Podbabies: coming to a womb facility near you
A dystopian concept imagines 30,000 lab-grown babies in AI-controlled pods
Are artificial wombs close to realisation? A new concept video from science communicator Hashem Al-Ghaili claims as much. In the form of an advert for a fictional ectogenesis facility, ‘EctoLife’, the 8-minute video visualises a literal baby factory, in which 30,000 lab-grown babies a year are incubated in AI-controlled pods. During this period, their commissioning parents pipe the sound of their own voices to them via an app and experience their baby’s kicks via a ‘haptic suit’.
Such a facility could, the video suggests, make gestation easier, safer, and more convenient, but also allow a far greater degree of control over infant genetics. AI sensors would monitor growth for abnormalities, while genetic engineering at the fertilisation stage would enable commissioning parents to control hair, eye, and skin colour, eliminate genetic diseases and increase strength and intelligence.
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Whether or not you think rich people should be entitled to edit their babies for eugenic reasons probably depends on how you view transhumanism more broadly. My hunch is that disagreements at this level are irreducible: whether you find the idea of genetically engineering your own offspring thrilling or viscerally repulsive is probably not amenable to persuasion either way.
But setting these disagreements aside, when thinking through the implications of biotechnologies that promise greater control of our embodied nature, it’s a good rule of thumb that downsides are easier to see when you imagine how they’d affect the powerless. And it’s hard to think of any class of human that, in absolute terms, has less social and economic capital — in other words, is more vulnerable — than a newborn baby.
The paediatrician and pioneering psychotherapist Donald Winnicott famously observed, “There is no such thing as a baby; only a baby and someone.” That is: babies are radically vulnerable, and the only reason they survive at all is thanks to the care of loving parents. Most centrally, at the earliest stages, this is almost always a devoted loving mother.
Maternal devotion exists not just in humans but across species. Mothers of many different species, as well as humans, show a willingness to risk death to protect their offspring. A motherless infant is such an archetypally pitiable figure because most cultures grasp what a loss it is to grow up without that primary backstop of care, during the most vulnerable years. And the genesis of this visceral instinct is in the process of gestation itself: as Abigail Tucker shows in Mom Genes, the biophysical process of gestation creates radical neurological changes in a woman, which primes her for intense attunement and devotion to the newborn baby. In other words: gestation doesn’t just create a baby, it creates a mother.
What happens, then, if we develop the capacity to create babies without also creating mothers? At the top of the social hierarchy, the answer might well still be loving families; after all, the world is full of great dads, and devoted adoptive parents. And it’s also true, of course, that not every mother is attuned and devoted. Normatively, though, the pattern holds; maternal infanticide or cruelty is so shocking precisely because it’s so rare.
But when we talk about a facility that could manufacture 30,000 podbabies a year, without also manufacturing 30,000 mothers, we’re talking about a potentially infinite wave of motherless children, large numbers of which might have no ‘and someone’, as Winnicott put it. What might the fate of such infants be? We see a glimpse of this future in the dystopian images of rows of un-claimed surrogate babies tended by nannies in war-torn Ukraine, or the disabled surrogate babies rejected by their commissioning parents.
Cheapen gestation and attenuate motherhood still further with a mass-production model, and it’s easy to imagine human life, thus manufactured without motherly love, becoming so cheap as to be worthless. In such a world, motherless babies might be manufactured and warehoused for medical experimentation or the transplant industry, for example, or raised as expendable fodder for the military, for unpleasant or low-status occupations or simply as a slave class.
A mother’s devotion to her baby is the template for our (wavering) belief that all human life has value. When we stop making mothers, we hack at the foundations of that value. Pity the factory-made infants, newborn and helpless in such a world.
This just sounds like a sure road to dystopian hell.
The author condemns the distortion of the mothering role, which would garner support from the vegans (who came out in force in trolling? Unherd comments recently – link below), and who oppose the same mother distortion approach with animals in farms, which is an intriguing hypocrisy.
