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Artificial Intelligence: A New Perspective on a Perceived Threat

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There is a growing fear in many people of the future capabilities of artificial intelligence (AI), especially as the intelligence of these computing systems begins to approach that of human beings.  Since it is likely that AI will eventually surpass the intelligence of humans, some wonder if these advancements will be the beginning of the end of us.  Stephen Hawking, the eminent British physicist, was recently quoted by the BBC as saying “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”  BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones said in a recent article “Prof Hawking says the primitive forms of artificial intelligence developed so far have already proved very useful, but he fears the consequences of creating something that can match or surpass humans.”  Hawking then said “It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate.  Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”

Hawking isn’t alone with this fear, and clearly this fear isn’t ill-founded.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that human intelligence has allowed us to overcome just about any environmental barrier we’ve come across, driving us to the top of the food chain.  We’ve all seen the benefits of our high intelligence as a species, but we’ve also seen what can happen due to that intelligence being imperfect, having it operate on incomplete or fallacious information, and ultimately lacking an adequate capability of accurately determining the long-term consequences of our actions.  Because we have such a remarkable ability to manipulate our environment, that manipulation can be extremely beneficial or extremely harmful as we’ve seen with the numerous species we’ve threatened on this planet (some having gone extinct).  We’ve even threatened many fellow human beings in the process, whether intentionally or not.  Our intelligence, combined with some elements of short-sightedness, selfishness, and aggression, has led to some pretty abhorrent products throughout human history — anything from the mass enslavement of others spanning back thousands of years to modern forms of extermination weaponry (e.g. bio-warfare and nuclear bombs).  If AI reaches and eventually surpasses our level of intelligence, it is reasonable to consider the possibility that we may find ourselves on a lower rung of the food chain (so to speak), potentially becoming enslaved or exterminated by this advanced intelligence.

AI: Friend or Foe?

So what exactly prompted Stephen Hawking to make these claims?  As the BBC article mentions, “His warning came in response to a question about a revamp of the technology he uses to communicate, which involves a basic form of AI…The theoretical physicist, who has the motor neurone disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), is using a new system developed by Intel to speak.  Machine learning experts from the British company Swiftkey were also involved in its creation. Their technology, already employed as a smartphone keyboard app, learns how the professor thinks and suggests the words he might want to use next.”

Reading this article suggests another possibility or perspective that I don’t think a lot of people are considering with regard to AI technology.  What if AI simply replaces us gradually, by actually becoming the new “us”?  That is, as we further progress in Cyborg (i.e. cybernetic organism) technologies, using advancements similar to Stephen Hawking’s communication ability upgrade, we are ultimately becoming amalgams of biological and synthetic machines anyway.  Even the technology that we currently operate through an external peripheral interface (like smart phones and all other computers) will likely become integrated into our bodies internally.  Google glasses, voice recognition, and other technologies like those used by Hawking are certainly taking us in that direction.  It’s not difficult to imagine one day being able to think about a particular question or keyword, and having an integrated blue-tooth implant in our brain recognize the mental/physiological command cue, and successfully retrieve the desired information wirelessly from an online cloud or internet database of some form.  Going further still, we will likely one day be able to take sensory information that enters the neuronal network of our brain, and once again, send it wirelessly to supercomputers stored elsewhere that are able to process the information with billions of pattern recognition modules.  The 300 million or so pattern recognition modules that are currently in our brain’s neo-cortex would be dwarfed by this new peripheral-free interface and wirelessly accessible technology.

For those that aren’t very familiar with the function or purpose of the brain’s neo-cortex, we use its 300 million or so pattern recognition modules to notice patterns in the environment around us (and meta patterns of neuronal activity within the brain), thus being able to recognize and memorize sensory data, and think.  Ultimately, we use this pattern recognition to accomplish goals, solve problems, and gain knowledge from past experience.  In short, these pattern recognition modules are our primary source or physiological means for our intelligence.  Thus, being able to increase the number of pattern recognition modules (as well as the number of hierarchies between different sets of them), will only increase our intelligence.  Regardless of whether we integrate computer chips in our brain to do at least some or all of this processing locally, or use a wireless means of communication to an external supercomputer farm or otherwise, we will likely continue to integrate our biology with synthetic analogs to increase our capabilities.

When we realize that a higher intelligence allows us to better predict the consequences of our actions, we can see that our increasing integration with AI will likely have incredible survival benefits.  This integration will also catalyze further technologies that could never have been accomplished with biological brains alone, because we simply aren’t naturally intelligent enough to think beyond a certain level of complexity.  As Hawking said regarding AI that could surpass our intelligence, “It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate.  Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”  Yes, but if that AI becomes integrated in us, then really it is humans that are finding a way to circumvent slow biological evolution with a non-biological substrate that supercedes it.

