The robot who will conceive your baby

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British IVF pioneer Simon Fishel has just published an autobiographical account of the growth of artificial reproductive technology, Breakthrough Babies. In an article in the Daily Mail he gives a startling account of future developments.

At the moment he has launched the first company to create technology to delay menopause. “By extracting a piece of ovarian tissue when a woman is younger and transplanting it back again later, we now know we can put off the menopause by at least ten years.”

But his most daring prediction is entrusting IVF to robots:

Not too long ago it would have been the stuff of science fiction, but modern robotics only requires economies of scale for this to actually happen.... It sounds terrible to say, but a patient is lucky if she has a good obstetrician and unlucky if she doesn’t.

A robot, however, never has a bad day. Nor does it sneeze or need to pee at an inopportune time, or have to pick up the phone to his or her spouse between cases because there’s an urgent problem at home. Its treatment will be consistent — and it will achieve better results in consequence.

Because of the global development and need for IVF, I’d say the prospect of a robot extracting eggs, injecting sperm, selecting the most viable embryos and then transferring them is feasible, if not imperative.

Dr Fishel anticipates a huge outcry at his proposal for further depersonalising IVF – but he has spent most of his life fending off public outrage. “This aversion to risk has led to what I call the paradox of IVF,” he writes:

To develop something innovative that will help people in a way that’s not been done before, we need to do new things. These new things may not work, and they might even offend people. The regulator doesn’t like that uncertainty. But how can we know if they work on humans, unless we try them on humans? You can see the catch-22 situation I’ve worked in for most of my career.

Here’s a thought: in regulated countries such as the UK, IVF couldn’t be invented today. The regulatory bodies that govern medical research would forbid it.


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