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1 January 2024

The acronym CRISPR (pronounced Crisper) in full is a mouthful: Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. In simple terms, it has to do with editing DNA using RNA and Cas9 (enzyme), a technique discovered from studying how bacteria use an inbuilt gene editing system.

Compared to earlier methods of editing DNA, this method is more precise, cheaper, and simpler. Previous methods can be compared to editing a book by tearing out whole pages—it was a sledgehammer approach. But CRISPR is like editing a sentence in a page—it is focused and accurate.

In the last few years, many companies have been formed to exploit the use of CRISPR, with applications in finding cures for certain kinds of otherwise incurable diseases that arise from a defect in a single gene (such as sickle cell disease and cystic fibrosis), cancer research and treatment, agriculture (pest resilient crops), and drug research.

In the short period CRISPR has been available, rapid advances have been made and there is a race among scientists and laboratories to find a growing range of applications. Amid the excitement, there has been a growing chorus of cautionary voices.

The concerns are many. The impact of genetic modifications may be known only later. Worse, if such modifications are done in germ lines (cells connected with reproduction), the effects will be passed down sequential generations. There is also no guarantee that the therapeutic agenda of CRISPR technology will not turn to the pursuit of designer genes and babies—for example, making babies who are more intelligent or athletic.

Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020 for their gene editing technology. Nevertheless, Doudna has warned that CRISPR carries a “great risk”, such as the unknown consequences of embryo editing (which itself raises serious ethical questions).

The potential and peril of new technologies is replicated in many areas. One emerging debate is on the use of ChatGPT, an artificial intelligence chatbot. It was released into popular space in November 2022 and has captivated many members of society. Students could get information and even ask the AI bot to write an essay on any given topic, and it would do so in a short time. It can even write songs and curate information as requested and can pen sermons and prepare Bible studies. It can even sit for exams. All this has stirred intense debate about how this technology will challenge educational institutions as we know them.

The downside of AI chatbots were highlighted when Dr Geoffrey Hinton resigned from Google so that he could speak freely about the dangers of artificial intelligence. Hinton, known widely as the “godfather” of artificial intelligence, spent five decades developing the field. Explaining how the technology works, Hinton expresses fear that chatbots can master information far better than humans and may be programmed by evil actors to perform evil actions.

Hinton has joined dozens of others in the field of AI in releasing an open letter calling for a pause on more advanced versions of ChatGPT. He has also asked for government oversight to ensure that AI is developed “with a lot of thought into how to stop it going rogue”. With international competition to develop applications in this field, the challenges are immense.

The two examples above highlight the tensions in technology between its promise and its perils. Uncontrolled development of technology without ethical considerations and responsible regulation can lead to unimagined disaster. When the people of the world built the Tower of Babel, they used improved technology—bricks instead of stone, tar instead of mortar (Genesis 11:3). With arrogant pride, they sought to reach the skies and make a name for themselves. God decided to intervene and confused their efforts. This prevented another disaster like the flood.

In his book The Technological Society, French social philosopher Jacques Ellul sounds a warning bell that our modern society is dominated by technique and the quest for efficiency. This threatens what it means to be human. He writes, “The tool enables man to conquer. But, man, dost thou not know there is no more victory which is thy victory? The victory of our days belongs to the tool.”

In his book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Neil Postman traces the history of technology in human society. It has grown in influence from simple tools in ancient and medieval societies to become a dominant way of life in the Technocratic Age. Now, we live in a Technopoly, where technology has become the only totalitarian perspective of life.

In their book, The Axmaker’s Gift, James Burke and Robert Ornstein warn about the double edge of the “axe” (technology) which first changes our environment, and then our thinking and our values. Finally, it changes us. This is the most worrying aspect of technology.

Like the gift of fire presented to humankind by the mythological figure Prometheus, technology comes to us as a gift, but it also has a downside and possible perils. In and of itself, technology is a mixed gift, with promise and peril.

In his monumental three-volume work on information technology and the Internet (The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture), Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells sets out to describe the promise of such new technology but also warns of the strong likelihood that criminal forces will take over the technology and wreak havoc in human society. Castells’ warning is echoed more widely by people like Jennifer Doudna and Geoffrey Hinton. Others warn about how modern technology pushes us into superficiality (Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains) and distorted biblical spiritualities (Tricia Rhodes, The Wired Soul: Finding Spiritual Balance in a Hyperconnected Age).

Not only is modern technology a mixed gift, we are faced with the deeper problem of fallen human nature. Any technology in the hands of fallen human beings comes with dangers. We may have great technology to change nature, but the perennial problem of man’s deceitful heart (Jer. 17:9) remains a concern. Challenges exist in terms of poorly regulated technologies and rogue scientists and their sponsors.

We do well to prayerfully think through the implications in the light of Scripture and theology.

Bishop Emeritus Robert Solomon served as Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore from 2000-2012. He had served previously as a medical doctor, church pastor, principal of Trinity Theological College and president of the National Council of Churches of Singapore. He now has an active itinerant ministry of preaching and teaching in Singapore and abroad.