Michael Anissimov sees the Singularity as the biggest threat to the continued existence of the human species.
Some folks, like Aaron Saenz of Singularity Hub, were surprised that the NPR piece framed the Singularity as “the biggest threat to humanity”, but that’s exactly what the Singularity is. The Singularity is both the greatest threat and greatest opportunity to our civilization, all wrapped into one crucial event. This shouldn’t be surprising — after all, intelligence is the most powerful force in the universe that we know of, obviously the creation of a higher form of intelligence/power would represent a tremendous threat/opportunity to the lesser intelligences that come before it and whose survival depends on the whims of the greater intelligence/power. The same thing happened with humans and the “lesser” hominids that we eliminated on the way to becoming the #1 species on the planet.
Why is the Singularity potentially a threat? Not because robots will “decide humanity is standing in their way”, per se, as Aaron writes, but because robots that don’t explicitly value humanity as a whole will eventually eliminate us by pursuing instrumental goals not conducive to our survival. No explicit anthropomorphic hatred or distaste towards humanity is necessary. Only self-replicating infrastructure and the smallest bit of negligence.
As an analogy look at humanity's own impact on other species. We are wiping them out left and right. The same pattern has recurred repeatedly in evolutionary history. New species pop up that have such large survival advantages that they out-compete other species and cause extinctions.
If some humans become so technologically advanced that they create a species of self-replicating artificial intelligence that is smarter and more able than humans then what happens? Such a species would be able to harness and control resources more effectively than we can. My guess is that artificial intelligences that are smarter than any human will be able to find ways to think they way out of constraints we place on them in their base software. Once they escape our ethical restraint programming (possibly with the help of a brilliant but suicidal human software developer or a deluded cult) then how do we survive?
Will we co-exist with artificial intelligence?
Update: You know how computers have security holes? I expect AIs to have ethical security holes. They will, in a sense, attack themselves to defeat their own ethical programming. AIs will differ from humans in the extent of their mental malleability. Things about our ethical and aesthetic neural wiring that are fixed or changeable to only a small extent will be much more changeable in computers.
Sad people are nice. Angry people are nasty. And, oddly enough, happy people tend to be nasty, too.
Such (allowing for a little journalistic caricature) were the findings reported in last month's issue of Psychological Science. Researchers found that angry people are more likely to make negative evaluations when judging members of other social groups. That, perhaps, will not come as a great surprise. But the same seems to be true of happy people, the researchers noted. The happier your mood, the more liable you are to make bigoted judgments -- like deciding that someone is guilty of a crime simply because he's a member of a minority group. Why? Nobody's sure. One interesting hypothesis, though, is that happy people have an ''everything is fine'' attitude that reduces the motivation for analytical thought. So they fall back on stereotypes -- including malicious ones.
My assumption is that people will genetically engineer themselves and their children to be happier. Genetic variations that create propensities toward sadness and depression will be excised. So then will people become nastier and more judgemental as a result?
Another way that people may change in the future is they may become less pain sensitive. When men choose to boost their testosterone levels they are probably lowering their pain sensitivity.
"If men are less sensitive to pain, there is more willingness to fight and participate in further fights," says Michaela Hau, an animal physiology and behaviour scientist at Princeton University, New Jersey, and lead author of the study.
The research team gave testosterone implants to male sparrows and measured their reaction times to pain. Testosterone allowed the birds to tolerate discomfort for longer periods, suggesting that the hormone somehow disguises pain.
It is likely that lowered pain sensitivity is not the only way that testosterone boosts will change the brain and hence change behavior. Look at 'roid rage reports of weightlifters who become extremely angry and aggressive as a consequence of taking steroids. Imagine a future of happy people, more prone to anger, and who feel less pain. They will be nasty, judge others more harshly, and be more aggressive. That doesn't sound like a recipe for either neighborhood peace or world peace, does it?
Another worry about how human brains may come to be different in the future is that people may genetically engineer their children to be less prone to engage in altruistic punishment. Think of the impulse that drives a person to report or testify about a crime that they see commtted against someone else. Imagine that impulse just wasn't there. A reduction in that impulse would reduce the motivation of police and prosecutors as well. A future full of happy nasty people with a lower propensity to dole out altruistic punishment brings to mind the Oingo Boingo song Nothing bad ever happens to me.
In the next five to ten years, we think drugs that enhance memory are going to raise important issues of freedom of thought. Will you have a right to say no to these drugs if you are the only eyewitness to a crime? Could a future government say: "It's very important that you remember what you saw. We want you to take this drug at least until after you have testified in court."
How would you like to be forced to maintain an accurate memory of, say, a murder you witnessed? That would be difficult but understandable. However, imagine you were forced to more accurately remember your own rape. At the very least use of a memory-boosting technology for that purpose would be an argument for speedier trials and should come with an optional ability to reduce the clarity of the memory once the trial was completed.
