DNA Dreams, designer babies of the future

DNA sequencers at BGI Photo credit: Bregtje van der Haak

DNA sequencers at BGI
Photo credit: Bregtje van der Haak

In her film DNA Dreams, documentary maker Bregtje van der Haak gave us a magnificent view into the world of young scientists eager to unravel the mysteries of our genome. She presented the dreams of genome researchers and their vision of the future. It all happens in China and on a very fast pace. The Beijing Genome Institute, or BGI, looks like a futuristic science factory and has the largest park of genome sequencing machines anywhere on the world. This maverick independent organisation follows the dream of their founder to sequence the genome of every living thing on the planet. An army of hyper intelligent young people (almost every one of the 3000 employers is born after 1980) works in full dedication on one genome project after the other. Nineteen years old Zhao Bowen from the BGI Cognitive Ergonomics group leads three research projects, one of them is the search for the genetic basis of intelligence. He has an international team of researchers working with him. His goal is to give people a better understanding of what IQ is all about. What genes are associated with highly intelligent people. His samples are twelve years old kids, contestants from the Chinese mathematics Olympiads. According to the scientists in Bowen’s team, the best human beings have not yet been produced. That is, the smartest human, or the longest living human. And this may well be possible in the future through the projects of BGI. In the future we might have must tighter control of what types of babies are born. That is one on the dreams of BGI. With animals it is already be done, so could humans be the next step? Bowen and his team think that this is only a matter of time. They explain that they don’t see it as eugenetics, because people could select on all sorts of traits according to their own preferences. They say this technology is simply stimulating people to have the best kids they could ever have. They admit that this technology won’t come around soon, but a drug to enhance cognition that could be a possibility relatively soon. The demand for a drug that makes you pass all academic tests and perform better on your job could be gigantic. And that’s a great incentive for research in that direction. The comments of these young researchers certainly raise many questions. Is all of this an ethically sound development? Even if the possibilities are there, do we want this in our future society? Bregtje van der Haak specifically targeted for this discussion. She has plans for an online platform where researchers can get in touch and discuss ethical and societal issues about genomics with philosophers and policy makers. Cornell University and the DNA sequencing company 23 and Me have shown interest to collaborate with Van der Haak in bringing together the social sciences and the beta sciences in order to think ahead of a future in which we make use of these technologies. Take a look at the documentary from Holland Doc.

About Freija Van Duijne

Twitter: @FreijavanDuijne Futuring is my passion. I am fascinated about what the future might bring. Always looking around for leads about the future and open for new insights. I am futurist, trendwatchter and strategist at the The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, a thinktank in the Netherlands. My background is in Human factors psychology. I did my Masters at Leiden University and I did a PhD in Delft University at the faculty of Industrial design engineering. I have been involved in foresight studies since 2006. I am frequently asked as an expert for future studies in area of food, natural resources, health and governance. I am also a speaker and workshop facilitator on futures studies, trend presentations and the many topics that I blog about. My contributions to Futuristablog represent my own personal opinion and is never a statement of the Ministry of Economic Affairs.
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