Renowned scientists address ethics, ‘twin scientific revolutions’ of AI and CRISPR

Nov. 21, 2019, 1:22 a.m.

President Marc Tessier-Lavigne introduced two women, each renowned in their respective fields, as “scientific trailblazers” to a packed CEMEX auditorium of 600 people on Monday. Jennifer Doudna, a biochemist who invented CRISPR, and Fei-Fei Li, who currently heads the Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence (HAI) endeavor, discussed the twin revolutions of CRISPR and artificial intelligence with moderator Russ Altman, a bioengineering professor. 

But beyond just talking about those innovations, Tessier-Lavigne noted the significant urgency present to consider the broader societal impacts of their work: “to notice both the promise and peril that accompany innovation.” 

“Innovation alone isn’t sufficient,” Tessier-Lavigne said. “Creating a disruption does not guarantee positive effects for our society or for individuals. Disrupting just for disruption’s sake is no honorable activity. Remarkable opportunities for good can also be misused.”

Doudna and Li’s work has been influential within the fields of gene editing and artificial intelligence, respectively. Doudna and her team developed the technology known as CRISPR-Cas9, which allows for the editing of DNA and genomes as well as for a myriad of control applications within the body and potential development of biotechnology products. 

Li was the leading scientist of ImageNet, a database used in visual object recognition software that enables computers to recognize a wide variety of human, everyday objects through machine learning.

Both speakers acknowledged the ethical concerns looming over these innovations. This beginning of “a revolution in deep learning” is accompanied by the threat of ethical complications such as eugenics, patentability and heritable genome editing.  

“The recognition ability [of ImageNet] is in the background of Google searches when you use Facebook or when you communicate with your phone; it’s always present,” Altman said, adding that recent developments in AI have caused the field to become a “breeding ground of questions surrounding ethics.

When asked if it was obvious that the results were going to lead to such an explosive reaction both inside and out of the scientific community, Li said that she knew they were approaching a “holy grail question.”

“We were granting the computers an ability that took humans 540 million years of evolution to achieve,” she said. “I would be lying, however, if I said I recognized the societal implications of the work at the time.” 

Doudna replied similarly, saying that “for those of us working in the world of CRISPR, it was a very esoteric area of biology back then. It was surprising to see that our very esoteric area was merging with a very important part of biotechnology.”

“Could I have predicted the advancements, CRISPR babies?” she asked, referring to former Stanford postdoctoral fellow He Jiankui who launched international controversy when he announced he created the world’s first gene-edited babies using CRISPR technology.  “Definitely not, but it was a very exciting progression.”

A significant part of the discussion centered on ethics, with Altman asking the innovators about their engagement with ethics throughout their research. Doudna recalled 2012 as the year that a moral obligation really arose in her life. After reading a published article of CRISPR being applied to human primates, she recalled realizing the potential for genome editing in humans.

“I was quite reluctant, but I did feel a real responsibility to engage in the discussion at that point,” Dounda said. 

Li also described her surprise when her own career in AI came under public scrutiny, with some critics calling genome editing “a field summoning a demon.” 

While major parts of their professional journeys align, their paths diverge in terms of confronting the ethical problems of their work. To combat the potential misuses of CRISPR, Doudna “felt like the scientific community really needed to [be] engaged as a whole.” She convened meetings to broach the subject of the morality behind CRISPR applications and recalls thinking that “that was the beginning of my education in ethics — I felt like a student learning how to think about this and how to approach it.”

Li’s approach was different because “CS was a much younger discipline, without an ethics sub-area, and I didn’t know who to talk to.” She decided to turn her focus to the drivers of AI, the human representation in the field, especially to diversify the field and open it up to more women and minorities. 

Li went on to start the program AI4ALL, which began at Stanford and then grew to become nationally recognized 500 alumni of the program and 11 college campuses that host the students, all with the mission of engaging underrepresented students in underserved communities.

The academic pioneers were then asked about the exposure of young scientists to ethical information, with both agreeing that there needed to be more educating done in their fields. 

“It’s a cultural thing in our field,” Doudna said. “We are in the vein of creating scholars in our specific subject rather than creating a group of holistically knowledgeable people.” 

Li added that “students of mine don’t even have the language to talk about these issues.”

Altman went on to note that these are unlikely to be the last “scientific revolutions.” He wondered what advice the two women had for handling these explosive introductions of research. 

“We definitely haven’t seen the end of the AI story — it’s just the beginning,” Li answered. “We need to invest in people. Diversity and inclusion is a way to ensure that we maximize human representation during these times.” 

As for representation in policy, Doudna said she would like to see more scientists in Congress. 

“I was really struck when I met with Bill Foster and he pointed out that he was the only Ph.D. in congress,” Doudna said. “I think we need to see more representation.”

As for their hopes for their work moving forward, their visions were the same: “an international framework to cooperate and communicate.” Li noted that there are issues of warfare, bioterrorism and a myriad of other potential dangers. She noted that every discovery has a dual potential, “which is why we need laws, ethical principles, an international framework given how powerful these technologies are.”

 Contact Hannah Shelby at hshelby ‘at’

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