WORDS: 1,455 — As us Baby Boomers move into senior-hood we will be leaving any number of legacies across all frontiers of human existence. The Boomer Juggernaut is not only about entering into the health maladies depicted in the proliferation of TV ads for drugs to mediate those age-related encumbrances, but we’ve also developed computers, cell phones, advanced space exploration, cable TV and 4k big screens to watch it. There’s been advancements in medicine, the arts, and we even carried over from our Greatest Generation parents the “thrills” of nuclear technology, as well as better ways to kill each other for any justification. As if the advancement in artificial intelligence isn’t enough to place worry on our future, we now have detectable human DNA in the air we breath and in “footprints in the sand”.
It seems humanity is just racking up new frontiers that will allow us to destroy ourselves. Not long ago the only thing we faced was nuclear annihilation from all the nuclear bombs and missiles in the world. Then there was the threat of nuclear accidents as a result of our application of nuclear power generation. One day we realized that the seas, oceans, weather, climate… the environment, is all changing… for the worse… because of our consumption of Earth resources, and their processing, running unabated. We also thought that we had passed into the world of preventative science enough to quell any threats from the smallest microbes.. and then came Covid to make us humble, and unavoidably vulnerable to microbes yet unknown and “out there”, waiting to decimate our existence… and realizing we have very little in defense to prevent the worst largely due to our politics. Then came advancements in computer technologies to the point where we need to now worry about unregulated artificial intelligence throwing humanity into some Orwellian Stone Age simply because we have no concept of how to regulate it. Now enters the DNA signatures of all living things, even humans, leaving trails and traces of our existence, even years after our vanishing from existence… the ultimate loss of privacy while alive, and any concept of “post-partum” anonymity following our death. Now let’s imagine the combining of that artificial intelligence with access to DNA collection streams.
Take any of those mixes of threats, and let’s put mankind in charge to regulate all that. Getting the picture yet?
So, What’s to Worry, You Ask?
Glad you asked. In a previous post (HERE) I reflected on the similarity between the scientists of the Manhattan Project of the 1940’s sending a letter to President Truman warning him against using the atom bomb on Japan given the unknown real and moral consequences, and a similar warning letter having been made by Elon Musk and others regarding AI. This from CNN (HERE).
Elon Musk, who helped found OpenAI before breaking from the group, joined dozens of tech leaders, professors and researchers in signing a letter calling for artificial intelligence labs like OpenAI to stop the training of the most powerful AI systems for at least six months, citing “profound risks to society and humanity.”
We might also add to that AI warning the testimony of OpenAI CEO Sam Altman before a Senate Judiciary Privacy, Technology & the Law Subcommittee hearing titled ‘Oversight of A.I.: Rules for Artificial Intelligence’ on Capitol Hill in Washington, this last May 16. Altman has said he agreed with parts of the letter. “I think moving with caution and an increasing rigor for safety issues is really important,” Altman said at an event last month.
If That Alone Weren’t Enough….. There’s Your DNA, Flowing Outta You Like A Trail of Breadcrumbs
In a recent CNN article, “Human DNA can now be pulled from thin air or a footprint on the beach. Here’s what that could mean”, reporter Katie Hunt presents the following….
Footprints left on a beach. Air breathed in a busy room. Ocean water.
Scientists have been able to collect and analyze detailed genetic data from human DNA from all these places, raising thorny ethical questions about consent, privacy and security when it comes to our biological information.
The researchers from the University of Florida, who were using environmental DNA found in sand to study endangered sea turtles, said the DNA was of such high quality that the scientists could identify mutations associated with disease and determine the genetic ancestry of [human] populations living nearby.
They could also match genetic information to individual participants who had volunteered to have their DNA recovered as part of the research that published in the scientific journal Nature Ecology & Evolution on Monday.
Recoverable random human DNA from the wild?
“All this very personal, ancestral and health related data is freely available in the environment and is simply floating around in the air right now,” said David Duffy, a professor of wildlife disease genomics at the University of Florida.
Environmental DNA has been obtained from air, soil, sediment, water, permafrost, snow and ice cores and the techniques are primarily being used to help track and protect endangered animals.
Human DNA that has seeped into the environment through our spit, skin, sweat and blood could be used to help find missing persons, aid in forensic investigations to solve crimes, locate sites of archaeological importance, and for health monitoring through DNA found in waste water, the study noted.
Let’s recap all this. As scientists have been exploring migratory environments of animal species through DNA detection, they have also picked up human DNA “from air, soil, sediment, water, permafrost, snow and ice cores” of the quality as to determine sequencing to the point of establishing an identification. Quite obviously this DNA data would have to be entered into a database, and from there matched to other established DNA patterns in other databases to establish an identity. Now imagine this for a moment.
Our personal existence in life is recorded as a matter of a birth certificate.. and one has to presume that there are places on this planet where even that civilized piece of paper does not exist, to prove you do, or did, exist. But if your DNA continues to be detectable long after your demise, then if it’s detected, that’s proof that you did exist at one time, and certainly at the one place your DNA was found. Oh, wait.. could it have been planted there… intentionally, or by accident?
The article continues….
However, the ability to capture human DNA from the environment could have a range of unintended consequences — both inadvertent and malicious, they added. These included privacy breaches, location tracking, data harvesting, and genetic surveillance of individuals or groups. It could lead to ethical hurdles for the approval of wildlife studies.
Let’s go on….
Matthias Wienroth, a senior fellow studying social and ethical aspects of genetics in forensics, surveillance and human health at the University of Northumbria in the UK, said the scientists involved in the study had taken the “ethical aspects of their work seriously” and “identified some key issues that are likely to emerge with their findings.”
“It is important to preserve human autonomy, dignity and the right to self-determination over personal data. This is difficult if you can’t ask those whose DNA may be collected in the environment (for permission), because there’s probably no way to avoid losing DNA to the environment via skin, hair, and breath,” Wienroth, who was not involved in the research, said via email.
He emphasized the need to develop and deploy foresight in genetics and genomics research: “A key issue is that such incidental eDNA findings may make their way into databases that can be compared with user data at other genetics databases, thus undermining informed consent and even customer confidentiality.”
And not all databases are for the “good” of mankind, right?
Yves Moreau, a professor at the University of Leuven in Belgium who studies artificial intelligence and genetics and has shone a light on China’s DNA sampling of Tibetan and Uyghur minorities, said that while it was possible to imagine a scenario where “a mafia or dictatorship would track a protected witness or a political refugee” using waste water sequencing, it remained “a bit far fetched.”
“We need a political discussion of expectations of privacy in the public space, in particular for DNA. We cannot avoid shedding DNA in the public space,” Moreau, who was not involved in this study, said via email.
From the looks of a lot of things, we need far more than just “political discussions” regarding all these threats to mankind. Rather makes Putin, Trump, and what teachers are teaching children in Florida, not seem all that important by comparison, doesn’t it? Maybe us remaining Boomers should work a bit quicker in passing that baton over to the next generation… but wipe off our DNA first.