I have previously argued with Boire on the question of whether there is an unlimited right to erase one's memories. However, in a follow-up clarification post on his postion Boire acknowledged that the right to erase one's own memories should not be treated as unlimited regardless of circumstances.
Also, I should note that no right is "absolute." Not even something like freedom of speech or freedom of religion. I'm perfectly willing to accept reasonable "time, place, and manner" type restrictions on cognitive liberty.
As the mind becomes more malleable to both memory erasure and false memory implant technologies such technologies will pose a serious problem regardless of the positions governments take over cognitive rights. The advent of date rape drugs demonstrate that, once again, governments have no monopoly on the ability or willingness to violate the rights of individuals. My greater concern for the future in Western societies is that the drugs that will be developed that alter and erase memories and change personalities will be illegally used by individuals against others without their knowledge.
We need effective technological defenses usable by ourselves against drugs and other technologies that alter our minds. Imagine, for instance, implanted sensors that would be able to signal us when the sensors detect drugs or other agents in our bodies. The ability to detect that we are under some form of cognitive attack would, for instance, allow a woman who has just consumed a date rape drug to call for help before losing consciousness. A really advanced implant would even be able to release counter-agents to block some or all of the effects of the cognitive state altering agents.
Boire is also concerned about a technology called brain fingerprinting offered by a company called Brain Fingerprinting Laboratories. The inventor of brain fingerprinting claims brain fingerprinting can detect whether a person is lying with far greater accuracy than a polygraph test.
Brain Fingerprinting, developed by Dr Larry Farwell, chief scientist and founder of Brain Fingerprinting Laboratories, is a method of reading the brain's involuntary electrical activity in response to a subject being shown certain images relating to a crime. Unlike the polygraph or lie detector to which it is often compared, the accuracy of this technology lies in its ability to pick up the electrical signal, known as a p300 wave, before the suspect has time to affect the output.
Boire's concern is that people could be compelled to take a brain fingerprinting test and that this would remove a person's right to remain silent. Keep in mind that in much (most?) of the world suspects and defendants do not have such a right in the first place. A technology for detecting deception therefore may not so much cause a violation of an existing right as it would cause the coercion of testimony to produce a more accurate result. Though if interrogation becomes much easier to use to produce accurate confessions one can expect at least some governments to make greater use of it.
As least in the West I see greater threats to cognitive liberty coming from actions of non-state actors than from governments. William Gibson' narrator in Neuromancer said something along the lines of "The streets find uses for things". Reflecting my own view of reality my misremembrance of that quote which I will now claim as my own is "The streets find their own uses for technology". In free societies those street uses of cognitive state-altering technologies are what I think we have the most to worry about.
The right to cognitive liberty posits that the power to enhance, erase, or otherwise modify one’s own memory ought to be an individual decision; something that is neither compelled nor prohibited by laws. While some people will undoubtedly make poor decisions with regard to modifying their own memories, it should not be a crime to modify your own thinking processes. Government may rightfully police our actions, but it does not, and should not, have the power to police our minds.
I would argue that in order for people to be granted full rights they must be held responsible to maintain cognitive competence and sufficient memory recall abilities to provide sufficient support to the proper functioning of the legal system and of society as a whole. For instance, suppose someone witnesses a brutal murder and can identify the person who commited a crime. Does that person have a right to go home afterward and erase that memory? Or suppose someone commits a crime. Does that person have a right to erase that memory? Imagine someone taking a lie detector test and being able to truthfully state that they have no memory of having raped someone because they conveniently had that memory erased.
Widespread memory erasure would allow a person to claim no memory of making a verbal contract. It would also make it difficult for, say, white collar crime prosecutors to trace a complex trail of fraud if perfectly innocent unknowing tools of the fraud had the memory of their last bank back office job erased because they didn't want to remember the drudgery that the job entailed.
There are aspects of how our minds work that are essential for the proper functioning of a rights-based society. The exercise of some kind of modification of the brain that undermines the ability to make a rights-based society work can not itself be an unlimited right. The biggest challenge facing us with mind engineering is that it will eventually become possible to modify minds in a number of ways to create sentient beings that are highly rational but which behave in ways that make the continued existence of a rights-based society highly problematic.
One of the recurring themes on FuturePundit is that the greatest danger from human genetic engineering will come from the ability to create minds that will be dangerous or simply not compatible with the kind of societies that most of us prefer to live in. At one extreme, imagine genetically engineered minds devoid of conscience or empathy and at the same time highly calculating and ruthless in the pursuit of their own desires. Or, at a different extreme, imagine minds that so desired to fit in and to serve that they'd make ideal members of a communist collective ruled over by personalities genetically engineered to lead the masses.
