Zen White Paper
by Robert Viglione, Rolf Versluis, Joshua Yabut, and Jane Lippencott /  May 2017

rob[at], rolf[at], josh[at], & jane[at]

Zen is an end to-end-encrypted system with zero-knowledge technology over which communications, data, or value can be securely transmitted and stored. It is an integration of revolutionary technologies that create a system over which innovation can accelerate by combining three functions that are traditionally done separately: 1) transactions 2) communication, and 3) competitive governance. This is done in a secure and anonymous manner, using a worldwide distributed blockchain and computing infrastructure. The system integrates multiple best-in-class technologies to form an open platform for permissionless innovation that can evolve with user preferences.

We live in a hyper-regulated and surveilled world where billions of individuals are deprived of basic human rights, such as property ownership, privacy, free association, and access to information. The technology now exists to solve some of these problems, and Zen’s early implementation will do exactly that. Zen is a collection of products, services, and businesses built around an enabling technology stack employing zero-knowledge proofs and a core set of beliefs. As a distributed blockchain system leveraging the latest censorship-evading techniques, fully encrypted communications, and a social and governance model designed for long term viability, Zen will contribute to the human right to privacy and provide the necessary networking infrastructure for people to securely collaborate and build value within a borderless ecosystem. Our mission is to integrate the latest technologies available post-Satoshi with a decentralized, voluntary, and peaceful set of social structures to improve life for anyone who wants to participate. We believe that this is an idea whose time has come. Zen’s framework is a secure, privacy-oriented infrastructure with a governance system structured to enable participants to collaboratively extend functionality in many dimensions. Opportunities include hosting of individual identification data, selective proof of title for property, decentralized banking services, privacy-preserving p2p/b2b asset exchange, mutual aid societies, p2p insurance, decentralized humanitarian aid mechanisms, or use purely as an anonymous token of value. These functions can be utilized to serve disenfranchised populations currently excluded from vital services such as banking and healthcare due to lack of identification, capital, and secure channels. They can also be leveraged by individuals who desire to take ownership over and monetize their private data, or, for example, by enterprising communities that wish to develop a competitive bidding system on internally generated solar energy. The unique implementations are unbounded, the common link being the belief that decentralization is the engine of moral progress, and that voluntary solutions are the most creative and enduring.

Zen builds on the heritage of the best cryptocurrencies, network architecture, and distributed file sharing systems in existence by incorporating both existing as well as new features to yield a solid foundation designed for long term viability. Just as important as our technology stack, we’re building on the latest ideas in distributed consensus and competitive governance. Some of the foundations of our project come from Bitcoin, Dash, Decred, and Seasteading. Zcash extended Bitcoin with fully anonymous shielded transactions, so that users could choose between normal Bitcoin-like addresses (t-addresses) or shielded addresses resistant to traffic correlation analysis (z-addresses). Then we created Zclassic, a Zcash clone that changed some key parameters our community felt were important: we removed both the 20% Founders’ Reward and the slow start to the money supply. Since launching Zclassic, we’ve formed a vibrant open-source community eager to move the technology forward in a unique direction. Some early accomplishments include developing an open source mining pool application for both Zcash and Zclassic, as well as Windows and Mac wallets. Our team realized that Zclassic could be further extended as a fully encrypted network with an innovative economic and governance model that better aligns with Satoshi’s original vision for a decentralized global community. We view Zclassic as a fundamentally pure open-source, all-volunteer cryptocurrency project, while Zen extends into a platform with internal funding to facilitate a broader set of communications, file-sharing, and economic activities.

The Z transactions in ZenCash have the ability to incorporate text-based messages, which are encrypted and included in the blockchain. There is a 1024 character limit for these messages, and they enhance the ability for users to conduct secure commerce. Instead of discussing the transaction in other less-secure channels that may not have the same level of privacy enhancements as Zen, users can communicate via the ZenTalk messages with the other party or parties before and after the shielded transfer takes place with very small z transaction spends. These messages can be sent directly from one z address to another, and they can also be sent to a channel. By generating a z address from the hash of a channel name, users can subscribe to the channel and read anything published by anyone to the channel. For example, the channel #ZenCash announcements would hash to zXXXXXXXXXXXX, allowing any user to send an anonymous message to the channel. Each message would cost a finite amount of ZenCash to send, since it is contained in a z transactions, therefore reducing the amount of non-useful messages on common channels. Official announcements would be signed by private key and would only be displayed if deemed valid. Furthermore, essentially private group messages can be published using z transactions by first creating a complex channel name,and then encrypting the contents of the message with keys only the desired recipients have. ZenTalk messages would be encrypted with algorithms such as AES-256 with Perfect Forward Secrecy (PFS), matching current standards of encryption for secure communication.

Zen has the ability to publish documents to the IPFS or GNUnet. This is done by publishing a IPFS or GNUnet address in the text field of a z address. The preferred document publishing system at this time is GNUnet, because it provides the required infrastructure for anonymous publishing and maintains an active database of documents. The system is similarly extensible to IPFS or any other future distributing archival system. By creating an anonymous messaging layer in conjunction with an anonymous publishing layer, ZenPub allows for the creation of truly anonymous publications which can be rapidly distributed to interested readers.

It is possible for regulators in countries hostile to crypto-commerce to block traditional crypto-currencies like Bitcoin and even Zcash. Zen uses Domain Fronting to extend the ability to complete transactions in adversarial network environments, as explained in Blocking-resistant communication through domain fronting abstract: “We describe “domain fronting,” a versatile censorship circumvention technique that hides the remote endpoint of a communication. Domain fronting works at the application layer, using HTTPS, to communicate with a forbidden host while appearing to communicate with some other host, permitted by the censor. The key idea is the use of different domain names at different layers of communication. One domain appears on the “outside” of an HTTPS request–in the DNS request and TLS Server Name Indication, while another domain appears on the “inside”–in the HTTP Host header, invisible to the censor under HTTPS encryption. A censor, unable to distinguish fronted and non-fronted traffic to a domain, must choose between allowing circumvention traffic and blocking the domain entirely, which results in expensive collateral damage. Domain fronting is easy to deploy and use and does not require special cooperation by network intermediaries. We identify a number of hard-to-block web services, such as content delivery networks, that support domain-fronted connections and are useful for censorship circumvention.” The specific implementation of Domain Fronting used by Zen at launch is with a Commercial Content Distribution Network, but as with every aspect of our architecture, flexibility is designed in from the start and the system can extend in many directions as the technology evolves.

