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candles for the gifted

GIFTED 2009 / Research at RCA Design Interactions

Would it be morally acceptable to genetically alter or influence our unborn children if we knew it would improve their quality of life?

History has shown that humans have long wished to manipulate their identities, abilities and appearances to complex psychological, social and political ends. As genetic technologies develop, their applications are likely to broaden and transcend conventional definitions of the therapeutic. As we are offered a series of more elective or cosmetic procedures, a series of complex ethical dilemmas will arise.

'...we will face tough personal decisions about what is best for our children and what risks and trade-offs we will accept for them. There will be no simple answers. Our personalities and values will shape our attitudes.' (Gregory Stock, Director of the Program on Medicine, Technology and Society UCLA)

Gifted seeks ways of shaping such a future by engaging with the generation who will be faced with such scenarios and decisions, seeking the reactions and opinions of children themselves. The project raises questions about how children might use their own fantasies and dreams to imagine an alternative genetic future, and questions whether it is adults or children who are really in control of the technology. The prototypes I have created help to materialise an imaginary future in which a child's ability is considered before birth and influenced via training and parental supervision throughout development. More specifically, I have explored the possibility of a genetic modification which enables children to absorb higher levels of oxygen, thus enhancing concentration, focus and calmness as well as improving athletic ability and improving general health.

blowfish lung trainer

instrument lung trainer

design workshop

brainstorm of ability enhancements


This work explores the possible motivations of parents who attempt to influence their child's future through genetics, and raises questions about how children themselves might use their own fantasies and dreams to imagine an alternative genetic future. A series of scenarios were explored allowing children to imagine what abilities they might like to have. The children were then encouraged to explain their ideas to their parents, in order to facilitate a discussion about the prospects and merits of a future in which such technology exists.

With the assistance of Dr Sutherland, a surgeon and PhD researcher at Oxford University, a preliminary technical feasibility was discussed. Current research into organ donation is exploring the possibility of inducing a hypoxic state (a pathological condition in which the body as a whole, or region of the body, is deprived of adequate oxygen supply) within individual organs. This condition prevents them from deteriorating during transplant, thereby both increasing the likelihood of the transplant being successful and enabling organs to remain usable for longer.

The children were asked to imagine the implications of a modification to the H1FA gene, one of the seven oxygen sensing genes, which would enable them to survive for longer with less oxygen. In this scenario, a hypoxic state is created within the body, similar to that experienced by populations who live at high altitude in regions such as Tibet or Peru. This would enable the body to survive and continue to perform with less oxygen. In addition, the ability to withstand longer periods of time without oxygen would reduce the risk of brain damage from strokes and heart attacks.

This oxygen ability was used as the inspiration for a series of speculative products that help us to imagine what a child's life might be like with such a capacity to retain more, and to use less oxygen. Such manipulation would not only have objective health benefits, but would also be experienced subjectively by the child concerned, doubtless inspiring ambitions and fantasies centred around the body's ability to retain more oxygen.

The main benefit from the perspective of the children was the prospect of being able to swim and survive under water for longer, and being able to change their interactions with one another as a result of this new imagined world. During a brainstorm, the children imagined sea creatures they wished they could become. Subsequent dialogue about the animals' abilities led to a more in-depth study of what it might take to transfer such traits into the human domain. These ideas are explored in greater depth in Gifted Dreams.