At this time I think it is relevant to mention something else I’ve written about previously, which is the advancements being made in genetic engineering and how they are taking us into our last and grandest evolutionary leap, a “conscious evolution”, thus being able to circumvent our own slow biological evolution through an intentionally engineered design.  So as we gain more knowledge in the field of genetic engineering (combined with the increasing simulation and computing power afforded by AI), we will likely be able to catalyze our own biological evolution such that we can evolve quickly as we increase our Cyborg integrations with AI.  So we will likely see an increase in genetic engineering capabilities developing in close parallel with AI advancements, with each field substantially contributing to the other and ultimately leading to our transhumanism.

Final Thoughts

It seems clear that advancements in AI are providing us with more tools to accomplish ever-more complex goals as a species.  As we continue to integrate AI into ourselves, what we now call “human” is simply going to change as we change.  This would happen regardless, as human biological evolution continues its course into another speciation event, similar to the one that led to humans in the first place.  In fact, if we wanted to maintain the way we are right now as a species, biologically speaking, it would actually require us to use genetic engineering to do so, because genetic differentiation mechanisms (e.g. imperfect DNA replication, mutations, etc.) are inherent in our biology.  Thus, for those that argue against certain technologies based on a desire to maintain humanity and human attributes, they must also realize that the very technologies they despise are in fact their only hope for doing so.  More importantly, the goal of maintaining what humans currently are goes against our natural evolution, and we should embrace change, even if we embrace it with caution.

If AI continues to become further integrated into ourselves, forming a Cyborg amalgam of some kind, as it advances to a certain point we may choose one day to entirely eliminate the biological substrate of that amalgam, if it is both possible and advantageous to do so.  Even if we maintain some of our biology, and merely hybridize with AI, then Hawking was right to point out that “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”  Although, rather than a doomsday scenario like we saw in the movie The Terminator, with humans and machines at war with one another, the end of the human race may simply mean that we will end up changing into a different species, just as we’ve done throughout our evolutionary history.  Only this time, it will be a transition from a purely biological evolution to a cybernetic hybrid variation.  Furthermore, if it happens, it will be a transition that will likely increase our intelligence (and many other capabilities) to unfathomable levels, giving us an unprecedented ability to act based on more knowledge of the consequences of our actions as we move forward.  We should be cautious indeed, but we should also embrace our ongoing evolution and eventual transhumanism.

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Religious Paradigms in the Wake of Science

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Albert Einstein once said “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” From my perspective, I see the latter as most certainly true as science is the only way we’ve been able to gain a falsifiable world view of our universe. As for the former, it seems that Einstein was mainly pointing out how religion has largely precipitated from the human aspiration to ascertain truth, and without that drive for truth, science would be ineffective. That also sounds reasonable, as early on and throughout most of human history, religion was more or less the dominant world view used to provide many explanations for the unknown. Many if not most of these explanations were supernatural and the world view in general was also highly anthropomorphic and anthropocentric, perhaps due to its highly subjective basis and the failure to see that subjectivity bias as a fundamental problem (even if it sometimes produces more intuitive explanations). For a more in depth analysis of religion, I recommend you read one of my previous posts.

As people stumbled upon science, realizing that the same empirical and causally-based methodologies used to tackle everyday problems could actually be applied to the investigation of all phenomena, it has been slowly but surely replacing the religious world views with a more objective perspective as the human quests for truth, understanding, and predictive power are perpetuated. In the hopes of maintaining many of the old religious world views, there has no doubt been an enormous amount of religious opposition to science. It’s certainly not difficult to see why so many different religious proponents oppose science. After all, the pragmatic knowledge and explanatory power derived from science has replaced the hundreds of different gods and supernatural explanations proposed over the centuries, and it has also been taking power away from the priests and clergy whose authority throughout history has been based on the presumed existence of those gods and supernatural processes. Above and beyond the fact that science has been eliminating the “gods of the gaps” one by one, science has also been refuting some primary and often necessary assumptions within certain religions. Overall, it seems that the religious world views are slowly fading away in the wake of science. Let’s examine a few…

Human Origins

There is a strong belief held by many religious proponents that human beings along with all other species were created by a deity in their present form. Science has shown us no evidence of any deities, but it has shown us a plethora of evidence within evolutionary biology (among other disciplines) which shows that human beings, like all other life forms on Earth, have indeed evolved from a common ancestor thus forming the diversity of life we see today. Furthermore, we are seeing many different species continue to evolve (including human beings). Despite the scientific consensus that evolution is a fact, there are a large number of people that ignore the evidence in order to preserve their creation origin myths as well as to preserve many other parts of their old world view. While this ignorance may be seen as inconsequential to some (people are entitled to their own beliefs after all), it definitely becomes problematic when it enters and poisons the educational and political spheres of society where reason and intellect are needed most.

