Nafeez Ahmed explores the troubling implications and assumptions of the Government’s AI-driven gene programme.
In Part 1 of this investigation, I looked at how the convergence of an AI Superstate and corporate interests with health data lies at the heart of a new frontier for profit and surveillance. But the Government’s response during the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed something even more profoundly disturbing: a fascination with genomics which moves from a merely descriptive tool to something so prescriptive it verges on eugenics.
The NHS AI-driven Gene Programme
The NHSX app is simply one project with a questionable design which appears to result from the Government’s much wider project to remake the NHS.
At the core of the new NHSX AI drive is the goal of “predictive, preventive, personalised and participatory medicine”, according to an NHSX document published in October 2019. Pivotal to this AI-driven transformation is genetics:
“Key to unlocking the benefits of precision medicine with AI is the use of genomic data generated by genome sequencing. Machine learning is already being used to automate genome quality control. AI has improved the ability to process genomes rapidly and to high standards and can also now help improve genome interpretation.”
The NHS Genomic Medicine Service is starting with a focus on cancer, rare and inherited diseases, but its broader goal is far more comprehensive. Initially, the hope is that genomics will “expand to cover other areas, such as pharmacogenomics, which looks at how an individual’s genes influence a particular biological process that mediates the effects of a medicine,” according to The Pharmaceutical Journal.
But the end-goal is to convert the NHS into a health service oriented fundamentally around the role of genetics in disease. The aspiration is that “from 2020, and by 2025, genomic medicine will be an embedded part of routine care” to enable better prediction and prevention of disease and fewer adverse drug reactions. The GMS aims to complete five million genomic analyses and five million early disease cohorts over the next five years.
By 2025, genomic technologies will be “embedded through multiple clinical pathways and included as a fundamental part of clinical training. As a result, it is hoped that there will be a new taxonomy of medicine based on the underlying drivers of disease”.
But, this entire premise is deeply questionable. There is little evidence that the “underlying drivers of disease” are primarily genetic.
Last December, a study in the journal PLOS One found that genetics usually explains no more than 5-10% of the risk for several common diseases. The study examined data from nearly 600 earlier studies identifying associations between common variations in the DNA sequence and more than 200 medical conditions. But its conclusion was stark: more than 95% of diseases or disease risks – including Alzheimer’s, autism, asthma, juvenile diabetes, psoriasis, and so on – could not be predicted accurately from the DNA sequence. A separate meta-analysis of two decades of DNA science corroborated this finding.
The implication is startling: that the entire premise for the billions of pounds this Government is investing in building a new privatised NHS infrastructure for AI-driven genomic medicine is scientifically unfounded.
Behind the NHS Genomics Plan: An Eugenics-Inspired Agenda?
The obsession with genetics can be traced directly back to the Prime Minister’s chief advisor, Dominic Cummings.
Cummings set out his vision for the NHS in a February 2019 blog, which – although previously reported on – has not been fully appreciated for its astonishingly direct implications. While focusing on disease risk, the blog flagged-up Cummings’ hopes that a new NHS genomics prediction programme would ultimately allow the UK to, not just prevent diseases, but to do so before birth – in effect a nod toward the selective breeding techniques at the core of eugenics.
They are using the COVID-19 crisis to erect a corporate superstate powered by mass surveillance and AI. Their grim ambition is to reach into the very DNA of every British citizen.
His vision for what a genomics-focused NHS would look like bears startling resemblance to the core ideas of eugenics – the discredited pseudoscience aiming to improve the genetic quality of a human population by selecting for superior groups and excluding those with inferior genes. Its worst manifestations were exemplified by the Nazis.
In the blog, Cummings wrote:
“Britain could contribute huge value to the world by leveraging existing assets, including scientific talent and how the NHS is structured, to push the frontiers of a rapidly evolving scientific field – genomic prediction.” He called for “free universal ‘SNP’ [single-nucleotide polymorphis] genetic sequencing as part of a shift to genuinely preventive medicine”, to be rolled-out across the UK. This approach holds the promise of “revolutionising healthcare in ways that give Britain some natural advantages over Europe and America”.
Later in the post, Cummings allowed himself to speak more directly to what “natural advantages” could actually entail. He claimed that a combination of AI-driven machine learning with very large genetic sampling could enable the precise prediction of complex traits such as “general intelligence” and “most diseases”.
The two scientists Cummings cited as the primary sources for his vision were educational psychologist Robert Plomin and physicist Steven Hsu.
