As the story goes, when billionaire innovator Elon Musk was deciding what he wanted to do with his life, he asked himself the question: “What will most affect the future of humanity?”
He came up with five answers: space exploration (and colonization), sustainable energy, the internet, artificial intelligence, and the ability to reprogram the human genetic code, or genome.
We know that Musk fears that artificial intelligence could end the human race — that it might be “summoning the demon” — and we know his work with Tesla, PayPal, and SpaceX, which represent his best-known ventures into sustainable energy, the internet, and space.
But why hasn’t Musk ventured into genetic editing? After all, we’re now at a time when Silicon Valley billionaires are all about the quest to defeat death, and we’ve recently discovered CRISPR, an incredibly powerful and effective gene editing tool.
So when Tim Urban of Wait But Why had a chance recently to interview Musk, he asked if “genetic reprogramming” was something he’d ever turn his attention towards.
Musk’s response was that it wasn’t really a “technical battle” standing in the way, but a “moral battle.”
“You know, I call it the Hitler Problem. Hitler was all about creating the Übermensch and genetic purity, and it’s like — how do you avoid the Hitler Problem? I don’t know,” he told Urban.
Once you start editing genes in order to change and shape humanity — something that geneticists believe is possible, especially with CRISPR — then you start getting into the question of “what makes the perfect human?”
And delving into the “perfect human” waters starts to get ethically murky very fast, especially if you are eliminating conditions that you consider undesirable. Maybe we can all agree that we’d like to get rid of Huntington’s disease, but would we want to edit genes to slow ageing or to eliminate autism? Those questions get harder and harder. Do we have a minimum acceptable intelligence level?
It’s not that Musk thinks editing humans is impossible though. When Urban pushed him on the question of solving ageing, Musk said “I mean I do think there’s … in order to fundamentally solve a lot of these issues, we are going to have to reprogram our DNA. That’s the only way to do it.”
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