Some people have actually gone so far as to try and add Creationism as a complement to the Theory of Evolution currently being taught within the science curriculum of various public schools, despite the fact that the creationist’s claims aren’t supported by any scientific evidence, and thus should remain in the academic realms of cultural studies, religious studies, and mythology. To make matters worse, many religious proponents have also tried to use pseudo-scientific arguments to disprove evolution (although to no avail). Some have even resorted to using the intellectually dishonest (or merely ignorant) argument claiming that “evolution is just a theory”, not realizing that the meaning of the word “theory” within science is quite different from the common everyday usage. Whereas the common everyday usage of the word “theory” is meant to imply a “hypothesis”, the scientific usage implies an explanation with a factual basis that is generally supported by most if not all of the scientific community within the relevant fields. Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity is no different and thus would also be considered as “just a theory”, but we know for a fact that some force which we call “gravity” does indeed exist, and this force also produces measurable temporal dilation, as well as the non-Euclidean or curved space effects predicted by the theory. While some of the details of these theories may remain under contention, and while the theories may be incomplete in one way or another, the main crux of these scientific theories are widely accepted as scientific facts.

These kinds of arguments and tactics have far less precedent, for in the past, religious claims were largely supported by religious authority and intuition alone and didn’t require falsifiable scientific support. As science has continued to gain more influence and followers through its explanatory power, and as more educated people begin to participate in these kinds of public discourses, the necessity of scientifically grounded arguments has grown substantially. So it isn’t all that surprising to see many of the people with religious-based world views try and find scientific arguments to support their case, although it is obviously hypocritical and inconsistent when the same people undermine science when it no longer supports their position. The crucial difference worth noting here is that science is ultimately about trying to find an explanatory and descriptive model that fits the data best, whereas those trying to prove religious beliefs to be true are effectively cherry-picking data to fit a presupposed model. That is, science is always willing to scrap a poor model for a better one that has more explanatory and predictive power as more and more data is collected, whereas religion clings to one model and one model only no matter how poorly it fits the ever increasing amount of data and despite it’s usual lack of explanatory and predictive power.

Teleological Evolution of Humans

Evolutionary theists believe that evolution is factual, but some of them also believe that evolution has had a specific purpose or end-goal in mind determined by a deity, namely to produce human beings (another example of religious anthropocentrism).  In a few of these religious accounts, it has been suggested that once humans evolved from other life forms, they were given a soul and have been participating in some kind of an ongoing religious narrative.  Some have claimed that humans evolved to worship some god(s), to prepare for an apocalypse, to prepare for the afterlife, and other similar stories.  The main point here is that within these types of religious claims, the human species is purportedly the final speciation goal of evolution, and as a result, humans are thought to be the most remarkable, most intellectually capable, and most important species that will ever exist.

In terms of the scientific credibility of such claims, none of the claims are falsifiable except perhaps one — that humans are the end-all be-all for evolution and speciation, or to put it another way, that humans (or another species for that matter) will not evolve further (let alone evolve to produce a species that is more remarkable or one with more intelligent capabilities than homo sapiens).  We can already see that the assumption that humans will no longer evolve is patently false by noticing some relatively recent evolutionary changes to human beings, including the otherwise unnecessary ability for some human adults to digest lactose (this mutation became favorable after the recent development of agriculture and dairy farming several thousand years ago), the existence of specific disease resistances (and their genetic markers) within certain ethnic populations, and other gene pool changes due to genetic drift.

Perhaps more importantly, with the recent development of genetic engineering, we are beginning to consciously and directly guide our own evolution at the molecular level (and the evolution of other species).  As this technology develops further, we are likely to change extremely quickly into a completely different species, and one with more advanced capabilities engineered into the genome. Interestingly enough, there hasn’t been any evidence for the teleological evolution of any species until relatively recently, but it is human beings that are teleologically driving it through both artificial and, what I call, “engineered” selection.

Free Will

If science has shown us anything, it has shown us that there is a causal structure that exists in the world around us in which events that occur are ultimately caused by prior events. If this weren’t the case, then we could never successfully apply the scientific method, let alone live our daily lives with any predictable order or structure. Fortunately, because of the causal (and potentially deterministic) nature of our universe, we’ve been able to successfully formulate hypotheses, test them, and use the results to make further testable predictions.  Regarding free will, there is no known way for humans (or any other entity or object for that matter) to circumvent this causality without their actions being causa sui which would not only undermine the process of rational thought (which depends on causal thought processes), but would also go against every bit of scientific evidence we have obtained thus far.

