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Google will engineer your perfect baby

A start-up backed by Google has just patented designer babies. Should we be worried?

A patent on genetic designer babies from a start-up with strong links to omni-present Google? That's enough to rouse a sense of unease in even the most techno-utopian among us. 23&Me, the service that has made merry weather of the falling cost of DNA sequencing technologies, has recently filed for a patent on 'designer babies' – in the process ushering the troubled field of biotechnology patents into the consumer domain.

Let's follow the money to one of 23&Me's more notable angel investors: Google

You may remember 23&Me from such previous 'genetic fanfares' as decoding how much neanderthal you have in your genes. The company offers personalised DNA sequencing for a bargain basement $99, and returns a prognosis detailing which diseases you're predisposed to suffering from, in addition to genetic ancestry trivia. Their latest patent continues in the same vein as their previous genetic soothsaying services: it's an update of an existing patent from 2008.

The Family Traits Inheritance Calculator offers "an engaging way for you and your partner to see what kind of traits your child might inherit from you". So far, so much genetic tarot cards. The odious elements creep in with descriptions of 'Gamete Donor Selection Based on Genetic Calculations'. The patent describes a system where consumers could choose a gamete donor (for instance, a contribution from a sperm bank) with genes deemed likely to produce certain characteristics in a baby. A 'user-selectable interface' allows the discerning parent to specify a preference for eye colour and height and multiple choice options pertaining to their offspring's lifespan.

Understandably, this has kicked up a shitstorm among the bioethicist community. Dr. Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, has labelled the 23&Me's project as "ethically and socially treacherous". 23&Me are backpedalling furiously from the spectre of consumer eugenics, stating that they have no intent of deploying the tool in fertility clinics. To be fair to the company, they're not even the first to the table with such technology: a company called GenePeek already offers a service which statistically determines likelihood of disease from sperm donor contribution.

But 23&Me are an overtly consumer facing company, and they've entered dangerous territory with how they've phrased this patent. 23&Me's enterprise is built on SNP DNA sequencing. Without going into dry biotech descriptions, it's important to note that this biotech isn't remotely close to capable of parsing the DNA data in your genome. Disease researchers have used SNP technology to canvas disease incidence within populations, and extrapolating the existing uses of this tech into stastically-inferenced conception is rash in the extreme (design collective Superfluxes's most recent project is required reading on this point). 

SNP prediction is subject to sample size limitations, a constraint often glossed over in popular coverage due to the statistical literacy needed for understanding. Moreover, it makes a big assumption by inferring that common genetic differences between members of a population plays a large role in explaining the likelihood of inheriting a disease. Any scientist dealing with genetics should balk at the notion of such pop genetic determinism: if not on ethical grounds, then simply in the face of the many areas of research that emphasise the number of underanalysed variables that work with your DNA to determine what sort of human being you grow into. 

So why patent such a system in the first place? Let's follow the money to one of 23&Me's more notable angel investors: Google. Technology commentators have long remarked that it's Google's ambition to sell you what you want before you know you want it. There is huge money in preemption, which is why Google's Artificial Intelligence algorithms are some of the best in game. Statistical prediction algorithms model an environment, be that your Amazon recommended reads or your Netflix suggestions, and if the input data is rich enough it's going to approximate the likely outcomes more often than not.

Google are sitting pretty on a zetabytes (that’s 21 zeroes!) of internet data and adding more every day. They don't yet have the data to make forays into genetically determined Youtube ads. But as per the corrupted state of the patent industry, that won't stop them trying. Consider this the vanguard of patented “rich user experiences” for genetic technologies.

And it's not as though the existing patent landscape of biotechnology wasn't already an intellectual property minefield. This summer the US Supreme court ruled that the information in our DNA wasn't ripe for patent-troll commoditisation. At least on the face of it. The case in question ruled against Myriad Genetics BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene test, one of the best indicators of preemptive breast cancer diagnosis, and definitely merited a sigh of relief.

Ultimately, the case kicked the can down the road, with concessions made to pharmaceutical R&D outlays by offering patent protection to cDNA, an alternative form of identifying genes (more here). More troubling still is that while the cheap DNA reading technology used by 23&Me isn’t analysing every byte of your genetic data, a second generation of powerful, fast and exponentially cheaper DNA sequencing tools are just over the horizon. We should stay concerned about which players dip their toes in this water.