow healthy normal children to be born from parents who would otherwise rely on donor eggs. Genetic engineering of bone marrow of children with SCID is more acceptable and more advanced because it treats a life threatening disorder for just the afflicted. It is more akin to giving a deaf child a cochlear implant than giving a normal child super-hearing. There’s no moral conundrum here.

Another answer is that we’ve realized that this could lead to massive unfair advantages to those who could afford the technology and decided it is a bad idea. When merit and privilege are overwhelmingly concentrated among those who can afford it, do we end up with a caste system? That isn’t unreasonable, and it is the premise of the Beggars in Spain trilogy. There are probably other works, but I’m not familiar with them.

However, I think there’s another reason we’re probably not going to see the genetically engineered super-humans show up, and that’s technological. If I genetically engineer one super-human, I get one super-human. Maybe you clone it and get a batch of them. That would be the premise of Dark Angel or the workers in Brave New World. However, you only have a few of them. It takes years for them to grow up. They may not turn out as you expect. And they’re a waste of resources in the wrong circumstances, such as when you make super-soldiers and find yourself without any wars to fight. Do they fail to integrate into society, or do you dispose of them somehow? If that sounds familiar, you may remember this premise from Soldier staring Kurt Russell.

Cybernetics, artificial organs and exo-suits offer a better alternative for many reasons. The fact that much of this technology gets tested on a massive scale as medical devices means it will be quite safe if and when it is used to upgrade the average person. Another attraction is how democratic it can be. While not everyone has the latest and greatest smart phone, many have second-hand or cheap models. That’s less of a technological and social divide than you’d see between the average person and the super-human. The economics work out better, too. If you’re facing a war, you upgrade those you need in advance of deploying them. You don’t create super-soldiers you don’t need. You don’t have to maintain them in the hope of needing them. After the war, you might be able to take the enhancements out, or you can turn them down to civilian-approved levels. If someone dies, you could probably reuse the salvageable components.

In theory, advances in this family of technologies could make anyone who can afford it immortal, but it would not be limited to the next generation – it could include people walking around today. We’d get implants to cure dementia before we make the average person a genius, but because of the broad more use case, we’re more likely to get both. And it is all due to the advances in technology following Moore’s Law.

That is why Altered Carbon is the more likely future than Beggars in Spain.


Image via kalhh (Pixabay)