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4 key questions to challenge your views on genetic engineering

New research shows how Americans feel about genetic engineering, human enhancement and automation.

Genetic engineering

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  • A review of Pew Research studies reveals the views of Americans on the role of science in society.
  • 4 key questions were asked to gauge feelings on genetic engineering, automation and human enhancement.
  • Americans are split in how they view technology and many worry about its growing role.


The Pew Research Center published a fascinating roundup of studies that revealed the opinions of the U.S. public on a number of key science-related issues. The researchers wanted to find out what people thought overall about the role of science and scientists in society, but also to see more specifically how far modern humans are willing to go with genetic engineering and automation.

The responses show that people are generally not as worried as you'd think about messing with human genetics but when it comes to implanting technology to enhance bodies, doubts proliferate. A strong uneasiness also pervades responses dealing with robots in workplaces.

Before you know the details of what others thought, however, you have a chance to take the quiz yourself to test your own points of view on these matters.

These first two questions relate to your stance on genetic engineering. With the advent of CRISPR gene editing techniques, it now seems possible to edit out mutations and create babies without disease. Wouldn't you want to do it? Or do you see the potential for horrendous accidents, genetic deformities, creation of second-class citizens and forever changing what it means to be human?

1. Changing a baby's genetic characteristics to reduce the risk of a serious illness that could occur over their lifetime is:

- An appropriate use of medical technology

- Taking medical technology too far

Another key question concerns growing human organs in other animals. Obviously, we have used animals for testing to develop new treatments already amid changing public attitudes about the cruelty involved, so how ethical is it to use animals simply as incubators of spare body parts?

2. Genetic engineering of animals to grow organs / tissues for humans needing a transplant is:

- An appropriate use of medical technology

- Taking medical technology too far

This next question pertains to human enhancement. How comfortable would you be outfitting yourself with digital chips or other prosthetics and modifications? Famously, Elon Musk is spearheading the development of Neuralink technology that would allow human brains to control machines. In a 2019 presentation, he described the possibility that such devices would be made to work by first making holes in people's skulls with lasers, followed by feeding flexible electrode threads into the brain. He previously promised that such devices would not only give people additional abilities but can also cure brain illnesses like schizophrenia. Recently, he tweeted an "awesome" update to the tech is coming, sharing also that it might be implanted in humans as early as this year.

Would you put one of these things on? See how you would answer this:

3. I am ____________________ about the possibility of a brain chip implant for a much improved ability to concentrate and process information.

- Very/somewhat worried

- Not too / not at all worried

Watch Elon Musk’s presentation on Neuralink here:

And now for your thoughts on automation. Numerous studies have found that not only is automation coming faster than you think, it's bound to replace the vast majority of human occupations in the next 10-30 years. And it sounds like there's still time left, a 2020 study by the research company Forrester shows that job loss due to automation is already very much here. They predict that more than 1 million "knowledge-work jobs" will be taken over in 2020 by software robotics, virtual agents, chatbots and decisions based on machine-learning. On the other hand, the firm estimates that 331,500 net jobs will be added this year to the American workforce alone that are "human-touch jobs" utilizing such human qualities as intuition, empathy, and both physical and mental agility. So there's hope humans can adapt and find new things to do once technology takes over.

Here's your chance to answer for yourself:

4. The automation of jobs through new technology in the workplace has ___________ American workers.

- Mostly helped

- Mostly hurt

- Neither helped nor hurt.

If you're interested what the participants in the Pew Research polls thought, here is the breakdown:

The Pew Research Center, which carried out the study, pinpointed a specific theme in the findings, citing "the loss of human control, especially if such developments would be at odds with personal, religious and ethical values" as the key source of hesitancy when people think about future technologies. Proposals that give people more control over tech met with more positive response.

Hulu's original movie "Palm Springs" is the comedy we needed this summer

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.

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  • Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
  • As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
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Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

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Our ‘little brain’ turns out to be pretty big

The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.

Image source: Sereno, et al
Mind & Brain
  • A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
  • The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
  • This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.

Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

Economists show how welfare programs can turn a "profit"

What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?

A homeless man faces Wall Street

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
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