Gene therapy, in the sense of the delivery of 'good' or 'curative' dna into humans in order to cure or ameliorate genetically-caused conditions, is already widely practised. It affects only the 'somatic' dna rather than the 'germ-line' dna, and is therefore not transmissible to children. It is a blunt weapon, and perhaps will never be otherwise, because of the difficulty of replacing all of the errant dna in a body on a continuing basis. For some localized conditions affecting only specialized types of cell, that can happen, but in most situations treatment has to be ongoing and is never more than partial.
Existing gene therapy could therefore be seen as a stop-gap measure pending the application of germ-line therapy at the embryonic stage. The problems in introducing germ-line therapy are by now at least as much ethical as practical. What is acceptable today in therapeutic terms, such as in vitro fertilization and the selection of early-stage embryos to head off diseases and to select the sex of a child, stops short at the 'improvement' of the human genome on a more systematic basis. There is plenty of customer demand for it, though: it is reported that 115,000 women have already given birth to children resulting from in vitro fertilization in the US alone. In Denmark, more than 4% of babies are said to be born after in vitro fertilization.
The techniques for more direct interference with the dna of an embryo already exist, and have been tested in animals. There are various techniques that can be used: A 'knockout' experiment, so-called, involves the creation and manipulation of a DNA construct in vitro, with an alteration to the targeted gene (or dna segment) which prevents its expression. The construct is then taken up by embryonic stem cells, where the engineered copy of the gene replaces the organism's own gene. These stem cells are injected into blastocysts, which are implanted into surrogate mothers.
Rats that glow in the dark because of the embryonic implantation of luminous jelly-fish dna is one headline case of genetic manipulation. But scientists and legislators are hesitating before permitting changes to be made to human embryos. Many of them are completely against it, so that while it seems a certainty that it will come to pass, it is difficult to know the time-scale. Reports of human genetic manipulation from China in 2015 were badly received worldwide.
Pre-conception screening (PGD) for a variety of genetic disorders is already available. PGD can be used to screen for many conditions including Downs Syndrome, Trisomy 21, Tay Sachs Disease, hemophilia A and B, Gaucher's Disease, Sickle Cell Anemia, and others. The next step may be for clinics to start offering 'cleaning-up' services to couples in which rogue dna would be identified before conception, and deleted, modified or neutered if it got through to a particular embryo after conception. Where in vitro fertilization is offered, the 'cleaning-up' can evidently be performed before implantation.
Not all of the objections to techniques such as in vitro fertilization are ethical. There are practical dangers involved, especially if single male sperm are injected into a female egg (intracytoplasmic sperm injection – ICSI), or if multiple fertilized embryos are implanted into the woman. The long-term consequences of bypassing nature in this way are not yet known, and the situation is not helped by great uncertainty over the legal status both of the clinics where such operations are performed and of their supervisory agencies, which date from an earlier time and do not have the right regulatory equipment to cope with such rapidly advancing technologies. In the US, in particular, Congress has struggled to come up with legislation in this area.
In September, 2006, President George Bush used his veto power for the first time in his presidency to strike down an embryonic stem-cell research bill, saying it "crossed a moral boundary." The bill, which the Senate had passed 63-37, would have loosened the restrictions on federal funding for stem-cell research. House Republican leaders tried to override the veto, but their vote was 235 to 193, short of the necessary two-thirds majority. "This bill would support the taking of innocent human life in the hope of finding medical benefits for others," said Bush. "It crosses a moral boundary that our decent society needs to respect. So I vetoed it." Later legislation under the Obama administration did somewhat modify the position, however.
Absent fundamental legislation, which would be immensely difficult to pass, the use of federal funding is one of the few weapons available to the Congress in the area of medical research. The rapid growth in the use of in vitro fertilization and related research has been driven by consumer demand, with baby-hungry parents willing to pay substantial sums to get a child, cutting out the government since its money is not required.
Such regulation as there is in the US has come from private-sector organizations. Insurance companies, who routinely refuse to pay for IVF but often end up paying for post-natal care of multiple births, pushed the American Society for Reproductive Medicine to issue guidelines (in 2005) aimed at reducing the chances of multiple births. For younger patients, ASRM recommended transferring at most two embryos to the mother's womb; older women, whose embryos are less likely to implant in the uterus and begin developing, can receive as many as five.
European countries seem less hamstrung than the US, and have legislated to introduce similar rules based on research conducted by Van Blerkom and others in the late 1990s showing how to select the most viable embryos and reduce the number that is transferred to the mother. But choosing embryos requires painstaking attention, often at odd hours of the night, and American fertility clinics have been reluctant to invest in technologists who can perform it.
In England, Parliament created a licensing board, the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) in 1991, which has maintained tight control over developing genetic technologies. In one recent case, a family with four boys that had lost their young daughter in a fire asked to be allowed to choose female embryos for IVF. HFEA refused. Of course, the family just has to get on Easy-Jet and go to Denmark.
