It is no secret that tech companies have become the lynchpins on which both progress and the economy turn. Indeed, with each passing year, more and more sectors become inseparable from the tech sphere.
Energy provision? How about a Tesla Powerwall?
Car, tunnel, space travel? Mr. Musk would be happy to hurtle you in the direction of the next-nearest metropolis and/or planet.
Want to buy anything at all? Best to get on to Amazon or Alibaba. And Google and Facebook’s algorithms will certainly determine what you see first when you look for information.
Even the salt-of-the-earth jobs are high-tech now: you can get a robot to milk your cows and then do some targeted robot-fishing, too.
Even in the United States, where public ownership of utilities, infrastructure and research facilities has historically been lower than in other developed nations, these developments still represent an enormous wedge of private power moving into areas of critical infrastructure. And we haven’t even touched on armed robots, self-driving cars or artificial intelligence yet.
It cannot be denied that this is an interesting time to be alive, but while a lot is said about the potential utopian and dystopian futures that tech might bring, comparatively little gets done around adapting our social structures to these changes.
What, when it gets down to it, is the place of the average human in this future that is rapidly becoming the present? Are we drifting consumers? Helpless subordinates? Or are we the decision-makers? Who ensures that we get the promised utopia, free from disease and want, instead of the dystopia of cradle-to-grave surveillance and control?
The example of Verily’s Debug Project conducted this summer in Fresno, illustrates why we’d better come up with some answers to this question quickly.
The Debug Project
This July, Verily, an independent subsidiary of Alphabet, released 20 million mosquitoes that had been infected with Wolbachia bacteria into the wild in Fresno, California. Known as the Debug Project, the release aimed to reduce, and possibly eliminate, one particularly problematic species from the area: the mosquito known as aedes aegypti, which carries Zika, yellow fever, dengue fever and Chikungunya virus.
Most of the ae. aegypti that are with us today are "domestic" mosquitoes, surviving on human blood and breeding in human-created habitats, and not playing much of a role in the wider ecosystem. As far as pest control is concerned, ae. aegpyti is a nightmare. The mosquito thrives in every part of the globe that does not experience cold winters, bites at any time of day, tends to bite a large number of people (thereby spreading disease), and because it lives in urban areas, is difficult to control with pesticides.
Thus, Verily decided to take a different tack to tackling ae. aegypti, raising millions of Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes by robot and releasing the males into the wild.
Wolbachia, as Verily emphasizes, is a "naturally occurring bacteria" that is already prevalent in insects and which affects their reproduction, and has no known effects on humans. Moreover, only male mosquitoes were released by Verily, and male mosquitoes cannot bite. Thus, provided everything continues to go to plan in the future, no humans should ever be bitten by a Wolbachia-infested ae. aegypti mosquito.
But this is where things get interesting, because…when does anything ever go to plan?
The Debug Project’s slogan is "Use Good Bugs to Fight Bad Bugs," which sounds suspiciously like "Use Cane Toads to Fight Cane Beetles" (ask Australians about this), "Use the Mongoose to Fight Rats" (ask Hawaiians about this) or perhaps most relevantly: "Use the Eastern Mosquitofish to Fight Mosquitoes" (Australia again).
In addition, my first readings on Wolbachia proved rather alarming, as the bacteria can have some truly amazing effects.
While Wolbachia-infected insects can mate, the eggs often do not hatch, particularly male eggs. However, sometimes, female eggs can hatch into Wolbachia-infested insects. Wolbachia can also contribute to parthenogenesis. If you’ve heard of the Virgin Mary, you’ve already got the basic idea; the term more or less means "virgin birth" and describes an asexual cloning of the mother’s genes that can occur in insects, reptiles and amphibians. It is not completely unknown for an entire species to move from sexual to asexual reproduction this way, possibly triggered in some cases by Wolbachia.
While Wolbachia can sound pretty crazy to the uninitiated, Jason L. Rasgon, an expert on insects and disease at Pennsylvania State University, assured me that the ae. aegypti of Fresno would not, under any circumstances, be engaging in parthenogenesis, due to the strain of Wolbachia used by Verily and the genetic makeup of mosquitoes (which are apparently not prone to parthenogenesis). Furthermore, as the bacteria can only be transmitted matrilineally, it would be impossible for any of the male mosquitoes released by Verily to pass it on in the wild.
After hearing this calming news, I still can’t help wondering what happens if Verily releases some females by accident, but I have to admit that I also don’t fancy contracting dengue or yellow fever. Besides, this is hardly the first time someone has used a naturally occurring microorganism to control pests. Bacillus thuringiensis, for example, blasts through insects’ digestive tracts, and people have been spraying the bacteria on crops for decades. Thus, the obvious question—should be messing around with nature this way—I leave open.
But behind the potential environmental impacts of insect modification per se, lurks another important question: how should we be making decisions on and exercising oversight around such far-reaching issues?
Your Health is Your Wealth…or Someone’s Wealth, Anyway
When it comes to messing around with mosquitoes, Verily is not the only game in town. Competitor Oxitec goes one better, genetically modifying male mosquitoes to pass kill-switch genes to their offspring, causing them to die before reaching adulthood. These mosquitoes (180 million of them) have already been released in Brazil, Panama and the Cayman Islands, as well as in a trial in the Florida Keys. (Oxitec, which doesn’t deal in Wolbachia, lets me know that it does indeed occur naturally, but not in ae. aegypti.)
