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Future Imperative

What if technology were being developed that could enhance your mind or body to extraordinary or even superhuman levels -- and some of these tools were already here? Wouldn't you be curious?

Actually, some are here. But human enhancement is an incredibly broad and compartmentalized field. We’re often unaware of what’s right next door. This site reviews resources and ideas from across the field and makes it easy for readers to find exactly the information they're most interested in.

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The future is coming fast, and it's no longer possible to ignore how rapidly the world is changing. As the old order changes -- or more frequently crumbles altogether -- I offer a perspective on how we can transform ourselves in turn... for the better. Nothing on this site is intended as legal, financial or medical advice. Indeed, much of what I discuss amounts to possibilities rather than certainties, in an ever-changing present and an ever-uncertain future.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Gene Therapy vs. the Genetic Superbaby. Or Not... -- Bio

One odd question about human genetic enhancement is what would be produce the greatest good for the greatest number of people in our society, gene therapy that could enhance the genes of adults, or altering the germline by modifying the genes of the as-yet-unborn. This may not be an either-or question, incidentally. Both technologies are apt to show up at around the same time because they share some basic requirements. Still, here’s my present assessment.

Given a choice between having advanced gene therapy (permitting “multiple upgrades” of an adult genome without side effects) and in-vitro modification of chromosomes to allow for “superbabies”… I’d pick the advanced gene therapy.

This technology has a number of advantages. For example, you aren’t forced to neglect the condition of people who are already alive and who already have genetic defects. Nor do you don't have to spend 10,000 years breeding your "superior race." And you don't have to be supplanted by a new crop of vastly superior kids about 5 to 7 years after the last bunch started hitting society (whether in the schools, business, politics or sci-tech research).

One of the things that makes people leery about most forms of radical human enhancement is the unspoken fear of being left behind. This belief is not entirely irrational -- most young people in America, at least, have the experience of having been bullied/coerced/manipulated by individuals in a position of superior power. And a lot of us growing up come to an acceptance of who we are by exploring those areas in which we're different and often better than other people. So you have the traditional divisions of jocks, brains, artists, actors, comedians, etc, plus all the people who develop a sense of value by being extremely knowledgeable/talented in a specialized field they consider of burning importance -- the programmer who contributes to Linux, the scientist working on cancer, the Little League coach, the volunteer keeping a shelter open, the writer sharing their particular insights with the world.

If your whole self-image is at least partly based on being really capable in a particular endeavor, would you really look forward to a wave of people coming along, many or all of whom are potentially far better than you are in your field? Or who are already better? Or who can so outshine you -- if it suits their whim -- as to make your entire career look like a candleflame next to the bonfire of their casual accomplishments?

I'm reminded of Srinivasa Ramanujan, a young man with a great interest in arithmetic, who came into the possession of a mathematical textbook that was roughly a century out of date. Within two years, he had re-derived a century's worth of mathematics, and had developed a number of original theories of his own (including one presently being used in modern superstring theory in physics). He later worked for a short time with a great British mathematician before dying at an early age.

My point in the above story is just this... Imagine how it would feel to be one of the minor mathematicians eclipsed by Ramanujan (especially if he had lived). Obviously some, like his friend Hardy, would have been overjoyed with the advances he brought to the field. But imagine having all of your life's work amount to a few theorems this fellow worked out over a lazy afternoon. Now imagine that there's not one Ramanujan, but ten thousand, and that's just the number that have flooded into your obscure little field. And you may not have been a Nobel-caliber scientist, or Olympic athlete or Mother Theresa-like social worker in the old world, much less this new one.

And then imagine finding out that these ten thousand are part of a wave of one million (or more) and that people expect many more waves to come in the future, each one larger and much more gifted than the last. Where, really, do you fit in this "brave new world"? Are you irrelevant? Are your children, now that these "superhumans" have come to supplant them? (And your kids will be obsolete, even if they're in one of these waves. After all, the next model will immediately make them redundant.)

The same problem exists with advanced methods for accelerated learning, creativity enhancement and basic intelligence boosting. There are some impressive techniques and technologies out there, and many of them could probably work in synergy. Thus magnifying their combined effects. And someone who has increased their creativity and/or intelligence could use those abilities to develop even better techniques and technologies.

In this case, the problem isn't creating a new "master race" every five minutes with the latest designer genes (available to no one born previously) but the simple fact that only extremely motivated people with access to all of these brain-enhancing resources are going to be able to use them effectively. So when someone sees the extraordinary feats of a genius who has studied intensively with a host of powerful tools (say, a float tank, some self-hypnosis, advanced speed reading, lateral thinking, Image Streaming, PO, a Ganzfeld, physical inversion, nootropic drugs, a careful diet and exercise regime, Freenoting, etc) they may think "I can't devote my life to doing all that. I have barely enough time to walk the dog. I'll never keep up with someone like that." And quietly envy or fear the newly minted genius.

So the most successful examples of such programs could easily be the most threatening to people. And thus create plenty of resistance, both overt and internalized, to the embrace of highly beneficial innovations.

I'm interested in gene therapy because in the near term it can handle many life threatening or at least debilitating disorders and in the long term it could eliminate the "superbaby" problem outlined above. If we all improve more or less together, no one has to feel threatened or ruined by the overall progress of the species. Even if some people get more advantages “than we had growing up.” People can live with that situation. They have been for centuries.

I feel the related problem with mind-enhancing tech could be relieved if the most powerful techniques that are also extremely easy to use are made widely available to the public. That won't prevent the brilliant, the disciplined or the obsessed from magnifying their relative mental advantages, but will allow for a wide-enough distribution of effective resources to prevent that gap from growing too wide, while also giving a gentle and rewarding-enough introduction to general society to encourage many people to explore their minds' potential further.

Frankly, I want both the brilliant individual and the general run of society to be able to develop to the fullest degree that they can.

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