Zen is what we consider to be an optimally decentralized open source project, and so we expect applications to be built and contributed to the ecosystem by many parties. Many of these contributions will likely come in voluntary open source fashion, but we expect a robust business community to grow around the platform as well.

Zen is designed with a decentralized governance model incorporating multi-stakeholder empowerment and the flexibility to evolve to optimally suit our community. Fundamentally, our philosophy on governance is that we do not know a priori the best approach, but we have some ideas for how to initialize the system and enable it to evolve with the needs of the community. We believe in governance as a service (GaaS) and aim to efficiently provide value to our direct stakeholders, the broader community, and the world. ”Any industry that delivers poor service for a high price deserves to be disrupted” (Quirk, 2017), governance being a consummate example. In solidarity with other projects and ideas taking root around the world, we reject forced centralization and embrace voluntaryism. Rather than entrusting a minority of the people with power, we believe that all people have the right to be trusted with freedom. The core philosophy of our governance model is that decentralization of power maximizes inclusion and creativity. Practical implementations must recognize that pooling resources and effort provides synergies that should be optimally balanced against full decentralization; optimal points being state and time-varying, best determined through voluntary participation and secession. Importantly, we are implementing a system where competing DAOs can emerge to share resources or even completely subsume less efficient or unpopular versions. There should be no one-size-fits-all structure invariant across environment, function, culture, or time; rather, structures should be fluid, suited to specific problems, and flexible to scale when working and fade when failing relative to alternatives. Such a system of systems would dynamically evolve in such a way that it is antifragile to competitive feedback. Our objective governance state will balance decentralization, implementation efficiency, separation of powers, broad stakeholder empowerment, and evolutionary flexibility. This initial state will be the result of at least a 12- to 18-month R&D effort into game theoretic, political science, and economics research into optimal voting mechanisms coupled with feedback from multiple testnet implementations. The project will be one of our first funded efforts with final deliverables including a comprehensive research report and operational code integrated into the Zen network. Within 6 months of governance implementation we expect to have leadership teams in operation from our first full and open election.

By decentralization we mean that everyone has an equal opportunity to participate, that we are fully inclusive, and that decision-making authority is maximally diffuse such that the system is resistant to capture. Theoretical maximum decentralization means that every individual retains authority to equally influence decision-making; this is difficult to implement in practice when pooling resources to collaborate on a common system. Even if implemented in such a pure fashion, individual decisions naturally pool for collaboration efficiency and resources accumulate to certain stakeholders at unequal rates. We cannot stop these natural forces, nor is there reason to categorically deem them harmful in every instance. What we can do is to design the system such that all participation is voluntary, that decision-making power over resource allocation is balanced across a broad cross-section of stakeholder types, and that a credible mechanism exists to evolve with feedback. A structure infused with flexibility is more important than initially designing the best system to suit all circumstances, especially since we are creating a movement so expansive that predicting all developments is essentially impossible. Implementation efficiency is also a big concern for decentralized organizations. Pure decentralization could suffer decision-making paralysis, voter apathy, or delusions of the herd at the extrema. This is why we initially shy away from a system of pure democracy for all decision-making, and are taking the time to research competing models and test them under varying conditions of stress. Our proposed system of free and open competition for DAOs is designed to encourage groups of high-performing functional area experts and professionals to propose their leadership in specialized domains so that our system-wide efficiency in converting resources to higher-value end products or services is continually evolving to suit user needs and demands.

A key lesson learned from human history is that powers are best separated and competing power clusters should provide some equilibrium state of checks and balances. The balancing should be resilient to unchecked growth in any single power cluster such that the entire system succumbs to capture. To initially prevent this condition, Zen is launching with a Core Team in control of 3.5% of block reward funding, and an initial DAO comprised of industry leaders controlling 5% of resources. In addition, our objective state to be implemented after the 12- to 18-month R&D and test phase will include a hybrid type of multi-stakeholder voting so that a wide cross-section of the community retains power to influence decisions and resource allocations. Every aspect of our governance structure will ultimately be subject to competitive feedback and change. We are taking an evolutionary approach that starts with a simple model that will grow with the community.

The Zen system will have at least one DAO funded by a portion of the mining rewards, and governed by a voting system that brings stakeholders together. This system of governance helps ensure that implementation of changes, improvements, and integrations minimizes contention and reduces the chance that a disagreement leads to a fork in the project. As we unroll our broader governance plan derived from rigorous R&D and testing, the goal is to open the governance landscape to full competition; this means that we could see multiple competing DAOs emerge with different teams working on different problems. Each DAO would emerge with its own proposed structure, processes, and goals, which ensures these attributes are evolving through competition and the wrong initial organizational decisions do not perpetuate. Our DAOs will be responsible for building, maintaining, and improving the infrastructure that keeps the system going. It is also responsible for implementing changes to the Zen software applications, and is flexible enough to accommodate other community priorities,such as community outreach, marketing, training, etc.

As the Zen system grows in popularity, the support structures for users, miners, Secure Node operators, and ecosystem partners will need to grow and scale as well. The DAO structures will have funds, allocated through projects and proposals, with which to assist in the growth and support. The community is encouraged to participate in contributing to Zen in all different ways. The DAOs are responsible for coordinating the community contributions, and have funds to assist in offsetting expenses incurred by the community. One of the purposes of proposals is to repay community members for their expenses in supporting the system. At launch, Zen will have one DAO staffed with respected professionals that span relevant industries. When the governance plan is ready for implementation, this DAO will be one proposed grouping subject to market competition for others who might wish to stand up their own governance structures; the broad community will make that decision.