Even if the randomness proposed within quantum mechanics were ontologically the case (which we’ll likely never know), we all know that randomness can’t produce freely willed actions either, since there have to be non-random conscious intentions and thought processes behind any deliberate action.  So whether the universe is ontologically deterministic or indeterministic (i.e. random), classical free will is logically incompatible with either possibility. Obviously this presents a serious problem to those religious views which assume that humans do in fact possess free will. Concepts such as moral responsibility, human fate in some proposed afterlife, karma, etc., lose their luster when free will is taken out of the equation since this would imply that any spiritual fate supposed isn’t something we can actually change or control anyway, and thus any implemented punishment or reward is ultimately futile.

Despite the fact that we don’t have free will, we all live with the illusion of free will since we don’t directly experience the prior causes to our thoughts and subsequent actions, and thus we truly feel that we self-cause those thoughts and actions.  In the grand scheme of things, even without any free will, we can see that our societal approach of implementing laws, crime deterrence measures, and any punishment-reward system for that matter, isn’t based on the assumption that we can freely choose our behaviors so much as they are based on their efficacy to maximize safety, productivity, as well as what society deems to be acceptable behavior.  It’s efficacy is accomplished primarily through the physical constraint measures put into place as well as the pragmatic application of psychological conditioning principles.

It doesn’t ultimately matter whether or not we could have chosen to behave differently unless one is trying to maintain certain metaphysical presuppositions, such as those proposed in many religions. However, our recognition that free will doesn’t exist can certainly affect how we approach problems in society. As a result of science demonstrating that we lack free will through the discovery of causal constraints such as genes, the body’s internal environment, and the body’s external physical environment (including that which causes the psychological conditioning of the brain), we’re definitely becoming more able to address the actual root causes of many problematic behaviors. In doing so, rather than wasting resources and erroneously blaming an individual for not “choosing” to behave differently (as in many religions), we can appropriately view every individual as an innocent amalgam of genetic and environmental information (regardless of their behavior) and then take more effective measures to improve their behavior by attempting to change any problematic genes and environmental factors.

Struggle for Morality

One of the most pressing issues regarding the human condition is the constant struggle to behave in ways that society deems to be moral. Many religions have their own ideas about what is considered to be moral behavior and they often claim that their particular morals are ordained by a god or some form of divine authority. It is also common that morality and immorality play an important role within various religious narratives.  For example, within the Abrahamic religions, if a person commits what the religion deems to be immoral acts, that is, if they “sin”, and this person does not repent or have their sins absolved, they are destined to eternal damnation.  Within Christianity, “sin” is considered an inevitable act passed down from generation to generation ever since the supposed “fall of man” which, as the story goes, began with a first descendent, named Adam.  This concept of seeing humans as inherent sinners is sometimes referred to as “original sin”.

As was mentioned in the previous section, humans’ lack of free will suggests that humans ultimately have no control over whether they “sin” or not.  Behavior is determined by prior causes such as a person’s genes and the psychological conditioning they’ve undergone throughout their lives.  Evolutionary biologists have also shown that the reasons for humans behaving in ways that society or various religions deem immoral is because of selfish genes as well as an ongoing conflict between biological instincts and societal conventions and expectations.

The strategy that genes tend to implement through their respective phenotypes (including behavior) tend to perpetuate those genes through means of self-preservation, reproductive success, and subsequent child-rearing success.  Additionally, because of the incredible speed of cultural evolution and ever-changing social conventions, humans may find difficulties adhering to particular conventions due to their biological evolution lagging behind that cultural evolution. To give some examples, if people kill others or steal, it is likely (or was likely long ago) to increase one’s chances of survival or increase one’s chances of successful mating by gaining power, property, and social status.  Infidelity could also be seen as a result of being sexually attracted to others because they may provide better genes for new offspring or simply provide more offspring.  Also, if humans are naturally more of a polygamous primate, it would make sense that monogamy, even if the current societal convention, would be difficult to maintain. Thus, there are many possible reasons for why humans behave the way they do, and science has been continuing to enlighten us with these reasons as we gain more information from evolutionary biology and psychology (among other disciplines).