Among the aspects of genetic engineering which are the subject of regulation in one country or another are:
In 2004, the government of Italy, presumably under pressure from the Vatican, made it a crime to freeze human embryos or to perform pre-implantation diagnosis.
So the picture is messy, and crying out for over-arching, global guidelines. Doubtless they will be developed in due course; but technology is moving so fast that rule-making will have a hard time catching up with actuality.
The first 'in vitro' babies are now 28 years old, and the volume of IVF births is such that statistically significant studies will shortly begin to show whether or not fears of damage to the germ-line are justified, especially when IVF children themselves have children.
Remote Control By Monkeys
In 2003, researchers at Duke University Medical Center taught rhesus monkeys to consciously control the movement of a robot arm in real time, using only signals from their brains and visual feedback on a video screen. The scientists said that the animals appeared to operate the robot arm as if it were their own limb. The scientists and engineers said their achievement represents an important step toward technology that could enable paralyzed people to control "neuroprosthetic" limbs, and even free-roaming "neurorobots" using brain signals. In previous research, Nicolelis and his colleagues demonstrated a brain-signal recording and analysis system that enabled them to decipher brain signals from owl monkeys in order to control the movement of a robot arm. The researchers chose frontal and parietal areas of the brain because they are known to be involved in producing multiple output commands to control complex muscle movement.
In the initial behavioral experiments, the researchers recorded and analyzed the output signals from the monkeys' brains as the animals were taught to use a joystick to both position a cursor over a target on a video screen and to grasp the joystick with a specified force. After the animals' initial training, however, the researchers made the cursor more than a simple display -- now incorporating into its movement the dynamics, such as inertia and momentum, of a robot arm functioning in another room. While the animals' performance initially declined when the robot arm was included in the feedback loop, they quickly learned to allow for these dynamics and became proficient in manipulating the robot-reflecting cursor, found the scientists.
The scientists next removed the joystick, after which the monkeys continued to move their arms in mid-air to manipulate and "grab" the cursor, thus controlling the robot arm.
"The most amazing result, though, was that after only a few days of playing with the robot in this way, the monkey suddenly realized that she didn't need to move her arm at all," said Nicolelis. "Her arm muscles went completely quiet, she kept the arm at her side and she controlled the robot arm using only her brain and visual feedback. Our analyses of the brain signals showed that the animal learned to assimilate the robot arm into her brain as if it was her own arm." Importantly, said Nicolelis, the experiments included both reaching and grasping movements, but derived from the same sets of electrodes.
"We knew that the neurons from which we were recording could encode different kinds of information," said Nicolelis. "But what was a surprise is that the animal can learn to time the activity of the neurons to basically control different types of parameters sequentially. For example, after using a group of neurons to move the robot to a certain point, these same cells would then produce the force output that the animals need to hold an object. None of us had ever encountered an ability like that."
Also importantly, said Nicolelis, analysis of the signals from the animals' brains as they learned revealed that the brain circuitry was actively reorganizing itself to adapt. "It was extraordinary to see that when we switched the animal from joystick control to brain control, the physiological properties of the brain cells changed immediately. And when we switched the animal back to joystick control the very next day, the properties changed again.
"Such findings tell us that the brain is so amazingly adaptable that it can incorporate an external device into its own 'neuronal space' as a natural extension of the body," said Nicolelis. "Actually, we see this every day, when we use any tool, from a pencil to a car. As we learn to use that tool, we incorporate the properties of that tool into our brain, which makes us proficient in using it." Said Nicolelis, such findings of brain plasticity in mature animals and humans are in sharp contrast to traditional views that only in childhood is the brain plastic enough to allow for such adaptation.
RCRs, RCCs and Eclones: Their Development, Capabilities and Uses
As described above, experiments involving the control of remote robotic machines or bionic assemblies by primate brains took place as early as the first decade of the 21st century, but they typically involved the implantation of electrodes or the use of scanning techniques to detect and amplify neural events.
Experiments involving remote cognitive control by a human brain using neural bionic implants began to be reported between 2010 and 2015, sometimes utilizing a miniaturized radio transmitter self-powered by heat from the body. Other competing technologies included the use of nanobots in the bloodstream to detect and transmit neural events, 'headsets' similar to ear-mounted mobile phone transceivers which used magnetism to detect neural events, and straightforward electrode implantation with a connecting 'port' on the side of the head.
By 2020, such technologies were routinely used for the control of prosthetic devices and remote agents such as household appliances and robots, and by the mid-2020s, two-way communication was becoming normal, employing receiving devices in or pointing towards appropriate parts of the brain (secondary visual, aural and tactile neural processing regions). 'Avatars' in VICs (Vicarious Internet Communities) were thus able to communicate directly with their controlling human brains.
Although quasi-human electronic brains had existed from the late 2010s onwards, they were too large and expensive for most uses, and it was not until the first nano-scale bio-electronic self-replicating assembly was demonstrated in 2023 that the way was opened for human-scale cognition to be used as a routine feature of free-standing robotic agents. A combination of this technology with the rapidly developing 2-way brain-to-brain communication and control systems led to the first true RCR (Remote Cognitive Representation, or sentient robot) in 2027.
