CRISPR Critters

The first applications of gene editing are (will be?) to fix deleterious mutations. Nobody, or almost nobody, will complain when previously horrible diseases get fixed before a child is born. But the practice won’t stop there. There will be a progression of editing services from muscular dystrophy to hairlip to more ahtleticism, and eventually, more hair or a more attractive nose. The last two may take a while.

But what will be really interesting will be the tweaking of genes that fix cognitive issues. Again, its a matter of progression. Nobody – OK, almost nobody – will complain in a decade or three when Downs’ Syndrome is edited out of a fetus. From there, bringing a mildly retarded child to normal is a barely an ethical step at all. After that, well, perhaps someone destined to be of normal intelligence can be made smarter than average, or even a borderline genius along one or another dimension.

The timing of this whole process of enhancement will depend on its complexity and difficulty, and the difficulty of dealing with trade-offs that might exist. It is possible, but unlikely, that a single tweak of the genome will bring a noticeable leap in IQ. But it is more likely to require making a lot of small changes to the genome.

Timing also matters in and of itself. An evolutionary process may cause less social upheaval than a revolutionary process. Its one thing to go from cohorts with today’s intelligence to something we’d call a genius today over a period of a century or more. Its another to achieve that over half of a generation.

But regardless of details, its all coming. At some point there will be generations with large numbers of genetically edited young people. And they will be different. On average, they may have some combination of trait we deem desirable. These include athleticism, beauty, creativity, perseverance and intelligence. But those genetically edited people, however different, will also be the same as the rest of us in a few key ways. They will simply be individuals, trying to make their way through life as well as they can. They won’t be a single monolithic entity, and they won’t behave or think the same. They won’t have the same life trajectories. But like the rest of us, they will all be trying to make a living, and for some of them, their inborn traits will make it that much easier for them to outdistance the competition.

If there is one thing the very diverse members of the edited group will agree upon, it is probably this: there is no way in hell they’ll be voluntarily accepting handicaps Harrison Bergeron-style, to level the playing field. All of this is going to be painful to the un-edited who happen to be around at the time, and who may wish for such handicaps. They may even succeed in getting some handicaps required through strength of law or societal pressure.

Such steps to compensate for an uneven distribution of skills, talent and abilities will create winners, namely those given the leg up. But it will be a short-term, and harmful victory. Holding back the talented, or replacing them with those who are less gifted, simply slows development and innovation, and blocks the tide that would otherwise lift more boats.

(A final note: I guess if I were someone else I might have written the same essay about AI. However, having done some work on the outer edge of the distant periphery of the field, I just don’t believe anyone will be building anything that remotely resembles a self-motivated sentient machine in any future that is remotely foreseeable today. As a result, machines won’t outcompete people. People using machines, though, will outcompete other people, but that makes for a very different post.)