And her focus on the mass production concept in the video to illustrate the immorality of the whole technology is rather shallow and a cheap shot. That’s not what would happen once such technology makes this possible – and it will happen fairly soon – it’s already around to a lesser degree.
Many thousands (tens of thousands?) of western women are already prepared to subcontract the gestation of their foetus to the wombs of other women, which I find morally questionable myself, and this has been found to result in Oedipal conflicts for the resultant child later in life; if these same women were given the technological opportunity to gestate their own foetus in a ‘mothering box’, avoiding health risks for today’s narcissists and with no attachment to another human rival ‘mother’, I suspect they would enthusiastically embrace that opportunity.
There are many reasons to question the benefits of such a technological approach to gestation, but this article is merely an emotive Luddite howl.
Calling out surrogacy for being horrible doesn’t somehow make this monstrosity more humane. You call out the mass production elements of the argument as a cheap shot with (unexplained) confidence it would never happen (despite the reference in article to a current factory-like model for surrogacy in Ukraine) yet your “cheap Luddite howl” comment is a far more egregious cheap shot.
This technology is horrifying if you value human relationships and specifically the mother-child relationship. Gestating babies connect with their mother to the point of being soothed by the mother’s heartbeat months after birth, which helps with emotional regulation as a toddler and beyond. Taking this soothing mechanism (and the bond itself) away from a baby, whether by surrogacy or by never allowing the baby to have a mother at all, is morally horrifying.
Multiple lines stuck out in your comment, but combination of treating certain technology as inevitable (“it will happen fairly soon”) and your use of Luddite as an insult is telling. Moral frameworks, translated into legal limits, can and should limit technology. We could have a Chinese-style surveillance state right now, but our moral and legal framework has put limits on this, however inadequate.
The idea of technological progress and power as an teleological imperative has led to many horrors over the last few centuries, and your comment reflects a sadly too common view, that horrifying futures must be allowed to manifest because the technology will allow it. As for this particular technology itself, we should reject it, and let the conditioners who would arrogantly try to rewire all of existence stick to their own fantasies.
You misinterpreted my whole position. I was criticising this article for being too narrow and opportunistic in its scope, thus undermining the arguments against the rapidly developing technological support for ‘remote’ gestation – and the better quality discussion that could be had about developing ‘legal and moral frameworks’ you refer to. Some people in the comments have provided that breadth.
Well, my apologies then. I should have read your comment more closely, and indulged in the cardinal internet sin of reacting too quickly. I had just read an article extolling the virtues of surrogacy on another site, I suppose I must be in a somewhat argumentative mood as a result.
Ha! Been there myself David! Maybe needed more clarity from me. I am extremely worried about the various aspects of remote gestation and parenting, and it would have been good if the writer had used this extreme concept to then consider the realities of what’s happening and about to happen, and get the comments from readers too, which I find quite insightful. Instead it’s more of a click bait piece which has resulted in predictable, and appropriate, disgust from commenters, but not much insight on the broader piece.
No, hell is real and this is one of many roads to it. Every tongue will confess.
I have some skin in this debate as an adult adoptee who was given up at birth in 1972 on the grounds of the RC church’s view on babies born out of wedlock. The neuroscience is clear that a close physical bond with responsive breastfeeding is ideal for an infant’s healthy brain development in the first 3 years of life, after which much of the die has already been cast.
Not coincidentally, a close physical bond with responsive breastfeeding has generally been the accepted norm and ideal for the whole of human history except the last few hundred years in industrialised countries.
The blindness to such biological facts is also seen in the issue of adoption by gay men, who by definition cannot provide the bond that nature wires us to need for our brain development.
Although wet nurses have been around for the elite in societies for more than a couple of thousand years now.
That it is now routine for mothers to put their babies into daycare while they go back to work, shows we are on the march towards this motherless future.
The aim of public policy should be to encourage and protect traditional (and ideal) family life.
Maternity pay for mothers from birth until the child reaches school age shouldn’t be beyond the reach of a wealthy society.