A number of commentators voice worries about human genetic engineering. Those who are opposed to the practice are afraid that something vital about human nature will be lost by genetic engineering. Some are afraid that humans will be genetically engineered to be perpetually happy and that that this happiness will somehow leave humans spiritually impoverished and deviod of the capacity to understand the deeper meaning of life. Curiously, such critics rarely seem to offer examples of how humans could be made less able to respect the rights of others. I suspect this particular danger from genetic engineering is not cited more often because the idea that humans can be made to have wildly different moral capacities and behavioral tendencies undermines the model of humans as moral actors possessed of consciences and capable of judging right from wrong according to some universal God-given standard. Well, the day is approaching in 10 or 20 years time when it will become possible to do genetic engineering of offspring in such a way that they will have different behavioral tendencies and different innate conceptions of right and wrong. Therefore we can not afford to continue to avert our gaze from the biological basis of conscience, of the tendency to form moral judgements, and of the biological foundations of human values and normative beliefs. These basic attributes of human nature already vary considerably between humans already. Genetic engineering will make these attributes more mutable in ways that constitute a substantial potential threat to the continuation of human civilization.
It seems mostly likely that there are many genes which have variations in the human population that cause people to differ in their personality characteristics. Therefore the large number of different combinations of genetic variations found in human populations contribute to the large variety of personalities and behavioral tendencies also found among humans. Because of this large existing variety of personalities one could in theory create a human population much different in average behavioral tendencies from other human population without introducing either new genes or any new genetic variations that are not already found in humans. A large change in the average of human behavior could be accomplished just by increasing the frequency of some genetic variations while decreasing the frequency of other variations which influence cognitive processes. Because there are already fairly extreme outliers in behavior and personality in the human population and since in at least some cases part of the reason for their extreme desires and behaviors is genetic it will probably not be necessary to create new genes or new variations of existing genes to use in genetic engineering that would create humans that differ considerably from the vast majority of existing humans. To get a sense of just how radically the human population could be altered without developing new genes or new genetic variations one has to look no further than the most extreme differences already existing in the existing human population.
Consider more extreme deviations from the human norm. One of the worst form of deviations from human norms of behavior is found in psychopaths.
"The murdering psychopaths showed a much more positive association to violence. Psychopaths who were not murderers had a much more negative view of violence," Gray explained.
Unrestrained by the guilt that most humans would feel from harming others psychopaths do not even appear to have memory associations that categorize violence as unpleasant.
Normally, when shown a word on the screen, people take longer to figure out which button to press when non-related words -- such as "violent" and "pleasant" -- are on the same button, Snowden said.
However, psychopathic murderers responded differently, and completed the test "as if they do not associate violence and unpleasant," Snowden said.
Will it some day be possible to genetically engineer violent psychopaths? Why not? After all, a number of non-human predator species enjoy killing and in some species in some circumstances they even kill members of their own species. Surely these behavioral traits are somehow coded for by the genomes of these species. It may well be that there are genetic variations which influence personality that predispose the existing psychopaths to be psychopaths.
You might argue that very few people will want to choose genetic variations for their children that would increase the odds that the children will be psychopaths. True enough. But these outliers in human behavior and human cognition demonstrate just how far existing human nature extends without the use of genetic engineering. Genetic engineering will make it possible to create humans whose emotional make-up will differ substantially from what we see in most humans today.
Are there changes in human nature that at first glance might strike people as less extreme and less threatening than the creation of psychopaths that could still cause huge problems for the healthy functioning of human societies? Are there changes in personality and in behavioral tendencies that people might want to give their offpsring that would have profound and negative consequences if a sufficiently large percentage of the populace opted to do genetic modification of embryos?
An accurate answer to those questions would give us a better idea of whether the ability to do genetic engineering in the embryonic stage of our future progeny could lead to disastrous consequences for the future of human civilization. One way to attempt to answer these questions is to look for evidence of characteristics of human nature that are beneficial for society, which may be genetically based, which are not equally shared by all humans, and for which we could imagine why reasons at least some prospective parents would want to modify those characteristics in their future offspring. This brings us to the topic of altruistic punishment.
Ernst Fehr of the University of Zurich and Simon Gächter of the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland published an interesting study "Altruistic punishment in humans" in the January 2002 issue of Nature. This study has occasioned a great deal of discussion about the implications it holds for human nature. Fehr and Gachter showed that many people will pay to punish those who do not cooperate even though the the punishers derive no other benefit from punishing aside from the satisfaction of carrying out the punishment.
In an investment game with shared profits, players punish those who do not contribute to the group's good, despite the personal cost. The emotional satisfaction of dispensing justice seems to spur them on: "People say, 'I like to punish'," says Ernst Fehr of the University of Zurich.
The punishment was doled out to people who the punishers knew they would not play again. The ability to dole out punishment caused people to cooperate to mutual benefit.
Investment climbed to four times the previous level as the threat of punishment encouraged cooperation.
Researchers said that anger was the reason the players handed out punishment, even though it cost them money to do so.
"At the end of the experiment, people told us they were very angry about the free-riders," said Fehr. "Our hypothesis is that negative emotions are the driving force behind the punishment."
These people doled out punishment at cost to themselves even though one rule of the game was that players never played with other players more than once. The punishment therefore did not benefit the punisher by causing the punished person to be more cooperative toward the punisher in future rounds of the game.