Our unique innovation to the cryptocurrency community is our fully competitive and evolutionary governance model to empower a broad cross-section of stakeholders in an environment of optimal decentralization. Bitcoin created the original breakthrough in distributed consensus, but other projects have since taken that further with various voting mechanisms. These projects range from Dash with its simple proposal submission and community voting model all the way to Decred with its embedded community governance; each has contributed positively to the evolution of decentralized consensus, but Zen takes this to the next level by relaxing additional constraints such that our system is set to evolve over time through perpetual competition between providers of governance services within the ecosystem. We are implementing an autonomous system that will change with feedback and trial-and-error innovations in how decentralized systems organize to solve specific problems. In this sense, we believe Zen is groundbreaking in social technology, pioneering a system that has never been attempted at scale. From a broader perspective, Zen competes with incumbent currencies and banking systems, as well as emergent FinTech startups with particular advantage in providing services to the disenfranchised. We choose to make our contribution to this innovative, social welfare oriented space by providing enhanced privacy and security. As a secure messaging and distributed data archival system, we compete with other services, such as Signal, Telegram, and the Tor Project. There are also an infinite number of potential projects that can be built on the Zen platform, increasing our competitiveness exponentially. We view competition as an enabler of healthy processes of growth and therefore welcome maximum competition. We’d rather live in a world with fierce competitors forcing us to accelerate our own innovations than a static world devoid of progress. We hope that Zen adds positively to human welfare by integrating great technologies and communities, morphing governance into a competitive service, and enabling anyone in the world to participate in our system of permissionless, collaborative, and decentralized innovation. We also view incumbents and future startups in this space as potential partners and allies instead of winner-takes-all competitors.

Forecasting is a challenging exercise, but we see a bright future for Zen and the peaceful and productive ecosystem we’re building. We believe that the decentralized, fully inclusive, voluntary, and flexible organization we’re creating will be seen as obviously superior in the future compared to the static, centralized, one-size-fits all versions perpetuated in the 20th century. The advent of cryptography, voluntaryist philosophy, and blockchain technology make such a thing possible, and we believe many people already do, and will, share our vision for a better world; especially when they see how we can accelerate innovation and improve human welfare by empowering everyone to express their values. The next one to two years will see this vision come to fruition in our early organization by executing our Roadmap. There will certainly be challenges along the way, but flexibility and peaceful cooperation consistently overcomes seemingly insurmountable issues.”


Are Sperm Banks in the Business of Eugenics?
by George Dvorsky  /  12/30/15

“The most prominent sperm bank in the UK is under investigation after turning away donors with dyslexia and other questionable characteristics. This raises an important question: Should sperm banks be in the business of making “better” babies? Britain’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), which regulates sperm banks, has launched a review of the London Sperm Bank after being alerted to its practices by The Guardian. The sperm bank is the largest in the UK and is accused of engaging in eugenics by banning men with dyslexia and other common conditions it describes as “neurological diseases.” A booklet produced by the London Sperm Bank lists several questionable screening criteria, some of which may be in violation of British law and human rights standards.

A page from the London Sperm Bank pamphlet, via The Guardian

In addition to dyslexia, the booklet lists conditions such as attention deficit disorder (ADD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), cerebral palsy, dyspraxia, multiple sclerosis, and Tourette Syndrome. It also mentions Down Syndrome, color blindness, and a family history of Type 1 diabetes. But some of the conditions listed, including cerebral palsy and dyslexia, are not linked—or are very weakly linked—to genetics. At the same time, some experts question whether or not dyslexia, which affects upwards of 10% of the population, should even be classified as a disability. Dyslexics, including prominent figures like Albert Einstein, Richard Branson, and Steve Jobs, are said to have benefited from the attendant cognitive attributes, including improved lateral thinking, spatial reasoning, and pattern recognition. (Similar concerns revolve around the appropriateness of banning donors with color blindness, which affects as many as one in 12 males.)

The London Sperm Bank, it would appear, is adhering to an ableist and neurotypical bias, which the HFEA is now scrutinizing. “The HFEA has never required or endorsed prohibiting people with dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADD, ADHD and other disorders from becoming sperm donors,” noted the HFEA in a statement. “The clinic’s HFEA inspector is clarifying our requirements for selecting donors with the centre, and is reviewing all the exemptions cited in the centre’s materials, to ensure that all future donors are treated fairly and in accordance with the law.” In response, the London Sperm bank has pulled its booklet, saying it’s reviewing its practices and protocols.

United States eugenics advocacy poster, circa 1926. (Credit: Philadelphia Sesqui-Centennial Exhibition, 1926)

But Is It Eugenics?
Given the accusations levied at the London Sperm Bank, it’s fair to ask if the company is actually engaging in eugenic practices. “Sperm banks have been in the business of screening with an eye toward producing healthier or more ‘perfect’ children for decades,” said NYU Langone Medical Center bioethicist Arthur Caplan. “It’s nothing new, they’ve been doing it for a long time.” Caplan makes the distinction between hard and soft eugenics, the former being more closely associated with Nazi Germany and the killing of so-called undesirables. Soft eugenics, or what’s often referred to as positive eugenics, is the attempt to make better babies. So, in the sense that sperm banks are promoting and encouraging the idea of having babies built to order, then yes, it can be referred to as a form of positive eugenics. “In this case, customers are selecting for traits they want, and avoiding traits they don’t want,” Caplan explained to Gizmodo.

