October 10, 2016

Design Ethics in a Post-CRISPR World

CRISPR is everywhere these days, from DIY CRISPR Kits to the Marvel Universe one can’t turn around without hearing something about it. CRISPR, short for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, are segments of prokaryotic DNA. First discovered in the 80’s, they play a role in prokaryotic immunity. Researchers have been able to leverage CRISPR as a kind of genetic scissor, opening up opportunities for gene editing both in vitro and in vivo. While the technology holds much promise it drags us into some sticky ethical situations and makes design ethics all the more important.

Design ethics deal with the ways in which designers interact with their users. For a simple example, an ethical designer creating a subscription service may create a flow that requires a user to consent to being charged, sends a notification before a charge occurs, and allows a simple opt-out. An unethical designer would create a system that makes the user feel as if they didn’t sign up for a subscription, wouldn’t notify the user until after a charge was processed, and place several blockers in the way of a user’s cancelation request. Regarding subscription services, an unethical designer could cause their users some headaches, and maybe even some financial ruin, but that’s about it. When gene-editing enters the picture design ethics take on a whole new gravity.

For years we’ve heard of designer babies, but we’re now at a point where they could very quickly become a reality. This new reality makes design ethics all the more important. Imagine an unethical designer creating babies that were susceptible to a disease that required a lifetime of medication in order to get kickbacks from a drug company. A scenario like this seemed unimaginable just a few years ago because gene editing techniques were imprecise and prohibitively expensive, but that’s all changed.

It’s important that we start having open discussions around the benefits and drawbacks of gene editing in hopes of building an ethical community around the nascent technology. Our future could depend on it.