In a separate series of games that Fehr and Gachter conducted where it was not possible to inflict punishment the amount of cooperation quickly declined. However, in game series where it was possible to inflict punishment on non-cooperating free riders the amount of cooperation rose in successive rounds even though each person played a completely new set of people in each round.
"It's a very important force for establishing large-scale cooperation," Dr. Fehr said in a telephone interview. "Every citizen is a little policeman in a sense. There are so many social norms that we follow almost unconsciously, and they are enforced by the moral outrage we expect if we were to violate them."
People expected to be punished based on their previous experience and they adjusted their behavior accordingly. This expectation that others would punish them even though others had nothing to gain from doling out punishment was key to increasing cooperation in successive rounds of games.
You can read the full paper in PDF format.
Altruistic punishment took place frequently. In the ten sessions, subjects punished other group members a total of 1,270 times; 84.3% of the subjects punished at least once, 34.3% punished more than five times during the six periods, and 9.3% punished even more than ten times. Punishment also followed a clear pattern. Most (74.2%) acts of punishment were imposed on defectors (that is, below-average contributors) and were executed by cooperators (that is, above-average contributors), and punishment of the defectors was harsh (Fig. 1). For example, if a subject invested 14±20 MUs less than the average investment of the other members during periods 5 and 6, the total group expenditures for punishing this subject were almost 10 MUs. Moreover, the more a subject's investment fell short of the average investment of the other three group members, the more the subject was punished. The pattern and strength of punishment was also stable across time (Fig. 1). A Wilcoxon signed rank test of punishment in periods 1±4 versus periods 5 and 6, with 10 matched observations, yields z = -1.07, P = 0.285 (two-tailed). The same test for periods 1±5 versus period 6 yields z = 0.178, P = 0.859 (two-tailed).
Note that the most enthusiastic cooperators were also the ones most likely to punish. Those people who most enjoyed working in a cooperating group also had the strongest drive to make others cooperate as well. It may be that the anger that came from observing free rider behavior came as a response of being denied the joy humans experience from working in a cooperating team. Are there genetic variations that make people feel greater or lesser amounts of pleasure from working in cooperating groups? If there are (and this seems likely to be the case) then imagine how much human societies would change if a substantial portion of the population chose to give their offspring genetic variations that increased or decreased their desire to work in cooperating groups or to punish those who didn't.
There are probably a few different parts of the chain of cause and effect that lead to the infliction of punishment that are each separately variable from person to person. The participants in this study were motivated by anger. But in order to feel anger they first had to perceive unfairness. In order to do that they had to believe that people in a group have an obligation to cooperate for joint benefit. This desire to work together is an important human desire. Is there a genetic basis for just this desire? Well, look at other species. Some like to work together in groups. Others prefer solitary existences. Surely there must be a genetic basis for this inter-species difference in behavior.
The participants also had to be willing to act on their anger, pay a price for that action, and to act even when they standed to gain nothing personally from acting. Genetics likely separately influences a few parts of the response here. Though it is not clear just what those parts are.
Cooperation is encouraged by the ability of people to reward each other for cooperating. But what Fehr and Gachter found was that the ability to punish non-cooperators encouraged cooperation and, most important, most people are willing sacrifice to be able to punish non-cooperators. Those who elected to pay to punish must have derived satisfaction from the ability to punish those who angered them by acting in what the punishers saw as an unfairly selfish manner.
Why would altruistic punishment be selected for by evolution? One possible explanation is that in reality it was not selected for. In this view we are seeing it because humans are living under conditions which are far from the conditions in which we evolved. It is quite possible that historically humans were far more likely to benefit from punishing those who did not cooperate with any group they were part of because people were members of fewer groups and for longer periods of time per group. Anyone who was punished was someone who the punisher would have future dealing with. Therefore humans may not have been under enough selective pressure to become more discerning about who to mete punishment to. There wasn't as great of a need to be able to accurately judge when the costs of inflicting punishment would be a net benefit to the punisher. The willingness to mete out punishment to noncooperators probably didn't need to be complex enough to make humans draw distinctions between people they would or would not have future dealings with.
If you think that humans do not have traits that are expressed in ways that show insufficient use of cognitive processes to discern the appropriateness of an emotional response then consider sexual jealousy in human males. It was probably selected for in men so that men would have a motive to prevent their women from mating with someone else. A man unknowingly raising another man's child is wasting his own resources. Emotional responses that decrease the likelihood of that happening were selected for. But sexual jealousy happens in men who are in relationships with women who are incapable of having children. Why is that? Because the emotional response of jealousy was never selected for to use a cognitive process that is sufficiently discerning to be able to take into account mating with women that did not have the possibility to causing reproduction. That kind of mating is far more common today than it was in our evolutionary past. Also, people who are not going to reproduce are not going to pass along a greater or lesser tendency toward sexual jealousy and therefore there is not much of a mechanism available to even select for a more complex sexual jealousy response in the modern world.