“Class on the Bertillon system in France in 1911″

Bioethicist Nigel Cameron, the president of the Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies, says the practice is absolutely eugenics— and that sperm banks are starting to take it too far. “There is something inherently eugenic about assisted reproduction unless donations are accepted, by clinics and recipients, sight unseen,” he told Gizmodo. “When we take this to the extent they have, banning the color blind, we are wading in deep.” He added, “And also, as this example shows, we are starting to be rather obviously stupid.” According to James Hughes, the executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology, eugenics is unfortunately a broad term. “This is certainly an attempt to help parents have genetically healthier children, but it is not a coercive state policy mandating reproductive choices based on racist and classist pseudoscience,” he said. “So some would call it eugenics, and others would not.”

“A set of photographs depicting anthropometry – the measurement of humans. Exhibit photograph scanned from: Harry H. Laughlin, The Second International Exhibition of Eugenics held September 22 to October 22, 1921, in connection with the Second International Congress of Eugenics in the American Museum of Natural History, New York”

The Narrowing of Humanity
Canadian bioethicist Kerry Bowman, who teaches at the University of Toronto, worries that this kind of screening is counterproductive, and that it’s in opposition to shifting cultural and social norms. “I would absolutely state that it’s narrowing humanity at a time when we’re starting to accept many aspects of diversity,” he told Gizmodo. “Creativity has a high association with some of the things banned by sperm banks.” Bowman says that some of our most treasured characteristics, such as innovation and creativity, are being undermined by these sorts of screening protocols. What’s more, he believes there are some definite human rights aspects to it as well. “The acceptance of broad aspects of human diversity is a great way to build healthy societies,” he said. “but we’re actually moving against that with some of these practices.”

“Class on the Bertillon system in France in 1911. Bertillonage exhibited certain defects and was gradually supplanted by the system of finger prints and, latterly, genetics.”

Wild West of Assisted Reproduction
Sperm banks are in the business of making money, so they’re doing their best to attract customers. If their marketing materials fail to impress prospective parents, or if they’re not screening for the “right” attributes, customers will take their business elsewhere. Trouble is, we’re currently living in the Wild West era of assisted reproduction, and sperm banks may be starting to abuse the lack of oversight. According to Caplan, sperm banks, as well as egg sellers and donors, essentially function in the US with almost no regulation. They’re required to look for things like transmissible diseases, such as HIV, but no one is required to check on their claims, or prove that the people used in their marketing materials are even representative of the real donors. Some of these sperm banks may even be using the same donor multiple times.

“A Bertillon record for Francis Galton, from a visit to Bertillon‘s laboratory in 1893″

“It’s certainly wrong when sperm banks promise things that can’t be delivered, or when their claims fall outside of science, like suggesting certain traits are inherited when they’re not, like cerebral palsy,” said Caplan. “Deliberately misleading people, or classifying things as disorders, such as dyslexia and Asperger’s, which can have many positive attributes, is a problem. At this point, they’re distorting and deceiving their customers. They’re basically saying that they’re going to help your offspring avoid a disease, when in fact there isn’t any medical opinion that says it’s a disease.” Cameron shares these concerns. “The top Google search for sperm clinics yields an ad from one of the oldest firms touting its use of donors from only the top schools, and telling prospective clients how much choice they will have over the details of the donor,” he said. Sperm banks are making promises to parents about their future children that can’t possibly be met.

Theodor Kocher‘s craniometer, a head-measuring tool designed for anthropological research in the early 1910s” 

Buyer Beware
Given that we’re talking about the free market, however, a strong case can be made that parents reserve the right to know what they’re purchasing. To that end, Caplan says that parents should be able to access the genetic profile of the sperm they’re acquiring; they are paying for a product after all. But he says this sentiment is fueling a fear that, by treating this domain like a business, it’s turning baby-making into a form of manufacturing. This could eventually lead to issues of product liability. Parents may sue a sperm facility for a product that failed to meet specifications, or worse, they may reject a child outright. “If you treat making children as a for-profit business, suddenly the legal attributes of for-profit business starts to leak into child building,” he explained to Gizmodo.  So, should sperm come with genetic ‘warning labels’? “Prospective parents have a right to know as much as possible about the quality, safety and efficacy of all the genetic manipulations they choose, and as much as is knowable about any sperm or ova they choose,” said Hughes. Cameron is not quite on board with this idea. “This is not a standard consumer situation, even if a money-making clinic will tend to think it is,” he said. “We’re talking about enormous issues of human dignity that even in the UK— the most ‘liberal’ jurisdiction in the world on these issues—is recognized in law and regulatory regimes.” Cameron says that talk of a parental “right to know” smacks of capitalism and may be misleading. Like Caplan, he worries that some parents may wish to return their product if it fails to please. “Yes, all baby-making should come with warning labels,” said Cameron, “including that your happiness and the child’s—and indeed, the child’s success, which is quite different, as this example shows—are likely to be unrelated to current decisions in our power.”

Finally, it’s important to acknowledge this issue as it pertains to our reproductive autonomy. “The right to know what kind of child you are making is fundamental to the right to control our own bodies, to reproductive rights, and to the right of parents to protect their children’s health and future,” Hughes told Gizmodo. “In assisted reproduction it is also encompassed in the medical ethic of informed consent.” This incident clearly shows that oversight is desperately needed in this realm. Without tougher regulations, sperm banks will continue to overpromise and decieve their customers as a way to keep ahead of the competition. And by violating our laws and cultural norms, they’re causing us to step backwards instead of forwards.”

Here’s Why We’ll Eventually Have to Accept Designer Babies
by George Dvorsky  /  12/07/15

“Last week’s historic summit on human gene-editing has come to a close, and its organizing committee has given the go-ahead for scientists in the US to experiment on human genes — only if it doesn’t result in a pregnancy. It’s a surprisingly progressive stance. But make no mistake, human trait selection is coming. Here’s why we’ll eventually accept the prospect of genetically modified “designer babies.” The three-day International Summit on Human Gene Editing, held in Washington, D.C., brought together some of the world’s leading geneticists and bioethicists to discuss the prospect of editing the human genome.

