Friday, February 5, 2010

Will MegaCorp Own Your Grandchildren?


It is understandable that you might laugh at such a question, given that the question of "ownership" of a human being in the United States became terminally moot right around 1865 -- or so we thought.

Anyway, you've seen Gattaca, right?  Without spoiling anything about that particular cinematic science fiction masterpiece, the setting is a near future in which embryos can be genetically engineered to produce children who are strong, intelligent, and free of hereditary diseases or disadvantages.  Within a short time, the engineered children, "Valids," become society's elite, and create a glass ceiling that is all but impossible for normally-born children, "In-Valids," to break.  Only Valids are professionals; all In-Valids are menial laborers.

The genetic engineers in Gattaca, the "Eighth Day Center," have tremendous power in that society.  The film presented their work as selective and not directly creative -- they did not actually make embryos, but selected from among the billions of sperm donated by the father and the eggs of the mother to find the few optimal matches.  As the Eighth Day doctor says, "These babies are still you, just the best of you."  Without a doubt, Eighth Day would have a patent on the filtration process, but they create no new material and thus could never have an interest in the subsequent issue (unless by some contrivance of contract).

The ominous questions arise when Megacorp figures out (or buys from some inventor or university research department) a process to actually engineer an embryo -- most probably taking an existing filtered one like in Gattaca and grafting on additional code.  Some possibilities:
  • Enhanced physical strength, for many obvious applications.
  • Enhanced eyesight, possibly crossing into areas off the normal human spectrum such as ultraviolet or infrared.  Your child could see in the dark, and would probably make an amazing soldier -- or assassin.
  • Slowed aging, using genetic code to create the antithesis of progeria.  Combine with "enhanced beauty" for an attractive movie star that could be "in his/her prime" for decades.
  • Additional body parts.  Gattaca hinted briefly at this with a 12-fingered pianist.  I won't explore this too deeply here in order to keep this speculative and not squicky.
  • Bloodstream or dermal augmentation, granting high resistance to heat or cold (but probably not both, due to the limitations of physics).  Uninhabitable wastelands in Siberia, Greenland, Nunavut, and Antarctica could suddenly become the trendy exclusive neighborhoods for the rich -- no need to worry about the "riff-raff" moving in, because they can't tolerate or even survive the climate!
  • Enhanced intelligence -- the sky is the limit.
Ah, but even a genetically enhanced human with created code in DNA wouldn't necessarily be owned by MegaCorp, you might argue.  Well, first let's look at the genetic code itself.  Current common law suggests that MegaCorp would have the right to patent their code and protect it accordingly.  In the case of Diamond v. Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. 303 (1980), the Supreme Court held that living, genetically engineered material is patentable subject matter.  The modified organism, due to human intervention, was not a product of nature and fell within the definition of "manufacture."  This was at issue because laws of nature, physical phenomena, and abstract ideas are not protectible as intellectual property.  To be patentable, one must develop a machine, composition of matter, or manufacture.  In nature, there is no "invention" -- only "discovery."

OK, "So what?" you might ask.  "So MegaCorp has the patent on how they engineered my grandson's embryo.  I wasn't planning to go into the fertility business, so what do I care?  Their competitors can develop their own processes if they want in on that action."

The problem comes with adverse conditions.  Specifically, the problem exists because adverse conditions give MegaCorp a back door through which to introduce revenue mechanisms to the extreme detriment of consumers -- who might not have any choice in the matter.

Andrew Carnegie's "secret of wealth," paraphrasing from Napoleon Hill's classic self-help book Think and Grow Rich, is to make something that everybody wants, that nobody can make themselves, and that gets used up and must be replenished.

Imagine, then, if the genetic code of the engineered children came with a built-in trigger: every ten years, the enhancements naturally decay until the individual is left no better than a "normal" human being.  That is, unless a person purchases from MegaCorp an individually-customized genetic code "patching" pill that halts the genetic decay for ten years.  MegaCorp could charge anything they wanted for that pill... $10K, $100K, $500K... and "Valids" would pay it.  (In the world of Gattaca, Valids had extremely high-paying jobs.  It stands to reason that if this societal construct came about in real life, banks would probably be willing to lend $500K for a booster pill knowing that the Valid debtor would be able to retain a seven- or eight-figure job.  For example, virtually all professional athletes would be Valids.)

Oh, and it gets better: MegaCorp could engineer the booster pill to contain their patented and copyrighted genetic code, and it would be illegal for anyone to attempt to create a work-around, thanks to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998.  It would not be illegal for someone to reverse-engineer a booster pill or someone's genetic code "in the wild," but the realities of economy of scale and the fact that the reverse-engineering could not make use of any patented or copyrighted code make it likely that creating such a substitute would cost more than just buying the booster pill normally.

Importantly, MegaCorp is not visiting any specific harm on its client or "creation" -- they are simply imposing a time limit on their product or service, as it were.  Once the time is up, the client is no worse off than if they had never utilized MegaCorp's genetic enhancements.  But in the context of a society that could very quickly be polarized by "genoism" into a world of Valids and In-Valids, MegaCorp would be the gatekeepers to health and prosperity. 

While the parallels to drug addiction are fairly obvious, this concept, taken to the Nth degree, more closely parallels the modern conveniences of refrigeration, air conditioning, and easy access to personal motor vehicles.  Sure, we can survive without any of those things, but does anybody really want to?  And so we pay.  We pay loans and interest (usually) to own houses and cars.  We pay cash for appliances.  We pay for upkeep and repair.  And to some degree we're already experiencing the MegaCorp scenario with "disposable" cars -- vehicles engineered to work well for a few short years and then be replaced.  Anecdata in point: Steph's Mitsubishi Mirage is on its last legs despite being two years newer than my 1999 Honda Accord, which still runs beautifully.  Your Money or Your Life, indeed.

So your granddaughter, a physical and intellectual specimen the likes of which would have been one-in-a-million naturally, learns upon finishing graduate school at 19 that she is going to be doomed to a lifetime of janitorial work or prostitution unless she mortgages herself every decade to pay MegaCorp an exhorbitant retainer to maintain her Validity.  MegaCorp dominates the economy, because they have made a product that everybody wants, that nobody can make themselves, and that gets used up and must be replenished.  Nothing MegaCorp has done is technically illegal -- man is mortal, and no mere product or service will reverse the chains of time and decay -- and yet the state of society creates an adverse landscape in which your granddaughter is an irrevocably indentured servant.  And so is everybody else of her generation and those that follow.

In fact, the only way to make this scenario any more frightening would be to substitute "MegaCorp" with "the Government."

Perhaps I should cash in on this dire prophecy while I still can.  After all, it seems like there may exist here the raw materials for a classic science fiction story.  We may hope that it never comes to pass, like Anthem, 1984, or The Handmaid's Tale, instead of growing more plausible by the year, like Atlas Shrugged, Brave New World, or Neuromancer.

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