The Ethical Issues of Creating Artificial Humans
Emily Lamie, Fairleigh Dickinson University
Abstract: This paper will address the ethical issues related to scientifically designing and creating humans. As the world becomes more and more advanced, questions arise about futuristic knowledge and whether some studies around it should be limited. These questions tend to come up with specific topics like genetic engineering, cloning, 3-D printed organs, robots and artificial intelligence. This is because there is a huge difference in designing characters through art on a 2D scale, versus combining science with art to create something dynamic and alive. Although it is a huge feat to be able to create something as real and advanced as the human body, there are still ethical problems in the experimental process, the actual function of the created human, and the impacts of this creation on society. The idea that some research is better left for fiction is discussed as two fictional pieces, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, and the film Avengers: Age of Ultron, were the inspiration for this paper and will be used as background information. Both pieces reflect the idea that impulsively creating something as complex and groundbreaking as humans comes with regrettable misfortunes as the monster created by Frankenstein lives up to its label and as Ultron, created by a genius scientist, tries to rid Earth of humans. This paper, however, will shift from fiction to discover and analyze the genuine ethical problems of artificial humans because something that used to seem “ahead of its time” is now standing at the door of the 21st century.
Growing up, my favorite genre of movies and books was science fiction. Science fiction shows the effects of imagined and futuristic science, something that, to me, fell in the same unrealistic boat as fantasy fiction. Today, however, the question comes down to if “fiction” should even be in the genre title anymore as science and technology advances. Many science “fiction” pieces focus on the creation or design of humans because the complexity of humans has long been a scientific enigma. For example, Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley focuses on this as Dr. Frankenstein attempts to create a life, yet the result is a creature left in neglect and living up to a “monstrous” title, even though this was not what Frankenstein intended. Similarly, in Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ultron, artificial intelligence that was designed by Tony Stark, tried to destroy humans despite Stark’s intention to solve world peace. Due to some humans having a “god complex” and acting against nature to produce something that may not even be attainable, boundaries regarding this complex knowledge have been broken. Today, especially, more and more technology and scientific studies undertake the creation and design of a human-like body or way of thought, thus leading to the arising ethical questions involved when doing so. Reluctance to artificially create humans arises due to ethical issues such as the unpredictable risks, the conflict with religious values, and the tangled definition of what characterizes a legal person.
To explore the issues of scientifically creating a human being, the paper will begin by briefly examining the general idea of the Frankenstein effect and will investigate how the Frankenstein effect is used as a means to discuss the responsibility and intentions of scientists. I will then discuss the ethical issues and risks of genetic engineering or modification, including designing babies and choosing specific human characteristics. Next, I will discuss the harmful effects of cloning already existing humans during and following the experimental phase along with religious views towards cloning. Lastly, I will conclude by analyzing the use of robots and artificial intelligence: how they are incomparable to real humans; along with how they affect the rights of natural humans. Ultimately, I argue that due to the multiple ethical issues regarding this type of science and its experiments, humans should not interfere with nature’s course of creation by creating and designing artificial humans. However, a counterargument will be made before addressing each of the ethical issues to show that designing humans and advanced technology may be beneficial for humans and is an enormous achievement in itself.
The Frankenstein story has long been used by people to emphasize the dangers of sciences that are unnecessary and exceed acceptable limits as Dr. Frankenstein seeks the ability to create something he believes no other human can, seemingly only out of aspiration and not for a need. According to researchers from the Center for Science and Imagination at Arizona State University, “frankenscience” is a term used by the public to highlight this idea of forbidden knowledge and how science sometimes intermingles with it causing dangers to society (Nagy et al. 2). The largest aspect of why some scientific studies are labeled as such is because these studies test the outer limits of what humans need to know by attempting to imitate divine powers. For example, the fictionalized Doctor Frankenstein is described as “an ambitious scholar, blessed with superior intelligence, [who] dedicates himself to an unrestricted pursuit of knowledge” (Nagy et al. 3). Even though Frankenstein had superior knowledge, he did not take time to fully understand the risks, thus producing the phrase “Frankenstein effect,” showing how designing something simply because one can is not an ethical approach as a scientist. These researchers use Frankenstein as a case to discuss how scientists can better their reputation by examining societal fear and if their goals as scientists align with helping society ethically, not just their own personal glory.