Should the only oversight over experiments like Verily’s and Oxitec’s consist solely of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a large company that somewhat creepily describes itself as "living" at the intersection of technology, data science and healthcare, as was the case with the mosquito release in Fresno? Or, in the case of Oxitec’s mosquitoes in Florida, should citizens only get a say in non-binding referenda? Or in the case of Brazil, should a release occur on foot of a local politician ordering an official "donation" to Oxitec in exchange for release of mosquitoes that hadn’t yet been signed off by the National Health Surveillance Agency?
Moreover, should public health projects like these really be in the hands of private companies? While Verily and Oxitec are both at pains to present themselves as strangely well-heeled collectives working on solutions for the public good, they are, in reality, private businesses. The core business of business is to make money, not to weigh up the societal pros and cons of each money-making venture before undertaking it.
Moreover, both Verily and Oxitec are connected to even bigger business with an even further reach. Oxitec, which started off as a University of Oxford spin-off, has been acquired by Intrexon, an American company that also deals in GMO apples and Atlantic salmon. Verily was, until only a few months ago part of the same group that built robots with the American army and which still de facto controls internet searches.
This was uncomfortably brought home to me when I first heard of the Debug Project, and scanned the internet for criticism. But as I scanned page after page of Google results, I found only cutesy headline after cutesy headline proclaiming that said mosquitoes were about to be released, and what a good thing that was! It eventually occurred to me that I was searching on Google—and that Google and Verily are both part of Alphabet.
I’m not in any way suggesting that Google is filtering the web results on the Debug Project. Indeed, I do not believe they are. I’m just pointing out that technically they could do so, if they really wanted to, and there’s little anyone could do about it. Not only the action—releasing modified animals—but the examination of the action, has slipped out of public control.
Then there are a few other matters. Perhaps I have a devious mind, but the first thing that occurs to me is: if you can put a harmless bacteria into mosquitoes, what else can you put in them? Quite possibly, a number of less harmless things. Again, I’m not suggesting that Verily or Oxitec are harboring mad scientists, cackling in their labs and contemplating such an action. I’m merely pointing out that even the theoretical ability of a private entity in this direction represents a hitherto unknown level of power, namely, when one really gets down to it, the ability to conduct biological warfare in a really sneaky way. It may not be possible yet, but a time when it will be possible is definitely foreseeable.
Added to that comes the question of the ultimate goal of these projects. Companies don’t do things for the good of humanity. Companies do things for a return on investment. So where does this all end? Is Verily going into the mosquito-vending business? Will tropical countries cough up cash to import boxes of the critters in the future? Will there be areas one had best avoid, because the inhabitants failed to pay their disease-protection money? I posed this, and other questions, to Verily’s press department, but failed to elicit a response.
Perhaps most importantly, traditional public health measures tend to depend on the consent of the individuals involved in order to work. Vaccines and antibiotics might be, in part, manufactured by large corporations, but each individual consents to have such medication administered to them. It may be a far from perfect system, but there is an opportunity for each person to "vote with their feet." This is not the case when it comes to Verily and Oxitec’s mosquitoes. While individuals are affected by the projects, their consent is, under present conditions, superfluous. Indeed, there is very little in the way of existing process even to determine whether such consent exists. The projects may be cutting Zika virus out of the equation, but they are cutting out human participation as well, acting, at best, as enlightened despots.
Taken together this all goes quite beyond the fate of the California ae. aegypti population.
21st-Century Tech Needs 21st-Century Democracy
Changes like the ones posed by modified mosquitoes have their pros and cons, and to master fast-paced adjustments like this, we need to involve people in up-to-the-minute decision-making that can react quickly to the challenges posed. Surely, after all, it would be in everyone’s interests to have any unforeseen errors or concerns in the modified-mosquito department flagged and dealt with sooner rather than later? Purely representative democracy, with its occasional elections and creaking bureaucracy, has demonstrated time and again that it isn’t up to the challenges of the 21st century, lumbering behind business and science, unable to regulate effectively or to even keep up. By harnessing individuals in a more decentralized direct democracy, decision-making would be faster and more flexible than is currently the case. It would also reintroduce an element of consent that is currently lacking in some areas, as companies would have to convince at least a democratic majority of the benefits of their actions.
It’s hardly all about limitation, either; people might well be more willing to take a chance on new technologies if they felt that they could put a stop to them at a later date—if need be—by exercising direct decision-making power. This could open up a more harmonious relationship between scientists and laypeople.
Using tech to conduct decentralized decision-making is already a real possibility. Quite apart from the massive feedback channels of Facebook and Twitter, a number of dedicated projects, like PolCo, Ethelo, and Loomio (which is run as a cooperative), already offer platforms for online public decision-making. Activities like these need to be strengthened before our social structures fall hopelessly behind our technological ones. As the pilots conducted by Verily and Oxitec show, science will keep pressing forward in ways that seemed like exotic science-fiction only a few years ago. The only question now is if democracy will be able to keep up.