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.)
As a long-time student of genetics, it has been my observation that in humans, the traits of high intelligence and good judgement are unlinked. Smarter people aren’t necessarily wiser people.
I don’t disagree. I don’t think anything in the post implies otherwise.
I think there are a lot of philosophies throughout human history dreamed up by smart people, and subscribed to by smart people, that contradict this basic notion in the post:
Also note… because of philosophies based on ignoring the fact that individuals are individuals, history is replete with peasant revolts where most of the hereditary nobility gets away, but the shopkeeper, the inventor and the scholar get it in the jugular.
I left out the tradespeople… they are also part of the group that usually gets it in the jugular.
i wrote in favor of such planned evolution back in the 80s, and posted it here:
i argued that the native characteristics of humanity, as it is now constituted, is accelerating towards a cataclysmic accident..
hence the conclusion: “the chance for a mistake is not as great as the chance we don’t take…”
Come on, the pro science – or is it the anti science crowd – tells us that GMOs are not safe for you.
Jay, the reason that GMOs are dangerous is that they were created by human beings…if they had been designed by a less fallible and less unscrupulous species, they might not be a problem…
Two things come to mind:
1. Brave New World a-la Huxley’s version
2. The Rich Inherit the Earth.
Unless of course these “edits” will be paid for by a global taxpayer system and cant’ therefore be “purchased by the highest bidder”. and most wealthy societies, cultures, & I daresay political systems controlled by religious “leaders”.
You missed your calling as a futurist….. the Apocalypse predictors and Nostradamus come to mind.
My point about intelligence vs judgement is that, until we figure out the alleles that predict high intelligence *and* the alleles that predict good judgement, none of this means much. Look, AI is growing far faster than our understanding of the genetic drivers of high intelligence and good judgement. Machines are already beating human intelligence. What advantage will Crispr/Cas9 editing for human intelligence have over a non-engineered intellect that harnesses cyberknowledge?
I don’t know much about genetic engineering. But I have a bit more knowledge about AI. The term AI is a misnomer. The term neural net is also a misnomer. Think of them as marketing.
For the most part, what gets termed AI are simply programs that loop through a very large number of iterations of a problem. The faster the program can run, the more times it can loop, and the more times it can loop, the more minor variations can be tried or the more stringent the settings can be that indicate the problem was solved.
The problem is – its all mechanical, and in the absence of specifically adding in a stochastic process into the algorithm, its purely deterministic. With people, philosophers ask about free will. Well, with AI, there is no will at all. The machine does what it is told. It has no desire. It doesn’t care about what its doing, or whether it is doing anything at all. It does things the way a lever or a pulley or a ramp or a wheel does things, and with the same amount of interest that any of those simple machines happens to have.
AI also has no intuition. (I once designed an algorithm and built a prototype that won a small competition. The algorithm beat its competition because I came up with a way to fake human intuition. There was a cash award which enabled my client for whom I designed the algorithm to rebuild the tool with real programmers and incorporate it into some of their existing software. But the key word in the story is “fake” – the intuition I gave the algorithm was nothing but a set of rules.) Again, just like a lever or a wheel.
A human being comes with needs and wants and interests and intuition. Maybe that isn’t enough to beat a machine, even at Chess or Go. But the machine doesn’t even care whether it is playing either game, or doing nothing. The machine may be able to spot patterns that are beyond a person’s capability, but it takes a person to decide that’s a worthwhile problem and to set the machine to do it.
A human being, even one that is cognitively deficient, has interests and desires. A smarter person can come up with more interesting and useful questions. Perhaps it will take a machine running through a zillion small variations of the same loop to solve the problem, but the machine won’t ask the questions in the first place.
There’s nothing apocalyptic in this post.
Your vocabulary and engineering lessons are misdirection. The point is that computers are getting better and better at the things we pay smart people to do. For example, IBM’s Watson is about a good as most physicians at diagnostics.
“A smarter person can come up with more interesting and useful questions.”
An average intellect with superior judgement can also come up with interesting and useful questions. Ideas are cheap. The ability to act productively on ideas is what people pay money for. Smart people can implement ideas, but increasingly so can computers and robots. The speed with which computers can evaluate ideas can supplant human intellect and experience. An analogy can be found in drug discovery. There was a time when pharma invested heavily in structural biology in the belief that intelligent design was the path to new drugs. With the advent of microfluidic chips, brute force has replaced intelligent design.
Humans have been modifying the genetics of organisms for centuries. The organism that was modified to give modern-day maize looks nothing like it. All manner of livestock and agriculture today is the product of genetic modification by human selection. Not to mention the varieties of dogs that are, in some cases, so extreme as to be reproductively isolated.
GMOs, like automobiles, drugs and nuclear power, have good and bad dimensions.
Your response to my comment was:
“There’s nothing apocalyptic in this post.”
Your word in gods ear.