As for the religious claim that humans will always be immoral, a few things must be made clear. For one, morality is largely determined by society, and so what is considered moral in one society may be considered immoral in another. Despite the claim by some religious proponents that religions provide some kind of objective foundation for ethics and morals, we can see that different religions often proclaim different morals, thus it is clear that no such objectivity exists. Science and reason on the other hand do provide a nice resource for answering moral questions by showing us in detail the consequences of our actions (such that we can better determine how we ought to behave), by providing us with a clearer picture of how the world really is so that our moral goals aren’t based on false pretenses, and by providing us with increasingly better ways to achieve those moral goals.

As we continue to evolve as humans or into another species entirely, our innate feelings or instincts about what is moral or immoral will likely continue to change (as will our behavior) since anything that is innate has a biological basis. Most importantly, as we continue to consciously guide our own species’ evolution through genetic engineering, we will have the power to shape human nature into anything we desire. In other words, we aren’t necessarily trapped in a struggle for morality as many religions claim, for we are going to have greater and greater abilities to change our instinctual behavior such that we are naturally inclined to behave in any way that society desires. The key point here is that, as opposed to some religious views which assume that mankind is forever doomed to immoral behavior, science is providing a way out of this supposed predicament.

Final Thoughts

It’s not at all surprising to see certain religious groups highly opposed to science, for there are countless ways that science has been threatening to their world view. Even the fear of death which has likely attracted people to religions for the promise of eternal life is being addressed by science as advances in genetic engineering, medicine, and artificial intelligence work toward increasing life expectancy potentially to the theoretical upper limit (i.e. for as long as the universe is able to support life, given the Second Law of Thermodynamics, etc.).

One striking parallel between many religious claims and the actual efficacy of science is that science truly appears to be providing the ultimate salvation of our species (and whatever species we will become). However, it is being accomplished by taking the ever increasing knowledge acquired over time and addressing every problem we face within the human condition, one by one. While religion has played an important role in history, most notably, in the human quest for truth — it seems clear to me that history has indeed also shown us that the more we accept and use science to learn about the universe, the better chance we have to achieve our goals as our species continually evolves.

An Evolved Consciousness Creating Conscious Evolution

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Two Evolutionary Leaps That Changed It All

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, human biological evolution has led to the emergence of not only consciousness but also a co-existing yet semi-independent cultural evolution (through the unique evolution of the human brain).  This evolutionary leap has allowed us to produce increasingly powerful technologies which in turn have provided a means for circumventing many natural selection pressures that our physical bodies would otherwise be unable to handle.

One of these technologies has been the selective breeding of plants and animals, with this process often referred to as “artificial” selection, as opposed to “natural” selection since human beings have served as an artificial selection pressure (rather than the natural selection pressures of the environment in general).  In the case of our discovery of artificial selection, by choosing which plants and animals to cultivate and raise, we basically just catalyzed the selection process by providing a selection pressure based on the plant or animal traits that we’ve desired most.  By doing so, rather than the selection process taking thousands or even millions of years to produce what we have today (in terms of domesticated plants and animals), it only took a minute fraction of that time since it was mediated through a consciously guided or teleological process, unlike natural selection which operates on randomly differentiating traits leading to differential reproductive success (and thus new genomes and species) over time.

This second evolutionary leap (artificial selection that is) has ultimately paved the way for civilization, as it has increased the landscape of our diet and thus our available options for food, and the resultant agriculture has allowed us to increase our population density such that human collaboration, complex distribution of labor, and ultimately the means for creating new and increasingly complex technologies, have been made possible.  It is largely because of this new evolutionary leap that we’ve been able to reach the current pinnacle of human evolution, the newest and perhaps our last evolutionary leap, or what I’ve previously referred to as “engineered selection”.

With artificial selection, we’ve been able to create new species of plants and animals with very unique and unprecedented traits, however we’ve been limited by the rate of mutations or other genomic differentiating mechanisms that must arise in order to create any new and desirable traits. With engineered selection, we can simply select or engineer the genomic sequences required to produce the desired traits, effectively allowing us to circumvent any genomic differentiation rate limitations and also allowing us instant access to every genomic possibility.

Genetic Engineering Progress & Applications

After a few decades of genetic engineering research, we’ve gained a number of capabilities including but not limited to: producing recombinant DNA, producing transgenic organisms, utilizing in vivo trans-species protein production, and even creating the world’s first synthetic life form (by adding a completely synthetic or human-constructed bacterial genome to a cell containing no DNA).  The plethora of potential applications for genetic engineering (as well as those applications currently in use) has continued to grow as scientists and other creative thinkers are further discovering the power and scope of areas such as mimetics, micro-organism domestication, nano-biomaterials, and many other inter-related niches.

