China is working on an ‘AI nanny’ for human embryos

Chinese researchers are working on an AI-based system that can manage the growth of a human embryo in an artificial womb. Did someone say “Matrix”?

A capsule that acts as an artificial womb to grow babies in under the watchful eye of an artificial intelligence-based guardian. No one will bring you closer to exclaiming “Matrix” upon reading this sentence; but it is nevertheless a very concrete project that is currently being explored by Chinese researchers. According to the South China Morning Post, the objective of this concept which smacks of dystopian fiction: to allow the country to control its birth rate.

Children and China is a complicated story. In 1979, at the very end of the Mao Zedong period, the government introduced the One Child Policy, a public birth control policy that completely transformed the face of the country. Quickly, the birth rate collapsed; even though this law was abolished in 2015, its demographic effects are still being felt today.

Indeed, it seems that many Chinese have simply given up on the idea of ​​having children; the country is currently experiencing its lowest birth rate in decades, according to the South China Morning Post. They are therefore exploring alternative avenues to ensure their sustainability, and this is the subject of the work of researchers from the University of Suzhou who produced this famous capsule.

A baby in a box

The “Long-Term Embryo Culture Device” thus plays the role of “artificial uterus” in which an embryo has everything it needs to stimulate its growth. But this capsule full of nutritious fluids is not enough on its own. It is also necessary to be able to manage the subtle dynamics of the physiological parameters which play a central role in pregnancy. Usually, this constant work is carried out by the mother’s organism without her even realizing it. Here is a “nanny based on artificial intelligence who would take care of it.

On a 24-hour war footing, she constantly tracks the slightest change in conditions in the capsule. It then adjusts very precisely all the variables related to the growth of the fetus, such as the availability of nutrients in the liquid or the carbon dioxide level. But above all, it constantly conducts numerous examinations on the basis of a very advanced imaging system, in the hope of identifying phenomena hitherto neglected by human observers.

A highly regulated field of research

At present, this system is tested on a large number of embryos of various and varied animals. But this is only a test device; the claimed purpose remains indeed the culture of small human beings. But at present, international and Chinese laws do not yet allow researchers to attack our species.

Indeed, all research on human embryos must systematically be interrupted beyond a certain time limit. The objective: to avoid the unbearable ethical dilemmas that would arise in the event that one of these works resulted in a being endowed with consciousness. Even if it is known for its philosophy far, far removed from European mores in terms of bioethics, China continues for the moment to comply with this rule; in the country of Xi Jinping, a human embryo must systematically be destroyed after two weeks of growth.

Obvious benefits…

The scientific community is divided into two camps on this question. Some believe that the current approach, which favors the precautionary principle, is the only one that can be envisaged. But another group sees these limitations as an anachronistic burden left over from a time when humans only scratched the surface. The latter therefore consider that it is becoming important to authorize research on the more advanced stages of development.

Sun and his colleagues explain that if they could apply it to humans, this technology would make it possible to make considerable progress in basic research. “This would allow us to improve our knowledge of the origin of life and human embryonic development,” they explain. But that’s not all: the authors suggest that this system could also work wonders in clinical medicine. “This would provide us with a theoretical basis for curing birth defects and other major reproductive health issues.”, they add.

On paper, this technology would therefore solve the problem of Chinese demography while allowing babies to develop in better conditions. It would also constitute a formidable research platform for working on treatments for developmental anomalies. One can also imagine that it would make it possible to advance disciplines such as organ culture for patients awaiting transplants.

…and potentially dramatic pitfalls

But despite these potential benefits, it’s also an approach that requires tremendous care. And although the researchers began by explaining why this approach has advantages, they also come up with a long list of caveats that will be essential to consider if this technology is ever exploited.

It begins with the most glaring disadvantage, and certainly the most deleterious: the breaking of the link between the unborn child and his direct environment, namely his mother. It is a literally fusional relationship, insofar as the physiologies of the child and the mother are intimately linked; on the biological level, pregnancy is also a way of beginning to integrate the child into its future living environment.

But the stakes go far beyond the framework of the physiology involved. Because if we know very well how to measure a partial pressure of glucose or oxygen, the neurological and psychological aspect is much more difficult to study. However, many studies have already pointed to the fact that the mother-child relationship is built during pregnancy, and that this dynamic has a considerable impact on the psychological development of the child after birth.

And it’s not just about individual ethics, but about a problem that needs to be tackled on a societal scale. Because as always when we talk about technologies that allow us to intervene in human development, we see dozens of extremely complex considerations emerging that directly concern the future of our civilization. Many observers agree, for example, that these technologies represent an open door to eugenics, the practice which aims to select individuals from a population on the basis of genetic criteria.

It will therefore be very interesting to follow the progress of this work, which is as fascinating on a scientific level as it is worrying in ethical and human terms. Because just like brain-machine interfaces, embryonic culture is one of those technologies that could change the face of our species in the coming decades.

The text of the study is available here.

Leave a Comment