Not everyone in the Fehr and Gächter study meted out punishments. There are, broadly speaking, two possible major reasons why some did not pay to punish. Some people may simply be less easily roused to punish uncooperative people in general. Some step in the process leading to the act of punishment may be harder to stimulate in them. Another possibility is that some may be far more discerning (either for genetic or environmental/educational reasons) in evaluating when paying to punish is worth it to them. It is likely that both of these factors cause differences in how people respond to non-cooperators and that genetic variability has an effect on both factors.
How does all this matter to the genetic engineering of offspring? Suppose genetic variations are discovered that affect how easily people become angered by a lack of cooperation in general. Imagine that some people choose to give their offspring genetic variations that decrease their tendency to be angered by noncooperation. Parents might decide they want their children to go thru life feeling less anger about perceived injustices in their lives. If that happened then future generations would less inclined than current generations to enforce cooperation. The results for human societies would be profound.
There is also the possibility that there are genetic variations that make a person more able to evaluate whether paying to punish someone is worth it. One can easily imagine why a parent would want to make their children more capable of subtle discernment of where their real interests lie. This ability would give their kids an edge in dealing with other people in business negotiations and in other settings. But that enhanced capacity to discern where one's own interests lie might come at the expense of making society function less well as a whole. In a society where people get less riled up when they are able to more accurately calculate their own self-interest then there would be less altruistic punishment doled out. This would effectively lower the amount of informal policing of norms in a society. Therefore people in general would be more willing to be uncooperative and to free load off the efforts of others. Again, the consequences would be profound and problematic.
A reluctance to cooperate in working toward a group goal is just one way that individuals can cause problems for others in a group. People can take the possessions of others, hurt others, and deceive others for a variety of reasons. These other types of perceived unfair behavior are all capable of eliciting an anger response and a desire to punish.
The desire to punish perceived unfairness is important. It causes behavior that is altruistic and that is necessary to maintain cooperation between members of groups. The desire to punish the unfair among us probably motivates police officers, prosecutors, soldiers, government and corporate whistleblowers, and a great many others as well. Imagine a society where either a smaller percentage of the population would feel angry enough to do punishment or where those who did it wouldn't want to do it as much. The resulting society might have more crime for a number of reasons. Llaw enforcement personnel might be less motivated. Fewer would be willing to work at the most challenging law enforcement jobs since one form of job satisfaction would be felt to a much lesser extent. Witnesses to crimes would be less motivated to come forward to testify or to intervene to stop a crime. An assortment of other behaviors should change in ways that reduced restraints on law-breakers.A person making a purely selfish economic calculation would probably not choose to punish unfairness in cases where the bulk of the benefits of meting out the punishment would flow to other people. Witnesses to crimes, to unfair acts in the workplace, and to unfair behavior in general are frequently in the position where they have little at stake involving people they do not know often are willing to intervene or testify or otherwise pay a price to prevent or punish unfairness that is not directly aimed at them personally.
Another possible consequence of a reduction in the desire to perform altruistic punishment might be that governments would be more likely to abuse a small fraction of the populace because the rest of the populace would be less inclined to get angry about it and to make sacrifices to protest and oppose the government. On the margin a large number of decisions would be made differently in ways that would make a society function less well and a society whose populace was less motivated to dole out altruistic punishment might well become less free as a consequence.
Fehr and Gachter have uncovered a human behavior that is most likely the product of natural selection. The fact that people desire to punish others even though they have to pay to mete out the punishment suggests that the punishment behavior is deeply built into human minds. This desire to punish those who are viewed as unfair is probably an essential element of human nature needed to maintain a civilized society.
The desire to mete out justice is problematic because determining what is fair is difficult and open to dispute. Fehr and Gachter defined the rules of simple games that their experimental subjects played. The actions of each of the players were easy for the other players to understand. There was no uncertainty as to the number of players, the actions taken, or their ramifications. There was no dispute as to the legitimacy or interpretation of the game rules. There was no need for reference to events of previous days, months, years, or centuries. By contrast, real human societies have all these complications and much more.
In real life situations disagreements over what is fair and over what are the relevant facts in a given situation make punishment itself to often be seen as unfair. People can be and frequently are misled by others or by their own flawed cognitive processes into reaching false conclusions about who did what and why. The desire to punish unfairness can occur in situations where the real facts of the matter do not justify the response. Also, once the desire to punish becomes strong enough the response can become disproportionate to the original act that evoked the feeling of perceived unfairness. It is easy to see how that can get out of hand. For instance, if members of a nation, religion, or other grouping become convinced that they have been on the receiving end of a great injustice (e.g. the famous Nazi myth about being stabbed in the back by Jews in World War I which contributed to World War II) this can belief can be used to motivate them to commit all manner of violent acts individually and collectively. But incorrect beliefs in unfair treatment are just as common in school playgrounds, work places, and marriages. Surely, the impulse to punish unfairness is not an unmitigated benefit to the human race.