Domestication of Genetically Engineered Micro and Macro-organisms

People have been genetically modifying plants and animals for the same reasons they’ve been artificially selecting them — in order to produce species with more desirable traits. Plants and animals have been genetically engineered to withstand harsher climates, resist harmful herbicides or pesticides (or produce their own pesticides), produce more food or calories per acre (or more nutritious food when all else is equal), etc.  Plants and animals have also been genetically modified for the purposes of “pharming”, where substances that aren’t normally produced by the plant or animal (e.g. pharmacological substances, vaccines, etc.) are expressed, extracted, and then purified.

One of the most compelling applications of genetic engineering within agriculture involves solving the “omnivore’s dilemma”, that is, the prospect of growing unconscious livestock by genetically inhibiting the development of certain parts of the brain so that the animal doesn’t experience any pain or suffering.  There have also been advancements made with in vitro meat, that is, producing cultured meat cells so that no actual animal is needed at all other than some starting cells taken painlessly from live animals (which are then placed into a culture media to grow into larger quantities of meat), however it should be noted that this latter technique doesn’t actually require any genetic modification, although genetic modification may have merit in improving these techniques.  The most important point here is that these methods should decrease the financial and environmental costs of eating meat, and will likely help to solve the ethical issues regarding the inhumane treatment of animals within agriculture.

We’ve now entered a new niche regarding the domestication of species.  As of a few decades ago, we began domesticating micro-organisms. Micro-organisms have been modified and utilized to produce insulin for diabetics as well as other forms of medicine such as vaccines, human growth hormone, etc.  There have also been certain forms of bacteria genetically modified in order to turn cellulose and other plant material directly into hydrocarbon fuels.  This year (2014), E. coli bacteria have been genetically modified in order to turn glucose into pinene (a high energy hydrocarbon used as a rocket fuel).  In 2013, researchers at the University of California, Davis, genetically engineered cyanobacteria (a.k.a. blue-green algae) by adding particular DNA sequences to its genome which coded for specific enzymes such that it can use sunlight and the process of photosynthesis to turn CO2 into 2,3 butanediol (a chemical that can be used as a fuel, or to make paint, solvents, and plastics), thus producing another means of turning our over abundant carbon emissions back into fuel.

On a related note, there are also efforts underway to improve the efficiency of certain hydro-carbon eating bacteria such as A. borkumensis in order to clean up oil spills even more effectively.  Imagine one day having the ability to use genetically engineered bacteria to directly convert carbon emissions back into mass-produced fuel, and if the fuel spills during transport, also having the counterpart capability of cleaning it up most efficiently with another form of genetically engineered bacteria.  These capabilities are being further developed and are only the tip of the iceberg.

In theory, we should also be able to genetically engineer bacteria to decompose many other materials or waste products that ordinarily decompose extremely slowly. If any of these waste products are hazardous, bacteria could be genetically engineered to breakdown or transform the waste products into a safe and stable compound.  With these types of solutions we can make many new materials and have a method in line for their proper disposal (if needed).  Additionally, by utilizing some techniques mentioned in the next section, we can also start making more novel materials that decompose using non-genetically-engineered mechanisms.

It is likely that genetically modified bacteria will continue to provide us with many new types of mass-produced chemicals and products. For those processes that do not work effectively (if at all) in bacterial (i.e. prokaryotic) cells, then eukaryotic cells such as yeast, insect cells, and mammalian cells can often be used as a viable option. All of these genetically engineered domesticated micro-organisms will likely be an invaluable complement to the increasing number of genetically modified plants and animals that are already being produced.

Mimetics

In the case of mimetics, scientists are discovering new ways of creating novel materials using a bottom-up approach at the nano-scale by utilizing some of the self-assembly techniques that natural selection has near-perfected over millions of years.  For example, mollusks form sea shells with incredibly strong structural/mechanical properties by their DNA coding for the synthesis of specific proteins, and those proteins bonding the raw materials of calcium and carbonate into alternating layers until a fully formed shell is produced.  The pearls produced by clams are produced with similar techniques. We could potentially use the same DNA sequence in combination with a scaffold of our choosing such that a similar product is formed with unique geometries, or through genetic engineering techniques, we could modify the DNA sequence so that it performs the same self-assembly with completely different materials (e.g. silicon, platinum, titanium, polymers, etc.).

By combining the capabilities of scaffolding as well as the production of unique genomic sequences, one can further increase the number of possible nanomaterials or nanostructures, although I’m confident that most if not all scaffolding needs could eventually be accomplished by the DNA sequence alone (much like the production of bone, exoskeleton, and other types of structural tissues in animals).  The same principles can be applied by looking at how silk is produced by spiders, how the cochlear hair cells are produced in mammals, etc.  Many of these materials are stronger, lighter, and more defect-free than some of the best human products ever engineered.  By mimicking and modifying these DNA-induced self-assembly techniques, we can produce entirely new materials with unprecedented properties.

