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Author Jamie Metzl says the "genetic revolution" could threaten national security

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Recent advances in reproductive technologies and genetic screening hold tremendous promise for the elimination of harmful inherited diseases, but they also may pose significant national security challenges, said Jamie Metzl, a technology and geopolitics expert and author of a new book on the genetics revolution.

Especially as societies decide whether or how much to allow citizens to screen and edit human embryos, the chances of division, and potentially conflict, could rise.

"Certainly if these technologies work as I believe they will, they will potentially confer tremendous benefits on people," Metzl said. But, he said, if certain technologies are unevenly adopted by different societies, "we run the very real risk of bifurcating our communities, bifurcating the world into the genetic haves and have-nots."

In an interview with Intelligence Matters host and CBS News senior national security contributor Michael Morell, Metzl, who has previously served on the U.S. National Security Council, at the State Department and at the United Nations, outlined some of the opportunities and drawbacks posed by new technologies like genome sequencing, gene editing, and embryo screening.

"What do you do if you are the society that decides you don't want to genetically engineer your population, maybe for some very good reasons, but some other society is doing it?" he said. "Do you try to stop them? Do you try to make it illegal for your citizens to procreate with citizens from those other places?"

"When you walk down that path, it gets very, very tricky," he told Morell. "And when you think of all the reasons why countries have gone to war even with other countries, they've done it over history for a lot less than this."

Through procedures like in-vitro fertilization (IVF) and a process called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, today's parents can already screen for conditions like Down syndrome and select some simple traits like eye and hair color, Metzl explained. But the children of children born today, he said, will have reproductive options previous generations have not had, including screening for more complex diseases and selecting more complex genetic characteristics like height, IQ and personality. 

"One of the applications will be that from your early childhood, your parents will know about how certain aspects of your life are likely to play out. What are your greater-than-average disease risks? What are potentials that you may have, and whether it's potential to live a long and healthy life or maybe potential to be really great at abstract math or sprinting or all these kinds of things," Metzl said.

Advances in other tools will also accelerate scientists' understanding of the human genome and what can be controlled, changed or edited out – Metzl called it a forthcoming "super-convergence" of technologies.

"The biotech revolution can't happen without the AI revolution," he said, "because the ability to analyze the unbelievable complexity of the human genome within the complex systems biology of humans within the ecosystem of the environment around us, and then compare that to this very complex information in our electronic health and life records – that's so far beyond what any human or even all human brains together could do."

Metzl also said much more of the process of reproduction will take place in labs, not homes.

"I do think that we are going to increasingly move away from using sex as our primary means of conceiving children. And that's going to have huge implications," he said.

Metzl, who in 2019 was appointed to an advisory committee charged with developing global standards for human genome editing at the World Health Organization, warned that governments – including in the U.S. – should be paying much more attention to how to responsibly establish ethical norms around emerging technologies.

He also noted China is already investing a great deal in certain, potentially society-changing tools.

"China is embracing not just genetics and biotech, but so many of the technologies of the future, with a very coherent national plan to lead the world in these technologies by 2050," Metzl said.

"That's why we're seeing all of these things that couldn't happen in the United States – whether it's the most aggressive research on primates or whether it's the first application of genetic engineering, of gene editing on human embryos – most of that is happening in China," he said, "and it's no accident."

For much more from Michael Morell's conversation with Jamie Metzl, including about his new book, Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity, you can listen to the new episode and subscribe to Intelligence Matters here.

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