Nor should houses cheap enough for a married couple to be able to afford on one wage be impossible(albeit with some scrimping and saving and sacrifice).
(Dramatically reduced immigration numbers, encouraging remote working – to prevent people having to live on the outskirts of cities – and the re-purposing of now redundant city-centre offices and shopping centres as housing, offers us the means to do this. Encouraging mums to stay at home until their kids go to school also reduces the need to import hundreds of thousands of child-minders.)
To slightly paraphrase today’s article on Japan.
“Japan appears to have progressed a lot since” … women prioritised their children over their jobs.
The mindset that a woman’s only acceptable ambition is a career is now so well established it passes unnoticed.
Sounds like the movie “The Matrix”. Perhaps it’s intended to solve our energy crisis.
Wasn’t it also in Brave New World?
It’s awful. The idea of wealthy parents controlling the genetics of their babies is an appalling idea. I’m a big believer in the serendipity of reproduction.
It’s already happening on a large scale in India and China.
It is indeed in Brave New World, a book well worth reading these days.
Just not a good idea. At some level repulsive. At another frightening.
Seems like we are heading for humans without humanity.
Not a future I care to live to see.
But, I also think it is likely inevitable.
The importance and value of a mother in a healthy society. Absolutely right. There’s no society without mothers.
Unfortunately, the word “mother” will become an anachronism in the woke future. And they will call it progress.
I can’t help but wonder: if the hormonal and other changes that “make a mother” during gestation are vital to the sense of motherhood, what about the differences to the developing foetus? The right chemicals and others agents may well be provided (as they’d need to be!), but what about the sense of very close proximity to a mothers heartbeat? A sense also, of being carried around via the day-to-day movement of the mother?
Who knows how the lack of these, even if it’s attempted to provide such things artificially, might impact upon our species?
Also, what about the physiological effects on those mothers who’d choose to have their baby gestated in this way? It’s an established medical fact that women who pass through their childbearing years without ever having their periods stopping during pregnancy are more prone to cancer of the uterus. This was first noticed in nuns. We meddle with such a natural process at our peril.
Good points. I’m no expert but I’ve seen anecdotal evidence that IVF babies are more likely to be emotionally distant as they grow up, which makes sense. A dad of 5 told me once that he can associate the personalities of his children with the interests of him and his wife around their conception and pregnancy. My comment further up may also interest you
Exactly what I was thinking, about the possible effects on the baby from lacking that closeness during gestation. It’s horrifying to think how badly this could go wrong.
Batteries for the Matrix.
None of the downsides looks so bad when you consider what is inflicted on naturally born children on the altar or ‘women’s rights’ and ‘the right to family life’. Neither, apparently assigns the baby any rights, or the parents any responsibilities. So what happens? We turn a blind eye to babies born to the obese, drug and drink addicts, 1st cousins, mothers and fathers who have neither the capacity nor the will to provide the essential shelter, warmth, nurture, encouragement, or example to do other than condemn them to sickness, neglect, misery, abuse, and to becoming yet another turn of the same cycle.
Should just be outlawed, pure and simple
The Luddites will try… to no avail.
Was there not a film made of this idea starring Scarlet Johannson and that Scots actor Ewen whatshisname?
Was it Cloud Atlas (from the novel by David Mitchell)? Rings a bell a sort of dystopia human robot factory in the 25th century in Korea ?
I think you mean ‘The Island’ (spoilers ahoy) where people have sentient clones kept aside for spare parts / organs. They are told they are living in a perfect commune and that they’ve won ‘a lottery’ when it’s their time to be harvested. It’s actually a reasonably amusing movie.
Tangential but related to this article, I have yet another reading recommendation for anyone interested in sci-fi which incidentally explores some of the things we are now beginning to see (like for example zygote banks): the ‘Across Realtime’ series by Vernor Vinge. By no means great literature, but decent storytelling and more importantly, a great ideas factory. The books are stand-alone, the third book is about the best, and that’s where I would head first because the mood is a dirge, a fuge, for a humanity that has departed, and characters from the first and second meet there, the first book is the weakest but still interesting, the middle book, a short novella, is very funny.