This relates to the ethical issues regarding genetic engineering and designer babies as genetic modification experiments present unpredictable risks because naturally born traits are permanently changed. Genetic modification may be helpful in eliminating diseases as Rebecca Dresser, a graduate of Harvard Law School and a professor of bioethics and law at Washington University, says that “genetic alteration in preimplantation embryos offers great promise for improving human health and welfare” (2). Dresser also points out that “alterations performed at such an early stage could target genetic diseases, such as Huntington disease and cystic fibrosis” (2). Ever since the Human Genome Project, scientists have learned more about how diseases could be found within specific genes in the lineage of a family. This makes genetic modification in babies advantageous, as they will be healthier by removing the passed down gene carrying the disease. Unclear of its effectiveness, it still may be justifiable as it means extending the life of an individual and reducing disease. However, genetic modification based upon changing characteristics that will not impact the human’s health is excessive as “even the strongest enthusiasts agree that no existing method of altering genes in embryos is sufficiently safe and effective to attempt in humans” (Dresser 3). Usually, risky experiments and surgeries are justifiable if human survival depends on them. Designing babies out of preference, though, just to simply change the characteristics of the child without having any effect on its survival, is not benefitting the child but rather risking its life due to the fact that genetic modification has mostly been an experimental learning process and not a common procedure.
Nonetheless, even when using genetic modification against diseases, the impacts are still unpredictable because of the experimental stage genetic engineering currently falls under. For example, Beth Baker, a medical researcher and writer for the American Institute of Biological Sciences, highlights that “even when researchers successfully identify genetic flaws that contribute to one problem, they are learning that the same ‘problem’ gene may actually have other benefits” (4). Especially since genetic modification to create these babies is preimplantation genetic modification, scientists are still learning that many of the traits being modified are not fully developed and can be associated with other traits since the human body is still not in its full complexity. This means that the wrong or beneficial traits could be modified resulting in a disadvantageous lack of important disease fighting traits or even death in the child. In one study by Junjiu Huang in 2015, a gene associated with a blood disorder called beta-thalassemia was altered in 86 human embryos, but the experiment did not work as intended and only a few of the embryos were repaired while some did not survive (Baker 3). This proves that genetic engineering is still flawed, even when being used to fight a genetic disorder. The experiment also demonstrates the Frankenstein effect with unexpected results beyond original intention and a very little success rate. Especially if it comes down to using genetic modification to change something as unimportant as eye or hair color, it is risky to take the chances of losing a life or going through a futile procedure as observed in this embryo experiment. The exchange of survival and natural chosen traits with trait preference reveals that genetic modification results in ethical issues and complications involving the designed human.
While modifying specific genes of a human has its problems, so does experimentally copying the genome of a human to create another human. The procedure may be performed to produce another member of a family as Carson Strong, a professor of ethics at University of Tennessee College of Medicine, reveals that “in certain situations reproductive cloning would be ethically permissible. One type of case in which it has been claimed that it would be permissible involves infertile couples” (1). However, the experiment not only creates a Frankenstein effect as safer means of raising a child are available (adoption), but also the idea is viewed as irreligious. Bernard E. Rollin, an American philosopher who attended Columbia and is a professor of animal and biomedical sciences, describes how many people view Frankenstein and cloning or genetic modification as “‘playing God,’ or ‘violating natural barriers,’ or ‘failing to respect species boundaries,’ or ‘trying to be God’” (4). Multiple world religions question the extent of humankind’s knowledge. For example, the Garden of Eden, Eve eating from the forbidden tree of knowledge, and The Tower of Babel, humans wanting to build a tower to heaven, from the Bible, as well as Icarus wanting to fly higher towards the sun, show just what happens when humans seek knowledge past their permitted amount (Rollin 4). In multiple religions, human life was already created by a higher power, so humans trying to replicate it, as Frankenstein had done, are perceived as unpredictable and blasphemous. Furthermore, it is also just inherently unnatural for there to be an exact replica of genes of a human experimentally created because it is not only human made, but also identical twins do not even have the same gene sets, proving that the impacts of cloning are still unforeseeable. Walter Glannon, a clinical ethicist and professor of philosophy at University of Calgary, discusses the experiments done by Ian Wilmut where he and his colleagues attempted to clone a sheep and there was a success rate of one out of 434 sheep oocytes (immature eggs) leaving behind the other unfixable deformed offspring (3). Similar to the way that the monster created by Frankenstein had overall defects, making him appear distinguishably horrific and thus leading him to commit murderous crimes, cloned animals also show the ethical issues of experimentally creating life and not caring enough about how that life might be ruined through these mutations. The fact that there were problems with cloning animals, who are much simpler than humans, also means that science is still not prepared for cloning humans, which may have greater detrimental effects. There are also not only unknown effects on the individual cloned, but also society as a whole, as cloning “might emphasize the deleterious effect multiplication of the same genes might have on the human gene pool” (Rollin 6). It is known, scientifically, that inbreeding is unhealthy since nature acts in a way where it selects beneficial traits by having a wide array of selection of specific genes, which is why diseases are more common with inbreeding as similar genes are being passed down. Similarly, having multiple copies of genes, especially deleterious genes, creates the same effect and will negatively impact the health of descendants of the clones as the negative traits are more likely to be enhanced due to the plethora of them in the gene pool. Thus, the unnaturalness of cloning existing humans demonstrates issues in both the religious aspect along with overall human safety.