Plomin, described by Cummings as “the world’s leading expert” on the subject, is a renowned scientist. But he also has a history of association with the eugenics movement, according to Dr David King, founder of Human Genetics Alert and previously a molecular biologist. (Sir David King, the former chief scientific adviser to the UK Government, has also criticised the “genome sequencing goldrush”).*
When The Bell Curve – a book advocating the genetic inferiority of African Americans – was published, Plomin was a key signatory to a statement defending the science behind the book, explained Dr David King in a paper for the non-profit watchdog Human Genetics Alert. The statement carefully avoided explicitly endorsing The Bell Curve’s racist conclusions (aptly summarised by Francis Wheen as “black people are more stupid than white people: always have been, always will be. This is why they have less economic and social success”), while failing to repudiate them. Plomin’s fellow co-signatories included several self-proclaimed scientific racists, Philippe Rushton and Richard Lynn. Plomin has also published papers with the American Eugenics Society and spoken at several meetings of the British Eugenics Society (the latter rebranded itself as the Galton Institute in 1989) – both of which advocated racial science.
In December 2013, Plomin was called as an expert witness to the House of Commons’ Education Select Committee, where he called for the Government to focus on the heritability of educational attainment. Twenty-five minutes into the session, Dominic Raab – who as Foreign Secretary and First Secretary has stood in for Boris Johnson during his period of absence due to COVID-19 – prompted Plomin to focus more specifically on explaining his views about genetics, intelligence and socio-economic status.
Just two months before Plomin’s parliamentary testimony, a 237-page dossier by Cummings – then a top advisor to Education Secretary Michael Gove – was leaked to the press. The paper claimed that genetics plays a bigger role in a child’s IQ than teaching and called for giving “specialist education as per Eton” to “the top 2% in IQ”. Pete Shanks of the Centre for Genetics and Society described Cummings’ policy proposal as a “blatantly eugenic association of genes with intelligence, intelligence with worth, and worth with the right to rule”.
The Cummings dossier – which cites Plomin extensively – further reveals that, according to Cummings, he “had invited Plomin into the DfE [Department for Education] to explain the science of IQ and genetics to officials and ministers”.
The Education Select Committee’s report shows that, at the time of Plomin’s testimony, the Government was resistant to these views. But, the position appears to have changed since then, with figures such as Cummings, Raab and Gove now at the seat of power under Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Plomin would go on to work with Steven Hsu, who was involved in a major Chinese genome sequencing project based on thousands of samples from very high-IQ people around the world. The goal was to identify genes that can predict intelligence. Hsu went on to launch his own company, Genomic Prediction. In slide presentations about his work from 2012, Hsu approvingly quoted British eugenicist Ronald Fisher, closing his slides with the following quotation: “…but such a race will inevitably arise in whatever country first sees the inheritance of mental characters elucidated.” Hsu’s slides, wrote David King, “include plans for a eugenic breeding scheme using embryo selection to improve the overall IQ of the population”.
Yet, on his blog, Cummings confirmed that Hsu has “recently attended a conference in the UK where he presented some of these ideas to UK policy-makers”. Among the ideas Hsu presented to Cummings’ colleagues in Government was that “the UK could become the world leader in genomic research by combining population-level genotyping with NHS health records”. Hsu further claimed that “risk prediction for common diseases” was already available to “guide early interventions that save lives and money”.
“Hopefully the NHS and Department for Health will play ‘the Gretzky game’, take expert advice from the likes of Plomin and Hsu and take this opportunity to make the UK a world leader in one of the most important frontiers in science,” enthused Cummings.
Plomin’s claim that intelligence is determined primarily by genes contradicts a vast body of scientific literature, and is largely overblown. One of the latest studies debunking Cummings’ hopes was led by the University of Bristol and published in March. Based on a sample size of 3,500 children, the study found that polygenic scores (which combine information from all genetic material across the entire genome) “have limited use for accurately predicting individual educational performance or for personalised education”.
The study did not dismiss a role for genes outright, noting genetic scores modestly predicted educational achievement. The problem was that these predictions were less accurate than using standard information known to predict educational outcomes, such as achievement at younger ages, parents’ educational attainment or family socio-economic position.
Last November, Hsu’s Genomic Prediction began touting new report cards to its customers. The cards displayed alleged results of genetic tests containing warnings that embryos might have low intelligence, grow up to be short, or have other conditions such as diabetes. But, according to the MIT Technology Review, “the company has struggled both to validate its predictions and to interest fertility centres in them”. In the month prior to Hsu’s grand announcement, the first major study to test the empirical viability of screening embryos, led by statistical geneticist Shai Carmi of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, concluded that the technology is not plausible.