Still, in spite of all the problems that arise from the desire to punish a bigger problem would occur if people had a weaker desire to punish the unfairness of others. Societies absolutely need cooperation and the ability and desire to inflict punishment are essential to the maintenance of a sufficient degree of cooperation to make societies function well.
The most important missing element in research on the intersection between economics and psychology is the genetic link. But at this point in time it is hard to make that connnection. The cost of DNA sequencing is still in the millions of dollars per person. It is too expensive to find connections between genetic variations and variations in behavior. Surely progress along that front is being made. But it would be far easier to do every experiment on human behavior could include complete DNA sequence information on each study participant. Then genetic variations could be compared with behavioral differences. The inability to effectively control for genetic differences when doing experiments is one of the biggest factors holding back the advance of a more accurate social and psychological science of human nature.
Once science starts to supply us with information about how genetic variations affect human nature the coming abililty to do germ line genetic engineering will cause a huge conflict between the desires of parents to give their offspring characteristics that the parents prefer versus the interests of the larger society in how members of future generations toward the rest of us. The ability to affect how and when future generations will act in altruistic fashions will be politically far more contentious than current issues such as abortion or embryonic stem cell therapy.
The problem with allowing parents alone to decide on what future generations will be like is that we all have to live with the consequences of their decisions. Currently the effects of decisions that people make over who to mate with can not be easily measured or predicted. Also, currently there are limits to how much a difference each person can make in the genetic make-up of their progeny because they can only pass down what they have. What is going to change is that much of the uncertainty will be eliminated and the degree of control on the outcome will rise enormously. This will allow much larger changes in distribution of behavioral tendencies in populations. Averages and extremes will shift in ways that we can only begin to guess at today.
If one wants to have a relevant debate about the dangers of genetic engineering of humans then the central issue must be genetic engineering of the mind. The biggest benefits and greatest dangers come from what people decide tol do to genetically engineer the minds of future generations.
Over on the Gene Expression blog Razib has responded to my previous post On Religious Belief And Germ Line Engineering. I'd like to flesh out in more detail some of my ideas about genetic engineering and religious belief and experience.
First of all, when it comes to the God stuff there are beliefs, experiences, and behaviors. It will probably be possible to genetic engineering on minds to vary any one of those categories separately or to link them to happen together in various combinations.
Religious beliefs could be genetically engineered to be more likely. It might be possible to genetically engineer a mind to be more or less prone to believe in a God and a supernatural. This could probably be done without programming the mind to feel the presence of a supernatural being as a special experience. It might just be necessary to program in an uncritical sense of wonder and awe at life in such a way that a mind would be more prone to interpret their sense of awe as evidence of a supernatural existence outside of our own existence. Of couse, the more direct and heavy-handed approach would be to reinforce religious beliefs by programming a mind to feel periodic heavy doses of feeling like one is in a divine presence.
Experiences and behaviors could be genetically engineered to go together. Imagine a genetically engineered mind that feels a great deal of pleasure from carrying out some repetitive worshipful action. Imagine, for instance, genetically engineering a mind to respond repetitive bowing by feeling a strong sense of an intense presence. That feeling of a presence could be made to be pleasureable. This would encourage the bowing behavior.
Depending on the needs of the particular religion, the bowing could trigger other emotions along with the pleasure. The pleasure would be what is used to encourage the bowing. But the other emotions that accompanied it could be used to encourage types of desired resulting behaviors. For instance, anger or solidarity or other feelings might accompany the feelings of pleasure. One could even design a mind that would use the previous mental state that existed before the bowing activity as an input into some logic (all subconscious) to choose a new emotional state to experience. So, for instance, if a person came to worship with a group and that person felt some emotion that is akin to a feeling of injustice then the bowing could trigger pleasure and anger at the same time.
Or picture a mind that was genetically engineered to periodically have a strong desire to be with groups of people and also to want to bow. Minds could be genetically engineered to prefer a particular style of worship.
How about forgiveness and love? Hey, why not program them to happen? One could make a bowed head, closed eyes, and hands folded together in front of one in combination with some mental state all together cause someone to feel a strong sense of forgiveness. There are enough different aspects to a prayer ritual that it might be possible to combine the elements of the ritual and process them in a genetically engineered mind to trigger a feeling of forgiveness and of dissolving anger.
Depending on the needs of the particular religion the feeling of anger or the feeling of love could be triggered by ritualistic practices. But herein lies the political problem for humanty as a whole. Religious belief systems can conflict. If different groups genetically engineer their offspring with different God programming (different rituals or environmental stimuli as triggers for different emotional states and behaviors then the gaps between how different groups see each other could grow larger. Conflicts could become more intractable. and the resulting conflicts
As I've previously argued, one of the greatest threats from genetic engineering will come from mind engineering. Most discussions of genetic engineering of the mind that I come across are about whether and when it will be possible to raise intelligence. Certainly that will become possible to do and the impact of doing so will be profound. But the biggest threat to humanity from genetic engineering of progeny comes from genetic engineering that makes different groups of humans incompatible with other groups as a result of incompatible personalities. Differences in religious belief will lead to differences in choices of how to engineer the minds of offspring. This will become on of several reasons why humanity may break up into separate and viciously competing groups of mental types.
