Technological risk and CRISPR

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Technological risk and CRISPR

Postby ShawnMiller » Wed Aug 19, 2015 1:06 pm

How we evaluate the potential benefits of a biotechnology requires taking into account the risks. Some technology is obviously and sometimes inherently risky, e.g., nuclear energy, radiation research, etc.

CRISPR doesn't seem inherently risky, and it isn't a wholly new kind of biotechnology, so we should expect to be familiar with some of the kinds of risks it presents. However, the riskiness or danger a technology poses depends on the users. Inexpensive technologies, such as CRISPR, tend to have more users with less uniform expertise. This can make the technology very risky.

UNIX as an Illustration

A computer's operating system is the software that interacts directly with the hardware; examples include Microsoft Windows, Apple's OS X, UNIX/linux, iOS, and Android. Operating systems run all the other programs on your computer, e.g., Google Chrome, Microsoft Word, iTunes, etc.

UNIX was developed in the early 1970s, prior to the advent of personal computers. It was created by experts for experts. It gave users total freedom, including the ability to completely and irrevocably erase everything on the computer by typing five characters:

rm -r *

This means remove (rm) everything (*) recursively (-r).

Experts knew not to issue this command, and the assumption that only experts were using UNIX was justified because computers were so hugely expensive, e.g., the computer UNIX was written on -- the PDP-7 -- cost $72,000. Also, getting copies of the UNIX software was initially very difficult and later became very costly.

However, a free version of UNIX was created in the 1990s -- called Linux --and inexpensive PCs became widespread. Now, non-experts were running UNIX and were, thus, five characters away from turning their computers into paperweights. In other words, UNIX was now more dangerous, not because the software changed, but because the users changed. And what allowed the users to change was decreasing costs.

It was relatively easy to make UNIX "safe" for the new users, but it required taking away some of their freedom; basically, certain commands -- such as rm -r /* -- were disabled for all users except the computer's boss account, which is named root. And the root account was disabled by default. So UNIX users now had to deliberately activate the root account in order to regain the freedom to delete everything.

This is an effective safety mechanism because enabling root requires a certain level of expertise; that is, you can't do it by accident. Users had to enter the following command and then proceed through a series of prompts:

sudo passwd root
[sudo] password for currentUser:
Enter new UNIX password:
Retype new UNIX password:
passwd: password updated successfully
su -

Back to CRISPR

Because CRISPR isn't inherently dangerous, an analysis of its risks must be pay close attention to who the users are and whether sufficient protections have been put in place to protect non-experts from themselves. If CRISPR's current configuration is like 1970s UNIX but, owing to its low cost, it has a large, non-expert user base -- like 1990s UNIX -- then it is potentially fairly risky irrespective of the underlying biotechnology.

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