The need for the summit arose earlier this year after scientists in China announced that they had genetically modified human embryos. Using a powerful and remarkably simple DNA cut-and-paste tool called CRISPR, the scientists modified a gene responsible for a fatal blood disorder. The resulting embryos were destroyed, but the achievement raised alarm bells among many scientists and ethicists. It was particularly significant because the scientists performed germline modifications, which means the edits would be heritable, i.e., they’d be passed down to the next generation.

Last week, the members of the organizing committee issued a statement summarizing its conclusions. They concluded it was okay for scientists to edit the genetic sequences of human cells, so long as it doesn’t result in a pregnancy. The committee’s recommendations were surprisingly reasonable—and even a bit progressive—especially considering the degree of concern expressed in previous months. Some scientists—even those who helped to develop CRISPR—went so far as to demand a moratorium on the practice. So this is good news. Science will be allowed to move forward.

At the same time, the committee made it clear that it’s not ready to accept the prospect of “designer babies.” Not only did they agree that the technology is still grossly premature (which is true), they also argued that this practice might never be accepted for technical, practical, and moral reasons. There’s no question that some of the concerns expressed by the committee are warranted, but make no mistake—human trait selection is coming. A ban on making GMO babies is wholly appropriate for the moment, but it won’t—and shouldn’t—stay that way forever.

Acceptable Work
The committee agreed that basic and preclinical research should proceed. Once the appropriate oversight is put into place, the committee saw no reason to prevent work in the following areas:

  1. Developing technologies for editing genetic sequences in human cells
  2. Identifying potential benefits and risks of proposed clinical uses
  3. Understanding the biology of human embryos and germline cells

The caveat: any resulting human embryos or modified cells should not be used to establish a pregnancy.

This mirrors what’s happening elsewhere. British scientists working at London’s Francis Crick Institute recently submitted a request to the U.K.’s Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority (HEFA) to use a gene editing technique to modify human embryos. The gene editing committee also reaffirmed the practice of genetically altering somatic cells, i.e., manipulating cells whose genomes cannot be passed down to the next generation. There’s little controversy here, as most scientists recognize the relative efficacy and safety of the practice. Somatic gene editing could alleviate such conditions as cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, certain cancers, sickle-cell anemia, and other genetic disorders. Unfortunately, the effects of somatic cell therapy are often short-lived, and patients require repeated treatments over the course of their lifespan to maintain the therapeutic effect. That’s why germline therapies hold so much promise.

Drawing the Line at the Germline
Human germline engineering was the committee’s biggest concern. The committee objected to the potential practice on the grounds that CRISPR and other gene-editing techniques aren’t ready for prime time. There’s still considerable risk of inaccurate DNA editing, leading to off-target mutations and the incomplete editing of cells in early-stage embryos. Until these and other scientific/technical issues are resolved, scientists have no business making genetically modified babies. As for the committee’s other objections, they’re considerably more abstract. While they agreed that gene editing could be used to eliminate inherited diseases, they warned that it could also be used to introduce novel or enhanced human capacities, such as extreme longevity, boosts to intelligence, and added physical strength. Some geneticists are worried that transhumanist-minded folks might use these biotechnologies on themselves to produce enhanced children, and thus trigger an “arms race” among parents.

The committee cited an obligation to consider broader implications, too, when it comes to heritable modifications: once introduced, it would be difficult to remove such genetic modifications from the human population as it spread through subsequent generations. There is also the “possibility that permanent genetic ‘enhancements’ to subsets of the population could exacerbate social inequities or be used coercively,” and that there are “moral and ethical considerations in purposefully altering human evolution using this technology.” These claims aren’t entirely convincing, nor do they speak to the tremendous benefits to be gained by genetic engineering. In fact, a case can be made that we’re morally obligated to develop these tools as quickly as possible.

Much to Gain
“The benefits would be huge,” said NYU Langone Medical Center bioethicist Arthur Caplan. “Just huge.” Caplan told Gizmodo that the practice would lead to dramatic cost reductions in medicine, and enable more people to marry and have children without the fear that they might pass on genetic problems. Gene editing would also enable our descendants to live healthier, longer lives. Caplan believes that human enhancement ultimately would make people “stronger, smarter, faster, saner, better rested, and more adaptable.” Bioethicist and legal expert Linda MacDonald Glenn agreed, saying that gene-editing can increase human potential and productivity, while alleviating suffering and improving the human condition as a whole. Oxford bioethicist Julian Savulescu said we should embrace gene-editing research on human embryos because it will help us cure genetic diseases, like cystic fibrosis and thalassaemia, and it will help us deal with complex diseases that can’t otherwise be tackled. Savulescu also said it will finally put an end to the so-called genetic lottery: “People worry that such technology could be used to create a master race, like fair-haired, blue-eyed “Aryans.” What this concern neglects is that the biological lottery – i.e. nature – has no mind to fairness. Some are born gifted and talented, others with short painful lives or severe disabilities. While we may worry about the creation of a genetic masterclass, we should also be concerned about those who draw the short genetic straw.” There are potential downsides. Caplan said that gene-editing might create an even wider gap between the haves and have-nots. He also warned that it may produce an intolerance of disability and imperfection, and a “narrowing” of human diversity.

Unfounded Fears
As MacDonald Glenn explained to Gizmodo, the committee members are hoping to prevent a potential unknown harm, a restatement of the precautionary principle. “The difficulty with the precautionary principle is that it requires proving a negative,” she told Gizmodo. “If we applied the precautionary principle to almost everything in modern life (bicycles, microwaves, cell phones), we would never have any innovation.” What’s more, the idea that there are “moral and ethical considerations in purposefully altering human evolution [that may preclude us from] using this technology” is problematic. We most certainly have a moral obligation to influence human evolution with technology. To do otherwise would be to succumb to Darwinian selection, which works off a brutal process of trial and error, and often produces less-than-ideal results.

