So Monday is the launch of 23andMe, the baby of Google co-founder Sergey Brin’s wife, Anne Wojcicki. The idea is that you drop $999 and a cheek swab in the mail and they sequence your DNA. You can then see things like what sort of diseases you have the genes for, what things you might pass on to children, your ancestry (via mitochondrial DNA), and so on. It keeps track of all of this and lets you see what sort of odds you have of developing certain health problems. One example on their website is the Odds Calculator, which is fairly interesting. You can see side-by-side the odds of a person of your ethnicity developing a certain disease compared to the odds of someone who has the same gene as you developing it.
Many concerns arise here. For one, if employers, insurance providers, or the government were ever able to access this information, that would be a serious breach of privacy and could possibly be a real danger when it comes to finding employment or insurance. If you’re twice as likely to develop cancer as someone else in the next 10 years, if you could even find insurance, it would surely cost a lot more. Some libertarians might say this is only fair. The people who use the most resources should bear the burden. That seems like it violates one of the philosophical cornerstones of our country to me. All men were created equal. But if you were created “differently equal” and are “differently able” to cover the financial burden, you’ll live “differently shorter.”
But of course, 23andMe makes it a central point that your privacy is a top priority for them. It certainly would be interesting to know what you are liable to develop in old age. If there was anything you could do to prevent it now, wouldn’t that be helpful? Who can you trust?
Interestingly, Esther Dyson, daughter of physicist Freeman Dyson, sits on the board. Dyson is popular for her writings and commentaries on new technologies. So she sees this going someplace. I think it probably will too.