Although RCRs as such didn't exist until 2027, it had been clear from 2020 onwards that their arrival was only a matter of time, and the wide-ranging ethical and practical concerns posed by RCR technology were the subject of the RCR Congress in 2025, which laid down a Code of Conduct for the construction and operation of sentient robotic agents.
Initially, limitations on communication bandwidth and lack of complete knowledge of the 'wiring diagram' of the human brain (finally achieved only in 2030) meant that a human could 'inhabit' a remote brain only partially, receiving sensory and cognitive output, and issuing control instructions at several levels up from actual motor or neural cognitive functions. By degrees, the intensity of the inhabiting became deeper, and by 2040 it had proved possible, with practice, to build a limited degree of consciousness in the remote brain. This is best thought of as a sharing of consciousness between the two brains; attention to sensory input, for instance, in the remote brain would overlay attention to local sensory input. Of course, a flow of sensory and cognitive data from the remote brain to the 'host' brain continued, so that the experience obtained during inhabiting would be available to the host brain after inhabiting ceased.
Many types of RCR did not have full or even any human neural equivalence, for instance canine and feline RCRs, which became available from 2029. There was intense competition among RCR producers to build faster, stronger and more skilful robots for sporting and entertainment purposes, and the first Non-Human Olympiad took place in 2037.
In the following year, the first experimental RCC (Remote Cognitive Collective) was demonstrated. It had long been clear that shared inhabiting of a remote brain was technologically feasible, but there had inevitably been much agonizing over the practical and ethical details. These were largely ironed out during the process that led to the Human Settlement in 2041, and the agreed-upon freedoms for RCC development were rapidly exploited during the remainder of the 2040s, so that when the Global Genetic Gathering was instituted in 2050 (to supervize the development of the human genome), it naturally took the form of an RCC.
Although RCRs and RCCs had reached a high degree of sophistication by 2050, and were in everyday use for an immensely wide range of activities, people inhabiting them were still essentially visitors, with restricted local consciousness. The cognitive results of such inhabiting were fed back to the host brain, and there was never any point at which the person left her own body in a complete sense.
The problem was not by any means the comparability of remote brains with original human brains; by 2050 they were equal or superior in virtually all respects, although an 'inhabitant' could only make partial use of them. The issue was back-up. The sense of continuity that a person has, and that forms an essential part of their experience as 'I', is highly dependent on an uninterrupted flow of sensory and cognitive neural events. Accidents in the 2040s, before connection technology had become totally secure, in which the link between an inhabited remote brain and its host brain was broken had shown that if the interruption was for more than a few minutes then the sense of continuity in the host was severely disrupted, even to the point of serious mental illness.
It was therefore necessary for a technique to be developed for twin representations of a brain to back each other up on a continuing basis before it would be safe for a person to 'step outside' of their own brain and take up fully conscious residence elsewhere. Initially, this was achieved, very imperfectly, through switching off appropriate sections of the host brain, recording events in the remote brain, and using periodic packet updates to maintain the state of the host brain. Two hours turned out to be the maximum period between updates for continued viability of the host brain.
'Maintaining state', as it became known, was the central focus of cognitive research in the 2060s. Using periodic updating, a full human brain ('eclone') operated remotely in a bio-electronic assembly for the first time in 2055, but it was 2070 before the technology was secure enough for people to abandon their original bodies for any length of time with a reasonable presumption that they could one day return to them, and even then the back-up procedures were cumbersome and arduous, as well as very expensive. People usually experienced some cognitive deficits on returning to a backed-up host brain from an eclone, but these were not seriously damaging to normal conscious functioning.
Population pressure after 2060 meant that there were strong economic incentives for people to abandon their original bodies, existing just in electronic form, and many did so. Eclones could of course migrate easily between 'storage' bio-electronic facilities, RCRs and RCCs, and an electronic person made minimal demands on resources. Such individuals ran the risk that the particular device they were inhabiting at a given moment would accidentally be destroyed; but by that time the risk was extremely small.
Other people chose to remain in their original bodies and inhabit eclones on a temporary basis, leaving their original bodies in a passive state but with a communications link open to the eclone in order to maintain state in the host. This worked, but if done without ongoing back-up – for economic reasons or just out of laziness – meant that on re-assuming the original body, where state had been maintained, there would be a very uncomfortable cognitive disjunction: deciding to 'maintain state' in your original body inevitably meant that equivalent state could not be maintained in the eclone. These were the people who lost their lives in 2085 when the Japanese earthquake destroyed 3 billion original, stored bodies, since their un-backed-up eclones were unviable if detached from their host brains.
Between 2070 and 2090, back-up procedures gradually improved, and finally in 2090 real-time back-up was achieved for the first time. From then onwards, it was possible for people to exist as different, simultaneous representations of themselves, whether in RCRs, RCCs, as static e-clones, or in their original bodies. Back-up remained expensive, however, until as late as 2110. From then on it could be considered as a routine and unregarded aspect of human life.