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Stephen Hawking's big questions for Life Sciences

19 October 2018. Published by Peter Rudd-Clarke, Legal Director

Stephen Hawking died earlier this year and his final book was published posthumously this week. In "Brief Answers to the Big Questions", Hawking turns his attention to some of the most pressing issues concerning humankind, including artificial intelligence, genetic engineering and the threat of epidemic disease. If Hawking's vision materialises, then there are difficult legal challenges ahead for society and industry.

Hawking's book is by turns an inspirational and terrifying read. It discusses opportunities and risks that sound like science-fiction but are fast becoming reality.

Despite its title, Hawking's book poses more questions than it provides answers. Even for the author of "A Brief History of Time", Hawking readily acknowledges that attempting to predict the future is a hard task. He sets out to solve it by examining the present in order to see whether we are equipped to tackle the future.

Some of the most vital questions posed by the book foretell the complex legal issues that lie ahead for the life sciences sector.

Will Artificial Intelligence overtake human intelligence?

Hawking comments that we are facing an explosion of artificial intelligence. We may end up with machines whose intelligence exceeds ours by more than ours exceeds that of snails. We are warned that failing to recognise this fact could be humankind's worst mistake.

The life sciences industry will need to grapple with the challenges of artificial intelligence far sooner than other sectors. The book suggests that it will become increasingly difficult for regulators to oversee clinical choices where human decision making is delegated to machines. Computer experts, not clinicians, may become key decision makers. If computers become more intelligent than us, then society may lose its confidence in human regulators. If matters go to court, some may question how a judge, even when supported by human experts, can determine if there has been negligence, or whether any party is at fault, where an outcome is the result of a decision by a higher form of intelligence.

What could wipe out the human race first: overcrowding, nuclear war or disease?

Despite the prospect of artificial intelligence improving healthcare, Hawking worries about the threat posed by epidemic diseases, ranking it alongside nuclear war as a threat to human existence. He notes that the growth in the global population has been exponential, jumping from 1 billion to 7.6 billion in 200 years. The rise of a new disease could have devastating consequences in overcrowded conditions.

If we take this warning seriously, then governments and healthcare providers should not rest on their laurels, looking back at past achievements such as eradicating smallpox or taking the fight to Ebola. Rather, the sector should redouble its efforts to be prepared to confront the next outbreak of a disease that may have been hitherto little understood. Companies that manufacture vaccinations will need to mitigate the risks associated with clinical trials of relatively obscure new treatments, as well as prepare for risks created by public pressure to release drugs into the market at speed. 

Will anyone truly be expert in anything?

Such is the rate of scientific research and publication, that Hawking laments that, in the near future, no one person will be able to keep up with the rate of scientific progress in their chosen field. This could have consequences for regulators and the courts. 

Regulators will increasingly need to take action by committee, across multiple jurisdictions. This could hasten an era of better cooperation and a convergence of standards across countries.

The traditional adversarial approach to litigation, where it is alleged that a drug or device has failed to meet the relevant standard of safety, may have to be rethought if it is no longer possible to trust in one or two experts. In future legal disputes, expert witnesses may become little more than mouthpieces for committees - or the spokespeople for artificial intelligence.

What will happen to our DNA, are we going to be replaced by synthetic biology?

There has been relatively little change in human DNA in the last 10,000 years. But we are at the threshold of being able to redesign it completely. Hawking predicts that regulators will be unable to prevent someone from redesigning humans using genetic engineering. From both a biological and an engineering perspective, the human race will become increasingly complex. 

The opportunities and risks associated with redesigning humans are mind-boggling (although perhaps, in time, we will come to comprehend it all, as Hawking predicts the wide-spread use of computers implanted in the brain). Those who work in the sector will manufacture products that cannot be imagined today. Regulators and law-makers may struggle to keep up, forcing judges to fill in the gaps when issues come before them.

Hawking presents a future of barely imaginable and complex challenges; it will be fascinating – much like his book.