The lack of scientific substantiation has not stopped Cummings from suggesting a more interventionist vision for the NHS, which could be accused of paving the way for a new form of eugenics. In his February 2019 blog, he wrote: “We can imagine everybody in the UK being given valuable information about their health for free, truly preventive medicine where we target resources at those most at risk, and early (even in utero) identification of risks”. This passage appears to nod to the core eugenics notion of selective breeding using embryo selection. Cummings even went further to endorse the goal of “editing genes to fix problems”.
In a further telling but slightly more well-known passage, Cummings characterised the genomics programme as a precursor to more “realistic views” about IQ and social mobility: “It ought to go without saying that turning this idea into a political/government success requires focus on A) the NHS, health, science, NOT getting sidetracked into B) arguments about things like IQ and social mobility. Over time, the educated classes will continue to be dragged to more realistic views on (B) but this will be a complex process entangled with many hysterical episodes. (A) requires ruthless focus.”
This passage affirms that Cummings’ approach is deliberately deceptive. The focus on health and the NHS is revealed as a cover for a longer-term vision to usher in “more realistic views” about “things like IQ and social mobility”. The passage also lifts the rock on Cummings’ weakest point – that he fears that public attention on these “more realistic views” could “sidetrack” the broader strategy before it reaches fruition.
In the words of Dr David King, Cummings’ deference to Hsu, who “openly advocated eugenics breeding programmes”, suggests that the Prime Minister’s chief advisor “clearly favours this strategy for Britain; of course, this is precisely what all the European countries were trying to achieve in the heyday of eugenics – to overcome their imperialist competitors by improving the ‘national stock’”.
This, it seems, is the essence of Cummings’ ambition to use the NHS genomics prediction programme as a mechanism to provide Britain “natural advantages” over Europe and America.
And in this context, it is impossible to ignore the implications of Cummings’ appointment of Andrew Sabisky to a senior role advising Boris Johnson. When Johnson’s spokespeople were asked repeatedly whether the Prime Minister would condemn Sabisky’s sympathies for racist eugenics, he repeatedly refused. Sabisky later stepped away from the role.
Biometric Surveillance: China-Style
The COVID-19 pandemic has now provided the Government with the opportunity to double down on its goals of extending genome sequencing across the UK population.
While genomic sequencing of the Coronavirus is undoubtedly an important scientific task to map and understand it, the crisis fits neatly into Cummings’ call for a “ruthless focus” on the NHS as a vehicle for Britain’s genetic enhancement.
On 23 March, when the UK finally instituted a lockdown at least three weeks after being informed that hundreds of thousands of people (and potentially up to a million) people were at risk of death from its previous policy of ‘herd immunity’, the Government launched a new scientific research consortium coordinated by Cambridge University along with the Wellcome Sanger Institute, the NHS and Public Health England.
The consortium would gather samples from patients confirmed with COVID-19 and send them to genetic sequencing centres across the country to analyse the whole genetic code of the samples. The project was billed breathlessly as an essential step in being able to “control the pandemic and prevent further spread”.
Unsurprisingly, it has done no such thing. Instead, six weeks later, the UK has ended up with the highest COVID-19 fatality rate in Europe.
As the death toll approaches the same level of British civilian casualties during the Second World War, the Government’s strategy has privileged ambiguous, extortionate high technology solutions, pouring hundreds of millions of pounds into powerful private sector players with no transparency or due process. Meanwhile, traditional, proven, public health strategies such as better border controls, or extensive contact tracing and testing by scaling up local capacity, were inexplicably delayed for months.
On 13 March, the Government launched a new partnership between the NHS, Genomics England, the GenOMICC consortium, and US biotech giant Illumina, to conduct a nationwide human whole genome sequencing study targeting COVID-19 patients in 170 intensive care units.
The Government’s new genome sequencing partner, Illumina, has previously produced genetic sequencing systems marketed to police agencies in China to facilitate its genetic profiling of the minority Uyghur population in Xinjang – the largest system of discriminatory, ethnically-targeted biometric surveillance using DNA ever created.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Dominic Cummings and his fellow ideologues in Government are hell-bent on pursuing a pseudo-scientific vision that has been years in the making. They are using the COVID-19 crisis to erect a corporate superstate powered by mass surveillance and AI. Their grim ambition is to reach into the very DNA of every British citizen.
Dominic Cummings was contacted for this article, but is yet to reply.
*This article was corrected to remove a confusion between Sir David King, the former government chief scientific adviser, and Dr David King, the molecular biologist who is the founder and Director of Human Genetics Alert.