And as MacDonald Glenn explained, the very fundamentals of medicine would be threatened by a prohibition. “The primary moral argument behind gene-editing relates to the purpose of medicine,” she said. “The very purpose of medicine is to cure disease, and if the disease is incurable, to alleviate suffering. It is a quintessential element of compassion that we want to provide comfort and care to those who are ailing.” And any proposed moratorium on human gene-editing would likely violate our reproductive freedoms. “It interferes with procreative choice, a notion that is recognized in the law and valued greatly in this country,” MacDonald Glenn told Gizmodo. “The government does not mandate how many children one should have or how we have them. Government interference in this arena would be an impingement on procreational freedom and harken back to the days of Buck vs Bell, where Virginia and other states involuntarily sterilized those they deemed ‘feeble minded.’

As for the claim that some alterations might negatively affect future populations, and that these modifications would be difficult to remove, that’s another questionable unknown. Traits will be selected (or discarded) according to their efficacy. It’s reasonable to assume that if it’s good for the individual, it will be good for that person’s offspring. And if not, modified parents of the future, in conjunction with the technologies and norms of the day, will choose to “roll back” and revert to the original genetic blueprints. Furthermore, genetic fixes and enhancements won’t happen in isolation. Parents, working with their doctors, will hew to established guidelines and oversight regimes. The idea that a “wild west” world of genetic enhancement awaits us in the future is unlikely. Lastly, the committee’s claim that “the human genome is shared among all nations” is also questionable. A singular, discrete genome belongs to the individual, not “all nations.” And the suggestion that there even is a concrete and inviolable thing called a “human genome” is dubious. Earlier this year, geneticists scanned the genomes of 2,504 people from around the world, allowing them to map the 88 million ways that humans are genetically different.

Reasonable Restraint
Despite those objections, the committee did not explicitly rule out the possibility that gene-editing in humans will be allowed in the future:

The international community should strive to establish norms concerning acceptable uses of human germline editing and to harmonize regulations, in order to discourage unacceptable activities while advancing human health and welfare. We therefore call upon the national academies that co-hosted the summit… to take the lead in creating an ongoing international forum to discuss potential clinical uses of gene editing; help inform decisions by national policymakers and others; formulate recommendations and guidelines; and promote coordination among nations.

This is exceptionally well said, and extremely encouraging. The report isn’t calling for a moratorium, but rather, for an ongoing dialogue. The gene-editing committee could have very easily gone the other way, and set the United States back in this critical area of research. Now, over the course of the next few years and decades, we can expect to see the kinds of scientific advances that will result in safe, effective, and accessible genetic interventions.”

It Should Be Legal To Hack Your DNA
by George Dvorsky /  3/24/15

“A group of geneticists has called for a moratorium on research into modifyingheritable human DNA — a practice that could lead to so-called “designer babies.” But as scientists consider this drastic proposal, they should also recognize the potential benefits this technology could afford – and the risks of an outright ban. Before we begin, you should be familiar with the two broad types of gene therapy. So-called “somatic” gene therapies target the non-reproductive cells of the body, and affect only the patient receiving the therapy. In other words, the genes addressed by somatic gene therapies are not heritable. Germline gene therapies, in contrast, are genome-editing techniques that affect egg and sperm cells. The modification of these germ cells can result in all the cells in the organism containing the modified genetic information, which would allow the altered code to be passed down to subsequent generations.

In an editorial published earlier this month at Nature, geneticist Edward Lanphier and four other researchers currently investigating somatic gene therapies call for a temporary ban on germline gene therapy, citing “grave concerns regarding the ethical and safety implications of [research into germline gene therapies].” The authors also express fear that such research could have a “negative impact… on important work involving the use of genome-editing techniques in somatic (non-reproductive) cells” – i.e. their own research.

In their Nature letter, Lanphier and his colleagues write:

In our view, genome editing in human embryos using current technologies could have unpredictable effects on future generations. This makes it dangerous and ethically unacceptable. Such research could be exploited for non-therapeutic modifications. We are concerned that a public outcry about such an ethical breach could hinder a promising area of therapeutic development, namely making genetic changes that cannot be inherited.

At this early stage, scientists should agree not to modify the DNA of human reproductive cells. Should a truly compelling case ever arise for the therapeutic benefit of germ­line modification, we encourage an open discussion around the appropriate course of action.

Today, 15 of 22 European nations prohibit the modification of human germ lines. It’s also illegal in Canada. In the U.S., legislators haven’t officially prohibited this sort of research. That said, the NIH’s Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee has stated that it “will not at present entertain proposals for germ line alterations.” Lanphier and his colleagues would like to take the NIH’s injunction a step further by introducing a voluntary moratorium, which would serve to discourage human germline modification and raise public awareness about the issue.

Therapy vs. Enhancement
The researchers published this article because, in their words, “It is thought that studies involving the use of genome-editing tools to modify the DNA of human embryos will be published shortly.” Lamphier and his colleagues claim that they, like others, “oppose germline modification on the grounds that permitting even unambiguously therapeutic interventions could start us down a path towards non-therapeutic genetic enhancement.” But this stance is not particularly helpful, given that the line distinguishing therapy from enhancement is not so clearly drawn. Human health, after all, is a normative concept. It’s driven by advances in the medical sciences and changes to social conceptions. Consequently, as time passes, it will be increasingly difficult to distinguish between a therapeutic intervention and an enhancement. For example, vaccinations are an enhancement — a super-immunity we’re not born with. Having the capacity to read, acquiring a a good education, and being able to access the Web can be considered an enhancement. In future, we can expect to be further “enhanced” by synthetic organs, artificial limbs, nootropics (think about how Ritalin has already been used by people who don’t have ADD), and nanotechnology. Our species is on the cusp of the enhancement era, so we’d better start getting used to it.

