Twin baby girls, Lulu and Nana, were born in Shenzhen, China last month. That's not news, but this is: These two will likely never have to fear HIV infection. Not because a new vaccine was invented, but because they were born immune to the most common forms of the virus.
You might think this would be a reason to celebrate—imagine a world where no one ever contracts HIV again—but instead of champagne popping, a volcano of outrage and disgust erupted upon the girls' birth announcement.
Many are upset because Lulu and Nana are mutants, the world's first genetically edited babies. When they were but day-old embryos, a scientist in Shenzhen altered their DNA to grant them immunity from infection using a new technique called CRISPR/Cas9.
The fact that this happened in China did not go unnoticed in the commentary. The widespread coverage of He Jiankui, the lead researcher, portrays him as a vainglorious fool acting recklessly in a lawless land. In an ominous twist to the story, He has apparently gone missing.
Is Shenzhen a crazy place? Or is it just different? It may be that Jiankui was rash—we in the U.S. are still haunted by the ghost of the thalidomide incident in 1962—but a troubling assumption hides behind all the commentary: namely, that all regulations and moratoriums ought to apply universally and uniformly across the world.
"The most serious thing I've heard is that he didn't do the paperwork right," Harvard geneticist George Church told the journal Science. "I'm sitting in the middle and everyone else is so extreme that it makes me look like his buddy. He's just an acquaintance. But it seems like a bullying situation to me."
Church is the only prominent scientist to defend He, though this is in some ways unsurprising. Church has already received his own notoriety for cloning a wooly mammoth by using the CRISPR technique and for raising the possibility that Neanderthals might make a come back.
When did it become controversial to think different cities might be allowed to have different scientific regulations and rules about consent? Is there just one global bureaucratic empire of science?
In 2013, Larry Page, then CEO of Google, took to the stage at the Google I/O conference and wondered aloud if old laws and rusty institutions were slowing down the rate of technological progress. His argument was that we were missing discoveries because we couldn't run small-scale experiments with wild technologies like flying cars and drones. "There are many, many exciting and important things you could do that you just can't do because they're illegal or they're not allowed by regulation," he said.
He did not propose to change the laws of San Francisco or Mountain View. No, that was something best left to the stalemates of weeknight zoning committee meetings. Instead, Page proposed something far more radical. He suggested building a new experimental city that would operate by a different set of rules and regulations from the rest of the United States. If only we could "set aside a small part of the world," he said, in which "a few people can try out different things and not everybody has to go."
After Russian meddling in elections and home testing entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes conning Henry Kissinger and half of Silicon Valley, the spirit of 2018 calls for tighter regulation of tech, not looser . Remembering this experimental city speech by Page, the technology correspondent for the Financial Times recently concluded, "It is hard to imagine any tech executive voicing such an idea today."
Mark Lutter, a young Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University, started a think tank this year dedicated to studying and promoting semi-autonomous jurisdictions—new cities—as a way to raise the standards of living for the worst off in the world, the Center for Innovative Governance Research. In October, he hosted a conference at a hip music venue on Valencia Street in the Mission of San Francisco. I was taken aback when Lutter started confiscating all the attendees' cell phones and putting them in a container. A tech executive of a multi-billion dollar company was going to give a talk and the exec wanted to be sure no one recorded his speech.
This is not an unusual fear. A month later, over beer at a bar in the Financial District, the CEO of another tech company told me when he retired, he wanted to devote his time and wealth to starting new special economic zones that might bloom into new experimental cities one day. He added, "But I'll need to hire bodyguards for me and my wife."
"Because these are dangerous ideas," he shrugged.
When I first moved to San Francisco nearly 10 years ago, I imagined a city full of thousands of Elon Musks. We were going to Mars in a decade. Instead, we have sidewalks covered in human excrement and skies choking with wildfire smoke.
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