I wonder what the range of opinions on this would be if polled exclusively from mothers who have given birth the traditional way within the past few weeks?
Eventually the artificial womb will free women completely from the burden of child bearing and, together with egg freezing, will permit the production of babies regardless of the woman’s age.
If egg freezing “represents the second wave of female emancipation”, then the artificial womb surely represents the third.
The purpose of the artificial womb is not to increase the production of human babies, it’s to free women from the burden and inconvenience of gestation.
Make no mistake, the womb will find its first uses in animal breeding, where the financial rewards will be huge. Extension to humans will initially be to help those women who are unable to bear children, followed closely by the rich and famous who want to avoid the inconvenience and damage to their appearance. Female athletes will be next and then the rest of the female population will get on board.
At some point in the future, even the thought of a woman actually bearing a child will seem archaic, disgusting and primitive.
It’s the future. Like it or not. It can be delayed, but not stopped.
And human life will cease to have true cellular level connection and will consequently cease to have value beyond financial.
It’s a terribly sad outlook.
On the contrary, we can be very optimistic for what is to come. The future is bright indeed.
The artificial womb will allow men and women to lead increasingly separate lives and follow their own path.
Women will be freed from the oppression of the patriarchy and will be able to fully realise their “the future is feminist” goals without obstruction from men. Women will finally be free to build their own world and shape their own society.
For men, the artificial womb together with advanced AI sex bots will liberate them socially and economically from the needs of women. The redirection of resources into creativity and invention will be revolutionary.
This is an abomination to God, the creator. Make no mistake, Jesus is coming and every tongue will confess.
I’m with Christopher Hitchens on this.
I see the failures in this being our future but I have a different view. I recently became a grandmother. My daughter suffered heart failure, lung collapse, blood clot and sepsis during childbirth and we nearly lost her. She was previously healthy. It is recommended that she not have a second child due to the risk of this happening again. This might be an opportunity for her to safely have another baby.
As with every technology, it all depends on how well or badly this is managed. A real conservative would, somehow, find a way to integrate this into a traditional lifestyle.
It sounds impossible now, but I am sure someone could manage it.
Would it/should it be the majority way for raising babies? Now, that is a very different question…
(though solar system colonisation means that it may be the primary way in certain rare circumstances)
This is pure hubris and a deep misunderstanding about the essence of technology. It’s not just tools used by the quasi-divine autonomous human creator; technology transcends and changes us. Ivan Illich and Bernard Stiegler are brilliant on this. Humans without humanity is the future being laid out and it will define the coming politics. And on the question of the conservative attitude, surely conservatism should be about necessary limits, not unbridled technological domination of everything?
The point being missed is this: no one is laying out a future – what is happening is happening because large numbers, within we as humanity, want this to happen, notwithstanding there are many that don’t. Even within conservatism there is a split pretty much down the middle – and I bet you even within the strongly religious sections there will be plenty who will embrace human editing technologies when faced with stark choices. For example imagine such a family is directly faced with the choice of progressing with a foetus which the biomedical profession tells you will have multiple lifelong conditions and will spend many years in pain. Given that most in that situation will not be in a position to challenge the biomedical establishment, what do you think is likely such a family would do if offered the chance to edit the genetics of the foetus or of termination or go right ahead to birth with the conditions?
And just for avoidance of doubt, anyone suggesting that the djinn of actually checking a foetus before it progresses to birth should be reversed, and laws should be passed to mandatory not looking at all until birth, is delusional.
There may be rare circumstances where it is preferable to grow a baby in a pod.
There will be many, many, circumstances where a mother will gaze adoringly at the baby she has just birthed.
The genie can almost never be put back in the bottle, but it can be managed…
A man adopting a baby on his own is a crime against motherhood, then that would be many many victims of war or disaster that would be turfed into the cold for lack of a mother.
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