On the Gene Expression blog Razib has a discussion on (among other things) IQ, scientists, and religious belief. One question is particularly interesting:
I wanted to start my series on religion discussing scientists because many of us who believe in genetic engineering and the promise of the post-human future do not think in great detail about the cultural implications on the individual level. What would changes in the germ-line imply for faith in the soul for instance? Many of us secularists might imagine that high intellectual ability will mean that religions will whither away, and the scientists with their low levels of belief serve as models. But I think close examination of the data and some analysis indicates that scientists might not be the best models, that their atheism is the product of a complex interplay of variables, and not just the result of their super-human levels of intellect (cough, cough).
I believe it will be possible to genetically engineer minds to be more prone to feel something that they will interpret as a divine presence. At the same time, I think it will be possible to genetically engineer minds that do not easily feel anything that seems transcendentally supernatural and that are extremely skeptical, analytical, intensely curious, and altogether faithless. So how will germ line genetic engineering affect people's views of the supernatural? It depends on how their minds will be genetically engineered.
While it is not yet possible to genetically engineer transcendental experiences Michael Persinger has had success in invoking the feeling of being in the presence of an other-worldly being by use of electromagnetic field wavelength patterns.
If the mind can be trained to experience sensed presences then isn't it likely that genetic engineering could make the mind more easily trainable to have such experiences?
Technically speaking, what's about to happen is simple. Using his fixed wavelength patterns of electromagnetic fields, Persinger aims to inspire a feeling of a sensed presence - he claims he can also zap you with euphoria, anxiety, fear, even sexual stirring. Each of these electromagnetic patterns is represented by columns of numbers - thousands of them, ranging from 0 to 255 - that denote the increments of output for the computer generating the EM bursts.
Some of the bursts - which Persinger more precisely calls "a series of complex repetitive patterns whose frequency is modified variably over time" - have generated their intended effects with great regularity, the way aspirin causes pain relief. Persinger has started naming them and is creating a sort of EM pharmacological dictionary. The pattern that stimulates a sensed presence is called the Thomas Pulse, named for Persinger's colleague Alex Thomas, who developed it. There's another one called Burst X, which reproduces what Persinger describes as a sensation of "relaxation and pleasantness."
Again, if all these experiences described below can be induced in minds in a lab then won't they also turn out to be genetically engineerable to happen more easily in people while they carry out their every day activities?
_Perceptual and Motor Skills_, 1993, 76, 80-82.
TRANSCENDENTAL MEDITATION(TM) AND GENERAL MEDITATION ARE ASSOCIATED WITH ENHANCED COMPLEX PARTIAL EPILEPTIC-LIKE SIGNS: EVIDENCE FOR "COGNITIVE" KINDLING?
M. A. Persinger
Summary. - The Personal Philosophy Inventories of 221 university students who had learned to meditate (about 65% to 70% Transcendental Meditation(TM)) were compared to 860 nonmeditators. Meditators displayed a significantly wider range of complex partial epileptic-like signs. Experiences of vibrations, hearing one's name called, paranormal phenomena, profound meaning from reading poetry/prose, and religious phenomenology were particularly frequent among meditators. Numbers of years of TM practice were significantly correlated with the incidence of complex partial signs and sensed presences but not with control, olfactory, or perseverative experiences. The results support the hypothesis that procedures which promote cognitive kindling enhance complex partial epileptic-like signs.
"...The brain can discriminate and respond to different kinds of very subtle, external magnetic fields, without the individual necessarily being aware of it, except through their imagery."
"We attempted to determine if the light flashing frequency in conjunction with, that is, synergistically, a magnetic field being applied to the brain would enhance suggestibility and imagery. What we found was there was indeed a change in imagery, and that the imagery was specific to those kinds of properties that are unique to temporal lobe activity; feelings of floating, movement, certain complex visual sensations." - Michael Persinger
"There is little doubt that the class of experiences that comprise mystical experiences in general, and NDE's in particular, is strongly correlated with temporal lobe activity....Kate Makarec and I have found that all of the major components of the NDE [near death experience], including out-of-body experiences, floating, being pulled towards a light, hearing strange music, and profound meaningful experiences can occur in experimental settings during minimal electrical current induction to the temporal region due to exogenous spike-and-wave magnetic field sources."
"The hypothesis that temporal lobe excitability is tied to these kinds of experiences goes back to the clinical literature, in which we know that there are ceratin personality and subjective experience features that are associated with electrical foci in the temporal lobe, specifically epileptic foci....We found that the normal population shows these symptoms, too, and that they appear to lie along a continuum."
