Tuesday, 14 September 2010

How Designer Babies Highlight Society's Immaturity

The question of designer babies is usually met with disdain. You don't even have to be religious to object to the idea of customising a human before it's born. Indeed, this concept doesn't just "go against nature", it makes us question what it means to be human.

The possibility of customising an embryo with the view to having an "enhanced" child opens up a veritable test tube of questions. What are the implications of being able to set a child's intelligence, their strengths, their abilities?

Then there is the questions that really hit a nerve: "Would people chose not to have a black baby when they know it will be subject to persecution and prejudice?" The whole issue is surrounded by frightening dilemmas.

The problem is, it's already here. We currently screen embryos for birth defects such as spina bifida, and many would argue that prevention or removal or deficiencies is a form of enhancement.

Of course, we can try to separate prevention of negative from implementation of positive. Then maybe the fascists - I mean conservatives - among us could make a law preventing any form of positive enhancement - but would that be ethical? If we have the potential to allow someone to have a 500 year lifespan - is it right to withhold that from them before they're born and can make a choice about it?

Dr Robert Sparrow makes the profound observation that a child can never reprimand its parents for not enhancing them - because if they had, it would have meant choosing a different embryo and the child wouldn't have been born anyway. However, this of course is only true for embryo screening, so is a bit of a short term argument and, in my opinion, a moot point.

Laws are like band-aids on cancer

I frequently point out on this blog and elsewhere that laws and restrictions are not solutions under any circumstances, and this is especially true when it comes to technology and its ability to undermine and disrupt our paradigms. Attempts to control by prohibition are primitive, ineffective, often un-ethical, they have unforeseen and unrelated side effects, and are usually done for the wrong reasons. This issue of designer babies and human enhancement needs far more thought than that which can be provided by narrow-minded rule-setting  waste-of-space bureaucrats.

We went past the point long ago when lawmakers were able to anticipate and knowledgeably counteract dangers arising from technological developments. Technology is enabling these society-altering options not only at a pace that can't be kept up with, but that can't really be understood. They change our paradigms yet we attempt to create rules based on the old ones. Just look at the feeble attempts to control the Internet as a prime example.

If we get this right, we could have a society of healthy, intelligent, long living (and therefore possibly wise) super humans. With this being the potential, how can we ever hope to keep it at bay forever?

Turning what we know on its head

When significant pre-birth human enhancement does arrive, there are still many ethical issues and implications we're going to face, and we need to be thinking about them now. For example, it probably won't take us long to acquire a disdain for anything "less than perfect". While some definitions of perfection will obviously vary, some won't - a longer lifespan and a higher intelligence will be desirable to most people - even if they chose not to use them.

Will we see a separation of the "enhanced" and "non-enhanced" - as if we don't have enough excuses to hate each other - or will the "none-enhanced" simply be subjected to the peer pressure similar to that of mobile phone ownership? Either way, such enhancements would need to be affordable to the masses. Otherwise, we have another issue:

A Right or a Privilege?

What effect will economics have on designer children? Especially in countries with no socialised health care - it's likely that some of the enhancements will be the sole benefit of those with money, perhaps further exacerbating the wealth gap. If it's morally imperative not to withhold enhancement - how does this fit in with the monetary system?

Isn't being born healthy everyone's birthright in a civilised society? Or does that depend on the financial cost? (How exactly do we set the definition of healthy?) If it's not economically viable to give all desired enhancement to everyone - we will almost certainly end up with humans of varying levels of enhancement.

This will be significant, because among other things, it will affect dynamic of the workforce. Those without enhancement because they started off poor would only be able to get the lower paid jobs (if any at all) because of their "disability".

In the meantime, those with enhancement will have certain advantages. Suppose we breed one person who is more intelligent and charismatic than anyone on the planet - and they ran for president? Firstly, this intelligence could give them an unfair(?) advantage over all other human beings, but secondly, why shouldn't they be in charge, if they're likely to do a better job than anyone else?

A Real Game Changer

I could probably expand on these ethical dilemmas all day. But the common denominator is that our current systems, our current ways of thinking, aren't really compatible with our expanding options. Just as nanotechnology might undermine scarcity, and virtual reality might undermine our entire physical reality, "designer babies" open up our world to a host of new possibilities - many of which we are just not set up for. These possibilities will force us to question our deep rooted beliefs and turn our society upside down.

Because of the effect on the individual, it's likely that this will be the tipping point - the point where our advances shift the balance of power from politics to technology.


Image by 5election.com

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Could Artificial Intelligence Development Hit a Dead End?

Kurzweil and his proponents seem to be unshakable in their belief that at some point, Advanced Artificial General Intelligence, Machine Sentience, or Human Built Consciousness, whatever you would like to call it, will happen. Much of this belief comes from the opinion that consciousness is an engineering problem, and that it will, at some point, regardless of its complexity, be developed.

In this post, I don't really want to discuss whether or not consciousness can be understood, this is something for another time. What we need to be aware of is the possibility of our endeavours to create Artificial Intelligence stalling.

Whatever happened to...Unified Field Theory?

It seems sometimes, the more we learn about something, the more cans of worms we open, and the harder the subject becomes. Sometimes factors present themselves that we would not have expected to be relevant to our understanding.

Despite nearly a century of research and theorizing, UFT remains an open line of research. There are other scientific theories that we have failed to completely understand, some that have gone on for so long that people are even losing faith in them, and are no longer pursuing them.

Whatever happened to...The Space Race?

Some problems are just so expensive that they are beyond our reach. While this is unlikely to be true forever, it could have a serious and insurmountable effect on Artificial Intelligence development. Exponentially increasing computer power and other technology should stop this being a problem for too long, but who knows what financial, computing, and human resource demands we will find ourselves facing as AI development continues.

Whatever happened to...Nuclear Power?

Some ideas just lose social credibility, and are then no longer pursued. If we are able to create an AI that is limited in some way and displays a level of danger that we would not be able to cope with if the limitations were removed, it's most likely that development will have to be stopped, either by government intervention or simply social pressure.


I think it's unlikely that the progress of anything can be stopped indefinitely. It requires definite failure by an infinite number of civilisations. Anyone familiar with the Fermi Paradox and the "All species are destined to wipe themselves out" theory will have a good understanding of this concept. 100% failure is just not statistically possible indefinitely when it depends on a certain action not being performed.

However, it is certainly likely that our progress will be stumped at some point. Even with the accelerating nature of technology, this could cause an untold level of stagnation.

We should try and stay positive of course, but it would be naive to ignore the chance that, for some time at least, we might fail.


I'm currently attending the Singularity Summit AU in Melbourne. There were a couple of talks on Tuesday night and there will be a whole weekend of fun starting on Friday night. :) Therefore you can expect a few posts to be inspired from my conversations with other future-minded thinkers over the coming days!

image by rachywhoo