While genetic engineering and cloning rely on the presence of a true human subject to create the artificial human, artificial intelligence within robots is essentially a “human” made from scratch, thus making it the most feared idea of a created human as it seems to be least related to a real one. The primary reason why artificial intelligence is still on the rise is due to the potential benefits of programmed intelligence. The American Meteorological Society, a professional organization of atmospheric researchers, analyzes the advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning by revealing how they can be used in a “variety of applications: autonomous vehicles, music generation, forecasting financial markets, speech recognition, smart assistance, quantum physics, medical diagnosis, and more” (Boukabara et al. 2). This proves just how beneficial artificial intelligence can be in everyday life due to flawless and precise programmed intellectual capacity. For these machines, there is little room for mistakes as they function as a calculator would, with quick and efficient informational processing. Intelligence may be a great trait to have, yet even Dr. Frankenstein and Ultron were lacking despite it. The missing component is the right intention. Human intention is usually based upon emotion as a doctor’s intention may be to help their patient as a result of sympathy, or a parental figure’s intention might be to care for the child because of their love or how Dr. Frankenstein’s intention was to create a human as a result of desire and pride. According to Petra Gelhaus, a physician, artificial intelligence simply cannot replace humans, especially in medicine, because they lack the emotional component, and they function as a psychopath without deeply understanding the feelings of a patient and without the empathy needed to build better connections (4). Emotions are virtues relating to true intentions that are equally important to academic skills. Unlike programmed artificial intelligence, humans may be prone to make mistakes, but nonetheless they have the emotions and understanding necessary for communication and patient trust. Thus, the “Frankenstein effect” is clearly demonstrated because the unanticipated intentions of apathetic artificial intelligence may be different from the intention of the emotional creator. This unforeseen result that differs from the creator’s intention is seen with Dr. Frankenstein and the creation of his monster. Similarly, in Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ultron’s intentions were academically based as this artificial intelligence saw a better future for Earth without humans. Contrastingly, Tony Stark, the creator of Ultron, sought to create Ultron to try to bring about world peace and his intentions were emotionally based.
While emotions play a big role in the identification of a true human, confusion still arises about how designed humans should be regarded and whether they are even equal to naturally made humans. Especially when it comes to artificial intelligence, a huge issue is if this far related creation is even considered a human anymore. Maria Cataleta, having a Ph.D. in Public Law and Political Science, discusses how Google, a form of artificial intelligence, adapts itself to its users and teaches itself how to regulate the results of searches, meaning that in the future it is very possible for intelligences to function without the supervision of a true human (28). This is an ethical issue as the identity of a true human and rights may be infringed upon. Similar to the way Ultron wanted to destroy humans and rebuild Earth to perfection with superior intelligences, artificial humans with minds of their own will start to fill in true human roles. Even multiple jobs replace humans with machines and the idea of robotic social media influencers has become common today as social media platforms portray the lives of artificially intelligent robots imitating that of a real human, creating confusion as to how these creations should be addressed. In fact, Cataleta mentions that Laurent Alexandre, a surgeon and neurobiologist, claims it possible for artificial intelligence to merge with natural humanity by 2080, as it will dominate around that time (29). Without human control, as seen with Frankenstein’s monster, and with the lack of emotions, artificial intelligence being considered synonymous to humans is an ethical concern as their complexity is not as fully developed to that of a true human.
In the final analysis, when science takes such an ambitious leap like creating a human, ethical issues, such as possible risks, public disapproval of its irreligious concept, and confusion regarding the status of a legal person, will follow. Like every fictional story with the clever creator, whether that be Dr. Frankenstein, Tony Stark, or Daedalus, adversities are bound to result from their advanced thinking. While the sciences of the 21st century have become futuristic and similarly advanced in regard to genetic engineering, cloning and artificial intelligence, the ethical ways of thought are still standing on the podium as most crucial. While the creation of a human being is an enormous feat, monitoring and having the right intentions on how to safely create the human is necessary to counteract the Frankenstein effect and ensure success. It is clear that the far too progressive technological sciences deemed unnecessary should be left to the science fiction movies until scientists can find a way to balance this “forbidden” knowledge with ethical values.
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