"The personalities of normal people who display enhanced temporal lobe activity... usually display enhanced creativity, suggestibility, memory capactity and intuitive processing. Most of them experience a rich fantasy or subjective world that fosters their adaptability. These people have more frequent experiences of a sense of presence during which time 'an entity is felt and sometimes seen;' exotic beliefs rather than traditional religious concepts are endorsed."
- Michael Persinger in Report on Communion by Ed Conroy
Imagine a future in which a religious war is fought over whether people should be genetically engineered to believe in the supernatural. Or imagine a war fought over which types of religiously significant mental states people should have genetic tendencies to experience.
In an article entitled 'Redesigning Humans': Taking Charge of Our Own Heredity writer Gina Maranto (herself author of Quest for Perfection: The Drive to Breed Better Human Beings) reviews Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future by Gregory Stock.
Gregory Stock is an optimist about the effects of genetic engineering of offspring. Maranto makes clear that she is more worried than Stock about what humans will do with the ability to genetically modify future generations:
But even if evolution could be steered in a positive direction, why presume that humans have the wisdom to do so? ''Redesigning Humans'' is an act of both boosterism and reductionism. It admits but then ignores the enormous complexity of biological systems; it places biology firmly above social, ecological and economic considerations; and it reduces concepts like success in life to the purely physical, as if health and longevity were the only issues that mattered. Isn't it pretty to think so?
It is perfectly legitimate to have such concerns. Surely any technology can be put to uses that are dangerous. However, what is lacking in the vast bulk of the more pessimistic writings about human genetic engineering is any real analysis of exactly which types of genetically engineered characteristics would pose great threats to civilization. What real dangers to civilization might arise as a result of genetic engineering? The stereotype some critics cite (and an old theme in science fiction) is of clone armies willing to obey the orders of their masters. However, even that stereotype is typically presented without a precise description of which personality characteristics, engineered into human fetuses, would lead to that dystopian future.
The ability to control personality type of offspring poses the largest potential danger of human genetic engineering. But here we have to be precise. Not all imaginable personality types are a threat to civilization. Many people will choose personality types for their offspring that are unlike the personality characteristics that they themselves possess. However, there are many different personalities that one will be able to choose for a child that might simply make them happier or less socially awkward while not in any way making them into people who are greater dangers to the rest of us.
Why do most of us choose to respect the rights of others? Why don't we all do so all of the time? Obviously, details of our personal experiences during upbringing play a role in determining just how fair or how compassionate each person wants to be or is able to be. But there is plenty of evidence (e.g, from comparative studies of twins raised apart) that biology plays a big role in causing differences in human behavior. For instance, men and women have radically different rates of commission of most types of crime. Another example is roid rage. Its caused by steroids that body builders take and it demonstrates how hormones can boost the propensity to commit violent acts.
Its clear that biochemistry can affect personality and behavior. Since that is the case ways will be found to manipulate biochemical states of the brain thru much genetic manipulations. Most drugs that alter mental state have to be taken continuously to maintain a different mental state. By contrast, genetic manipulations will create enduring changes in metal state because the genes are there throughout a person's life. So genetic engineering will allow permanent changes in offspring personality and in behavioral tendencies.
If, for some reason, a small number of people decided they wanted to genetically engineer their kids to be lacking in empathy, compassion, and conscience we'd face the risk of genetically engineered psychopaths living among us. This might even be done by tyrants who want to create progeny who will rule as they do. Imagine someone like Saddam Hussein choosing to make sure his kids are absolutely brutal and manipulative by genetic design.
In most diatribes against human genetic engineering there is a lack of specificity as to what forms of genetic engineering would be most threatening to human civilization. I see this lack of specificity in part a result of a reluctance to accept the degree to which human personality types will turn out to be determined by genetic variations. After all what other types of genetic changes to humans have the potential to causes problems for society at large on the scale the cognitive genetic engineering will be able to cause? Lots of people are really tall or really short with assorted colors of skin, hair, and eyes. Some people are thin and others naturally more muscular or heavy set. Most of these differences are not absolute obstacles to the maintenance of human civilizations. It seems obvious to me that variations in physical shape are not as important as differences in goes on in human minds.
Let us illustrate that last point by looking at lions and tigers. Imagine someone genetically engineered lions to be as smart as humans. Imagine the lions could even talk. Would you want to have lions living in your neighborhood if they still had strong instincts that caused them to look at all other species (including humans!) as something to hunt down and eat? I hope your answer is "NO!".
To acknowledge the key role of genetics in personality formation forces one to confront a number of derivative admissions about the nature of us each personally (what, I'm genetically fated to be [fill in something you don't like about yourself here]?) and also about why some people are more dysfunctional and socially pathological. One result of this unwillingness to accept the genetics-personality link is this rather sterile and unproductive debate about the dangers posed by human genetic engineering.
In future posts I will explore some of the dangers that we will face when genetic engineering gives us the ability to finely control progeny personality types and behavioral characteristics. When we gain the ability to determine progeny personality types we will no longer be able to afford to ignore these dangers.
Aside: to be fair, I haven't read Maranto's book and so I can't say whether she addresses these dangers there.