Chinese scientists genetically modify human embryos

A Reproductive Right?
Human trait selection can also be considered a form of assisted reproduction, one not unlike in vitro fertilization. Consequently, it can be seen by prospective parents as an indelible component of reproductive liberty and the right to bear children according to their desires and values — so long, of course, as these genetic modifications are safe, effective, and governed by institutional processes. Fears of parents wanting to alter their offspring’s eye or hair color misses the point, as are concerns that parents will demand a “perfect child.” The nature of the proposed enhancements, as it were, have a bit more substance to them than that. For example, scientists have already isolated the genetic variants for extra-strong bones, lean muscles, insensitivity to pain, and virus resistance. All those seem quite reasonable, as do those modifications that boost immunity to age-related disorders (again, in a certain light, even anti-aging can be seen as a kind of enhancement).

In future, parents may also be able to bear offspring with a diminished proclivity for psychological disorders, including depression. And as noted by Duke University bioethicist Allen Buchanan and his co-authors in From Chance to Choice: Genetics and Justice, the prospect of genetically modifying our offspring will also have a profound influence on our appreciation of distributive justice (i.e. making sure most people have access), equality of opportunity, the rights and obligations of parents (e.g. could un-modified children sue their parents for failing to use these technologies?), the nature and meaning of disability, and the very concept of human nature, and what it even means to be human.

Not Eugenics
Some might argue that genetically modifying human offspring sounds like a transhumanist or even eugenicist agenda — but as Harvard geneticist George Church has noted, “throwing in the word ‘transhumanists’ is unnecessarily confusing.” When asked if germline modifications represent the next logical step in human genetics research, he told the Knoepfler Lab Stem Cell Blog: “I don’t think that germline is the next goal (nor next logical step), but it might be an acceptable side-effect of treating genetic diseases early, safely and effectively. Many gene therapies currently in clinical trials are already aimed at young children to avoid permanent damage. Treating sperm and eggs could reduce the number of abortions (spontaneous and induced) and the number embryos needed in IVF clinics.” In other words, there are unforeseen and peripheral benefits to this research; when a ban is placed on research, the biggest loss is liable to be a therapeutic discovery we could never have predicted or account for from our current vantage point. Another problem of a research ban is the likelihood that black markets will emerge. In my opinion, it’s far better to have a regulated and monitored development regime than a slew of shady basement labs.

And in regards to the claim that germline therapy could constitute a new form of eugenics, Church had this to say:

Eugenics in USA from 1907 to 1981 involved government sterilization of 65,000 individuals to “improve” the gene pool. The new technology enables parents to make choices about their children just as they might with Ritalin or cleft palate surgery to “improve” behavior or appearance. To prevent such parental decisions, the government would again interfere with reproductive choice, but this time in the apparent opposite direction in terms of improving the gene pool. To give the same name (eugenics) to these two scenarios seems unnecessarily confusing. Should we be talking about benefits and risks? Yes. Frequently and engaging many voices.

Many years ago at a bioethics conference at Yale, I referred to state-imposed restrictions on the human germ line as “neugenics” — a top-down injunction to ensure human genetic stasis. It would appear that Dr. Church shares my concern. The authors of the Nature editorial are not wrong to call attention to this issue. As geneticists, they know what’s at stake. But to call for an outright moratorium is clearly not the way to go. Let’s have an open discussion, absolutely – but let’s be sure to recognize that humanity is a species in transition; heritable germline modifications may very well be the way of the future. Rather than being forged by the powers of natural selection, humanity is finally taking its destiny — and its genomes — into its own hands.

For further reading on this subject I highly recommend John A. Robertson’s Children of Choice: Freedom and the New Reproductive Technologies, Allen Buchanan’s Better Than Human: The Promise and Perils of Enhancing Ourselves, Gregory Stock’s Redesigning Humans: Choosing our Genes, Changing our Future, and Ramez Naam’s More Than Human.”





Why some people in Quebec are cutting up their cash
by Aaron Hutchins  /  September 4, 2015

“Martin Zibeau has about $100 worth of Canadian money in his wallet, except all of the bills have been cut in two. He can’t use any of the half-sized tender at big-box stores, nor can he deposit them in his bank account. And that’s exactly the point. On the Gaspé Peninsula in eastern Quebec, a group of locals and small-business owners have begun to accept an alternative currency—one where $5, $10, $20, $50, even $100 bills, get cut in two, ostensibly reducing their value by half—as a means to promote the local economy. Here’s how it works, or, at least, how locals argue it’s supposed to: When someone buys clothes at a Wal-Mart, Zibeau explains, there’s no telling how much of that money will be reinvested in the community. But with stores and locals accepting the cut-up bills, a currency they’ve dubbed the “demi”—French for half—that money can only be spent locally. And because banks don’t accept half a $20 bill, the money would be reinvested right away and not pile up at home (perhaps out of fear that storeowners might just stop accepting the half-bills). This would help keep the economy rolling.

If it sounds like the kind of idea thought up after pints at a bar, that’s because it was. Its origins date back to April, when a group of locals and a visitor from France were chatting at Le Naufrageur microbrewery, in Carleton-sur-mer, Que. Zibeau and the others at the table figured that cutting Canadian bills in half would serve the purpose of a local currency and they wouldn’t have to worry about counterfeiters. Getting people to jump aboard isn’t always easy. “Most people, their first reaction is: ‘What is this?’ and they’re confused,” Zibeau says. “I don’t think anyone has said: ‘No problem. Give me a pair of scissors.’” It’s not illegal to cut Canadian bills in half, though it is frowned upon by the Bank of Canada. Some shop owners have even talked about writing their stores’ names on demis that pass through their possession to show how far the half-bills travel, though this, of course, would mean further defacing Canadian currency (such as when Canadians were “Spocking” their $5 bills in memory of Leonard Nimoy).

