Cells form the bricks that hold up all forms of life, and the National Science Foundation is attempting to form and assemble synthetic cells, giving way to the creation of artificial life. NSF is not the only player in the field of synthetic biology or synthetic life. Last year, Chinese scientist He Jiankui claimed to have created the world’s first genetically-modified babies. The announcement immediately shed light on the controversial nature of synthetic life: some rushed to criticize the scientist, and some defended him.
Against such a background, the implications of synthetic life on society and society’s views about synthetic life play a big role in understanding the future of synthetic life. UCSB anthropology professor Barbara Herr Harthorn probe these topics and many others about synthetic life. Afterall, she is leading the team to investigate the societal implications of two NSF projects focused on building synthetic cells.
To understand the public’s perception about the matter, Dr. Harthorn and her team will first conduct interviews to gauge public awareness about synthetic life, bioengineering and nanotechnology. She told the News-Press, however, that she and her team must check assumptions at the door before diving into interviews.
“We can’t assume the public’s awareness about the technology,” said Dr. Harthorn. U.S. public is extremely unaware of nanotechnology.”
And the two NSF projects seems to require a certain level of background knowledge to grasp what exactly is being done. While the project ProteoCell’s goal is to create a functional and programmable cell using proteins, the project Synthetic Neuron attempts to build an artificial neuron and neuronal system that can be controlled at different levels. Dr. Harthorn has more than a decade’s worth of experience in nanoscale science and engineering, having served as director and principal investigator of UCSB’s Center for Nanotechnology in Society from 2005 to 2017. The general public, however, lacks that kind of expertise, which is why the traditional tools for gauging public perception may not apply.
“We can’t just start with surveys because you don’t know what they know,” said Dr. Harthorn. She added that her team is in the process of building an interview protocol that informs the interviewees about the technology without influencing their perceptions.
“We’re not trying to spin anything,” she said.
One of the goals for her and her team is to outline the way a person processes information about the technology involved in creating synthetic life.
“We want to follow that process,” said Dr. Harthorn. “How do people understand it? Where do the public attach their meanings? What are some fears?”
Dr. Harthorn discussed some of the most common fears held by people regarding biotechnology. One of the fears concerns equitability of the scientific developments. Those who are concerned about equitability fear that access of any new technologies will be skewed to favor the wealthy. The equitability fear also involves the distribution of risks and benefits. Some believe that those who reap the benefits of a new technology do not always take on the risks and costs associated. That the technology will replace human labor and create job loss is an example of the equitability fear.
Another fear surrounds the nature of governance for these technologies. Who will be responsible to regulate the industry to assure safety for consumer products or to address waste treatment?
Religiosity also plays a role in how a person views synthetic life. Dr. Harthorn explained that there seems to be a fear that if mankind tweaks what God or deities or the Universe has created, “bad things will happen.”
To understand these fears and people’s process of understanding synthetic life and nanotechnology will not be easy, said Dr. Harthorn.
“How do you study about something that people don’t know very well?” she said.
The ProteoCell project will take place over a course of three years, and the Synthetic Neuron project will take place over four years.