If we realize that even the largest plants and animals use these same nano-scale assembly processes to build themselves, it isn’t hard to imagine using these genetic engineering techniques to effectively grow complete macro-scale consumer products.  This may sound incredibly unrealistic with our current capabilities, but imagine one day being able to grow finished products such as clothing, hardware, tools, or even a house.  There are already people working on these capabilities to some degree (for example using 3D printed scaffolding or other scaffolding means and having plant or animal tissue grow around it to form an environmentally integrated bio-structure).  If this is indeed realizable, then perhaps we could find a genetic sequence to produce almost anything we want, even a functional computer or other device.  If nature can use DNA and natural selection to produce macro-scale organisms with brains capable of pattern recognition, consciousness, and computation (and eventually the learned capability of genetic engineering in the case of the human brain), then it seems entirely reasonable that we could eventually engineer DNA sequences to produce things with at least that much complexity, if not far higher complexity, and using a much larger selection of materials.

Other advantages from using such an approach include the enormous energy savings gained by adopting the naturally selected economically efficient process of self-assembly (including less changes in the forms of energy used, and thus less loss) and a reduction in specific product manufacturing infrastructure. That is, whereas we’ve typically made industrial scale machines individually tailored to produce specific components which are later assembled into a final product, by using DNA (and the proteins it codes for) to do the work for us, we will no longer require nearly as much manufacturing capital, for the genetic engineering capital needed to produce any genetic sequence is far more versatile.

Transcending the Human Species

Perhaps the most important application of genetic engineering will be the modification of our own species.  Many of the world’s problems are caused by sudden environmental changes (many of them anthropogenic), and if we can change ourselves and/or other species biologically in order to adapt to these unexpected and sudden environmental changes (or to help prevent them altogether), then the severity of those problems can be reduced or eliminated.  In a sense, we would be selecting our own as well as other species by providing the proper genes to begin with, rather than relying on extremely slow genomic differentiation mechanisms and the greater rates of suffering and loss of life that natural selection normally follows.

Genetic Enhancement of Existing Features

With power over the genome, we may one day be able to genetically increase our life expectancy, for example, by modifying the DNA polymerase-g enzyme in our mitochondria such that they make less errors (i.e. mutations) during DNA replication, by genetically altering telomeres in our nuclear DNA such that they can maintain their length and handle more mitotic divisions, or by finding ways to preserve nuclear DNA, etc. If we also determine which genes lead to certain diseases (as well as any genes that help to prevent them), genetic engineering may be the key to extending the length of our lives perhaps indefinitely.  It may also be the key to improving the quality of that extended life by replacing the techniques we currently use for health and wellness management (including pharmaceuticals) with perhaps the most efficacious form of preventative medicine imaginable.

If we can optimize our brain’s ability to perform neuronal regeneration, reconnection, rewiring, and/or re-weighting based on the genetic instructions that at least partially mediate these processes, this optimization should drastically improve our ability to learn by improving the synaptic encoding and consolidation processes involved in memory and by improving the combinatorial operations leading to higher conceptual complexity.  Thinking along these lines, by increasing the number of pattern recognition modules that develop in the neo-cortex, or by optimizing their configuration (perhaps by increasing the number of hierarchies), our general intelligence would increase as well and would be an excellent complement to an optimized memory.  It seems reasonable to assume that these types of cognitive changes will likely have dramatic effects on how we think and thus will likely affect our philosophical beliefs as well.  Religious beliefs are also likely to change as the psychological comforts provided by certain beliefs may no longer be as effective (if those comforts continue to exist at all), especially as our species continues to phase out non-naturalistic explanations and beliefs as a result of seeing the world from a more objective perspective.

If we are able to manipulate our genetic code in order to improve the mechanisms that underlie learning, then we should also be able to alter our innate abilities through genetic engineering. For example, what if infants could walk immediately after birth (much like a newborn calf)? What if infants had adequate motor skills to produce (at least some) spoken language much more quickly? Infants normally have language acquisition mechanisms which allow them to eventually learn language comprehension and productivity but this typically takes a lot of practice and requires their motor skills to catch up before they can utter a single word that they do in fact understand. Circumventing the learning requirement and the motor skill developmental lag (at least to some degree) would be a phenomenal evolutionary advancement, and this type of innate enhancement could apply to a large number of different physical skills and abilities.

