You’re Not My Dad! (The Kettle Said So)

So what are the chances of a global, on-demand, real-time, publicly-accessible DNA database?  (Or what are the chances of stopping it?)

The increasing simplicity and speed with which DNA testing can now be performed has already changed lives.  Not only can simple issues of parenthood be resolved (sometimes disproved) quickly – often causing great distress, the gradual expansion and combination of DNA databases has exposed relationships previously unrealised and even potentially compromising in private and working lives.

How far could this go?

OK, these are some fairly random Friday afternoon thoughts: really not meant to be the definitive discussion on the subject; but, if that was the intention, we’d probably have to consider the following:

Technologies:

  • DNA Testing Processes (Distributed?)
  • Robotics/Automation (Nanotechnology?)
  • The Internet of Things (IoT)
  • Big Data Analytics
  • Artificial Intelligence (Machine Learning?)
  • 24/7Anywhere network connectivity

… and, in particular perhaps, the steady improvement and coming together of all this technology into a difficult to predict future.

We’d also have to ask some big questions:

  • Just how much can DNA testing be speeded-up and automated? Could it, for example, be decentralised from specialist labs to distributed sites; ultimately, could it be embedded in a domestic appliance?  (Or could the testing be automated remotely but samples/results sent/returned quickly to/from a central point? Perhaps ‘hashed’ to a sufficiently unique identifier?)
  • Is a single, global DNA database possible? Could it be openly available?  (In fact, is it really needed for this example scenario?)
  • Why? Why might anyone want to develop this?  Who would benefit/suffer?  Beyond the technology, what are the social, legal, economic, ethical, political accelerators/limiters?
  • And, turning it all around, as we usually do, if ultimately someone’s going to profit from this, is there anything effective that could stop it?

But instead – it’s Friday afternoon, remember – let’s just tell a few fragmented stories of past, present and future …

First of all, we have to understand that, in the uptake of new technology, taste varies.  Whilst some of us might shy away from the scary stuff, others will be first in the queue.

Don’t want a chip implant to automatically control the lights in your house?  Fine, your choice, but some people have had them for decades.

Moreover, we’re not consistent: some of us will shun some technology but eagerly adopt others.

Then there’s the ‘gradually enforced uptake’, slowly transforming the exception into the norm.

  • “Rest assured: this is a face-to-face process”
  • “We’ve introduced an online version … just for those who want it”
  • “Of course you’ll now get a quicker response if you do it online”
  • “And the processing fee will be less”
  • “Most people are now doing it online”
  • “We’re scaling back the face-to-face option”
  • “This is an online process”

Banking, shopping, contacting authority, for example, are slowly going this way (or have already gone).  How might it go for our case?  Perhaps (but there are many other routes):

  • “Only criminals will have their DNA recorded”
  • “Of course, if you volunteer your DNA, it will be quicker to eliminate you from any future enquiries” (cf. “If you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear!”)
  • If your DNA is registered, you can benefit from a number of advantages of being ‘socially cooperative’. (Lower insurance premiums, etc.)
  • “Most people have their DNA registered now”
  • “Those without their DNA registered are automatically considered suspect(s)” (“Something to hide.”  Takes longer to get anything done.)
  • “It’s not cost-effective to maintain a minority population without their DNA registered; we’ll change the law: it’s now compulsory”
  • “Everyone now has their DNA recorded”

Simplistic, yes, but we have seen this progression time and again with new technology driving new processes.

But why the kettle?

Well, why not?  Your kitchen-of-the-future will be all linked together and part of your wider house-of-the-future, which in turn is a connected part of the global IoT (or RIoT).  We need to ditch this idea of things (or even people) not knowing stuff because they’re somehow remote/disconnected from that knowledge: in future, everything will be connected and everyone will know everything!

But first let’s think about ‘technology transfer’ …

We often instinctively dislike technology when what we’re really upset about is a particular application of that technology.  We don’t always appreciate that we’re more concerned with ‘what you’re doing with that’ than the ‘that’ itself.

We probably don’t like the idea of being instantly identified by absolutely anyone in the street – but, on a small scale, conferences, conventions, within organisations, etc., it’s an awesome idea.

Smart skin, mechatronics, AI, etc. are great on the whole – unfortunately, they also might allow perverts to make sex robot replicas of children.

etc.

So what’s with the ‘home DNA’ thing?

Well, aside from the fact that were kinda lurching towards it anyway, there are some good possibilities …

OK, so your house is all sort of linked up already.  But let’s take … oh, I don’t know … laundry …

Your future combined washer-dryer-ironer (whatever that looks like – probably just a hole in the wall) automatically delivers piles of freshly laundered clothes to where they’re needed in the house (individual bedrooms, for example).  The clothes can be tagged, of course but what about the family members?  Yes, they could be tagged too or rooms could be ‘programmed in’ but biometrics would be better.  (Otherwise what happens when people move around?)  Yes, you’ve got retina patterns, fingerprints, etc. but the simplest, most all-encompassing recognition system is, of course … DNA.

… or how you like the lighting when you’re watching TV

                … and what you want to watch

… or keeping track of individual recipe ingredients for preferences … or allergies.

… or how you like your coffee

Yes, it’s real.

OK, no, it might not happen exactly like this; this is just a scenario – an example.  But the point is a general one: the speeding up of scientific and technological processes together with higher levels of intelligent connectivity suggest a future in which it’s going to get harder and harder to safeguard even the most personal of information.  (“Get those skeletons out of the cupboard now while you can still save face by doing it voluntarily!” as we’ve said before on this blog.)  There’s no obvious reason why our medical data, including DNA profiles, will be any better protected than anything else.

So, the same common thread re-emerges.  New technology is both exciting and scary.  It might deliver a mix of good and bad.  Who’s really going to benefit from it?  And are we happy to look for those answers to a political-economic system in which the ultimate driver for everything is profit?

About Vic Grout

Chair, Clwyd South Labour Party; Professor of Computing Futures, Wrexham Glyndwr University View all posts by Vic Grout

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