Mitochondrial Replacement Techniques – is this Human Enhancement?

Ever since I read John Holmlund’s blog entry (HERE) on mitochondrial replacement techniques (MRT) for inherited mitochondrial diseases, I have been thinking a lot about the issue of enhancement. Almost in passing, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) stipulated that MRT would not be a meaningful example of human enhancement because of the relatively limited genetic information in mitochondria.

Recall that mitochondria are the energy power houses of cells. Dysfunctional mitochondria tend to cause significant problems in tissues that require higher energy consumption, such as muscles and nerves. MRT is being proposed to prevent the birth of an individual who could develop mitochondrial myopathy, one example of the family of very debilitating and occasionally fatal mitochondrial diseases. With MRT, we are replacing en bloc defective maternal mitochondrial DNA with presumably extremely healthy mitochondrial DNA from a separate maternal donor. The resulting child is the nuclear genetic combination of her two parents plus a third healthy mitochondrial DNA donor, hence the designation “3 parent baby”.

As to whether or not MRT represents a meaningful example of human enhancement, consider the following thought experiment. Let’s stipulate that in the not-so-distant future, MRT has become routine and safe for preventing the birth of an individual with mitochondrial myopathy. Since the critical criterion for a potential maternal mitochondrial donor is a female with no genetic history of mitochondrial disease, any female meeting this condition and willing to be a donor becomes a donor candidate. Within that group, why not select a woman who also has outstanding muscle function, such as Carmelita Jeter (currently the fastest living female world record holder for the 100 meter dash). While the parental nuclear DNA undoubtedly controls much of the development of their future child’s muscle function, having Carmelita Jeter’s mitochondrial DNA certainly can not be expected to slow the child down (for if it does slow her down, then our stipulation of MRT safety fails). But does it speed her up?

Obviously the answer to the question of whether or not MRT represents an example of enhancement is – we don’t know. The IOM’s solution to determining the answer to this question (and the many other questions related to the ethics and safety of MRT) is effectively to try MRT and see what happens.

My stipulation is that MRT represents the first approved genetic enhancement therapy, despite the relatively small amount of genetic information in mitochondria.

I also think the child speeds up.

I am – is it?

This past summer, researchers at RPI’s Cognitive Science Department programmed three Nao robots to see if they could pass a test of self-awareness. Modeled after the classic “Wisemen Puzzle”, the robots were asked whether or not they had been given a “dumbing pill” (in this case, a tap on their head, which muted their verbal output) or a placebo. The test not only required the robots to respond to a verbal question (“Which pill did you receive?”) but also recognize its own voice as distinct from the others and correctly respond (“I was able to prove that I was not given the dumbing pill”). For a $9500 retail robot, this is an impressive artificial intelligence (AI) test and worth watching HERE.

Dr. Selmer Bringsjord, lead investigator and chair of the Cognitive Science Department at RPI is careful to point out that these robots have been programmed to be self-conscious in a specific situation and describes his work as making progress in logical and mathematical correlates to self-consciousness. His biography page on the RPI faculty website provides a rather tongue-in-cheek assessment of the results of his research: “I figure the ultimate growth industry will be building smarter and smarter such machines on the one hand, and philosophizing about whether they are truly conscious and free on the other. Nice job security.”

I believe philosophizing about whether the robots are truly self-conscious to be the more interesting topic. In their current form, while the robot appears to a human observer to be self-aware, it is really the algorithm or program that correctly indicates (realizes?) that the robot did not receive the dumbing pill. But the algorithm itself is not aware that it correctly determined which pill the robot received. One could make the algorithm more complex, such that the algorithm tests whether the algorithm correctly determined which pill the robot received. But would that algorithm really be aware that the algorithm was aware which pill the robot received? One can see the infinite regression building. (Google: “It’s turtles all the way down”)

Perhaps the more interesting question is how we humans will react as the robot AI algorithms appear more self-aware, whether or not they actually are. Taking Dr. Bringsjord’s lead, should I invest in the domain name “”* now or give it some more time?


* Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Robots