Then there’s the obvious fact that for the average consumer, cutting one’s money in two makes no sense. Having “40 demis” as opposed to a crisp $20 bill greatly limits the selection of where one can shop. The money can’t go toward a mortgage, retirement savings, a child’s education fund, or pretty much anything but a handful of local stores. “It’s completely illogical, from an economic point of view,” says Joële Yoja, who started accepting demis at her clothing store La Girafe Bleue just this week. So why would anyone purposely cut their own money in half? “It’s an activist gesture: ‘I’m cutting this $20 that I earned as a gesture that now, it can only be used in local business. I’m committed to putting that into our own [local] economy.’”

However, Yoja hopes to hire her first employee later this year, and she knows it would be a hard sell to get new staff to accept “demis” as wages. It’s not an idea without precedent. In 2003, a high school teacher in southern Germany wanted to teach students about finance, so he invented the chiemgauer, which has a value pegged equal with the euro. Twelve years later, the alternative currency is accepted at hundreds of businesses around the Bavarian city of Rosenheim-Traunstein, and several regional banks help to manage the exchange. And then there’s Ithaca, N.Y., once home to a local currency called the Ithaca Hours, which debuted in 1991. “Ithacash” has since evolved into Ithaca Dollars. This summer, city officials were on hand for an unveiling of a redesigned $5 Ithaca (i$5) bill. Its value is pegged at US$1, though those in the community were reportedly able to exchange US$100 to get i$125 in return. The bonus cash for switching currencies incentivizes the use of Ithaca dollars for tourists, though it surely complicates matters if one imagines multiple cities across America devaluing their own municipal currencies.

At the place where the “demis” was conceived, the owners of the microbrewery don’t even accept the butchered bills. “It’s complicated,” says Christelle Latrasse, one of the microbrewery’s owners. They can’t pay their staff in demis, nor can they deposit them in the bank. “I like the idea, and I’m looking for a simple way to introduce it, but I haven’t yet,” she says. In the meantime, Zibeau is compiling a list of stores that accept the demi, which he publishes online. There are about a dozen right now, however, storeowners could very well stop at any moment, if they so chose. Gérard Mathar has a more than a hundred demis tucked away in a box at his foraging store Gaspésie Sauvage, which sells a variety of wild mushrooms, herbs and plants. There’s no one else in his area accepting demis—yet. The fact that the cash is sitting unused doesn’t bother him in the slightest. On the contrary, he wishes the currency had a logo he could put on his website, so customers could see he accepts the demi. He also plans to add the demi on his price list, next to the Canadian prices. Mathar even jokes about opening a stock exchange. “Closing today on the Gaspésie Stock Exchange: $1 is two demis.”

Canadians Are Cutting $20 Bills In Half To Create A New, Locals-Only Currency
by Emma Jacobs  /  January 4, 2016

“Martin Zibeau, a middle-aged, bearded guy more likely to be found in a sweatshirt than a suit jacket, doesn’t look like the mastermind behind a new financial instrument. But in the Gaspesie region of northern Quebec, the “demi”—a new local currency that Zibeau dreamed up with a few friends over drinks at a Carleton-sur-Mer brewery—is taking off. Demi means “half” in French. In this case, it’s literally half: a sliced-in-half Canadian bill. Under the new system, half of a $10 bill is worth $5. Half of a $20 bill is equivalent to $10.

The demi began when a visitor from France told Zibeau and friends about two alternative currencies circulating in his hometown of Nantes, alongside the Euro. They got to talking about the ins and outs of alternative bank notes, particularly the security aspect. “We joked about [how] the Canadian dollar is pretty secure,” says Zibeau. That’s when they came up with the idea of cutting Canadian bills in half, combining the benefits of a local currency with the power of a national anti-counterfeiting plan. The idea behind complementary currencies like the SoNantes in Nantes or the Ithaca HOUR in Ithaca, New York is that because they can only be spent locally, they encourage residents to keep money circulating and supporting businesses in their own region. But they’re often also homemade. The difficulty of counterfeiting a real Canadian bill provides everyone more security, Zibeau says, than a photocopy of a bill of his own design.

Transactions using the demi rely on intense community buy-in. You have to be confident you’ll be able to get something of value for your demi “The first few people that started using the demi were people we just had a conversation with,” Zibeau says. “99.9% of the people who first hear about it go what the hell is that. They react very strongly, very emotionally, why would you do something like that?” But Zibeau is turning more and more people into supporters. Gerard Mathar did not take much convincing. Mathar co-owns Gaspesie Sauvage, an unusual business that sells food items foraged from the mountain forests, like mushrooms and berries. Their customers include a number of restaurants but people who come to him looking to spend demis are mostly locals. He’s limited in what he can turn around and get with them. “I buy bread, a lot of food, vegetables,” said Mathar. He cannot buy a beer at the brewery where the demi was dreamt up. It doesn’t accept them. But he can buy a haircut in at least one salon, and artisanal crafts made in the region.

The economic experts are split over the usefulness of local currency. Germain Basile, an economist who teaches at the business school, HEC Montreal thinks counterfeiting should be a concern of creators of any new cash system. “If anyone can photocopy any alternative currency it becomes very very abundant and it loses its value.” He notes governments put a lot of resources into making their bills hard to counterfeit. Getting the benefit of that investment in security by just by cutting an existing bill in half, he calls a “brilliant solution.” But Thomas Greco, author of The End of Money and the Future of Civilization feels counterfeiting has not been the most pressing issue in the world of alternative currencies to date. He sees other ways to respond to those concerns. “A currency need not be issued as paper notes but could manifest as ledger balances accessed via computers or cell phones,” he says. And is there really anything inherently local about money created by cutting a national recognized currency in half. Anyone with a Canadian dollar, from Vancouver to Halifax, has access to the raw ingredients to create a demi. But that’s not a big concern to Zibeau. He sounds almost hopeful about the idea that someone could convince a business in Montreal to do business in demis. The owner of a small business might entertain it, but it will never be accepted at Walmart. And that’s as encouraging to him as if the transaction took place in his backyard. “It has to be human-sized business,” he says.”