Since DNA ultimately controls the types of sensory receptors we have, we should eventually be able to optimize these as well.  For example, photoreceptors could be modified such that we would be able to see new frequencies of electro-magnetic radiation (perhaps a more optimized range of frequencies if not a larger range altogether).  Mechano-receptors of all types could be modified, for example, to hear a different if not larger range of sound frequencies or to increase tactile sensitivity (i.e. touch).  Olfactory or gustatory receptors could also be modified in order to allow us to smell and taste previously undetectable chemicals.  Basically, all of our sensations could be genetically modified and, when combined with the aforementioned genetic modifications to the brain itself, this would allow us to have greater and more optimized dimensions of perception in our subjective experiences.

Genetic Enhancement of Novel Features

So far I’ve been discussing how we may be able to use genetic engineering to enhance features we already possess, but there’s no reason we can’t consider using the same techniques to add entirely new features to the human repertoire. For example, we could combine certain genes from other animals such that we can re-grow damaged limbs or organs, have gills to breathe underwater, have wings in order to fly, etc.  For that matter, we may even be able to combine certain genes from plants such that we can produce (at least some of) our own chemical energy from the sun, that is, create at least partially photosynthetic human beings.  It is certainly science fiction at the moment, but I wouldn’t discount the possibility of accomplishing this one day after considering all of the other hybrid and transgenic species we’ve created already, and after considering the possible precedent mentioned in the endosymbiotic theory (where an ancient organism may have “absorbed” another to produce energy for it, e.g. mitochondria and chloroplasts in eukaryotic cells).

Above and beyond these possibilities, we could also potentially create advanced cybernetic organisms.  What if we were able to integrate silicon-based electronic devices (or something more biologically compatible if needed) into our bodies such that the body grows or repairs some of these technologies using biological processes?  Perhaps if the body is given the proper diet (i.e. whatever materials are needed in the new technological “organ”) and has the proper genetic code such that the body can properly assimilate those materials to create entirely new “organs” with advanced technological features (e.g. wireless communication or wireless access to an internet database activated by particular thoughts or another physiological command cue), we may eventually be able to get rid of external interface hardware and peripherals altogether.  It is likely that electronic devices will first become integrated into our bodies through surgical implantation in order to work with our body’s current hardware (including the brain), but having the body actually grow and/or repair these devices using DNA instruction would be the next logical step of innovation if it is eventually feasible.

Malleable Human Nature

When people discuss complex issues such as social engineering, sustainability, crime-reduction, etc., it is often mentioned that there is a fundamental barrier between our current societal state and where we want or need to be, and this barrier is none other than human nature itself.  Many people in power have tried to change human behavior with brute force while operating under the false assumption that human beings are analogous to some kind of blank slate that can simply learn or be conditioned to behave in any way without limits. This denial of human nature (whether implicit or explicit) has led to a lot of needless suffering and has also led to the de-synchronization of biological and cultural evolution.

Humans often think that they can adapt to any cultural change, but we often lose sight of the detrimental power that technology and other cultural inventions and changes can have over our physiological and psychological well-being. In a nutshell, the speed of cultural evolution can often make us feel like a fish out of water, perhaps better suited to live in an environment closer to our early human ancestors.  Whatever the case, we must embrace human nature and realize that our efforts to improve society (or ourselves) will only have long term efficacy if we work with human nature rather than against it.  So what can we do if our biological evolution is out-of-sync with our cultural evolution?  And what can we do if we have no choice but to accept human nature, that is, our (often selfish) biologically-driven motivations, tendencies, etc.?  Once again, genetic engineering may provide a solution to many of these previously insoluble problems.  To put it simply, if we can change our genome as desired, then we may be able to not only synchronize our biological and cultural evolution, but also change human nature itself in the process.  This change could not only make us feel better adjusted to the modern cultural environment we’re living in, but it could also incline us to instinctually behave in ways that are more beneficial to each other and to the world as a whole.

It’s often said that we have selfish genes in some sense, that is, many if not all of our selfish behaviors (as well as instinctual behaviors in general) are a reflection of the strategy that genes implement in their vehicles (i.e. our bodies) in order for the genes to maintain themselves and reproduce.  That genes possess this kind of strategy does not require us to assume that they are conscious in any way or have actual goals per se, but rather that natural selection simply selects genes that code for mechanisms which best maintain and spread those very genes.  Natural selection tends toward effective self-replicators, and that’s why “selfish” genes (in large part) cause many of our behaviors.  Improving reproductive fitness and successful reproduction has been the primary result of this strategy and many of the behaviors and motivations that were most advantageous to accomplish this are no longer compatible with modern culture including the long-term goals and greater good that humans often strive for.

Humans no longer exclusively live under the law of the jungle or “survival of the fittest” because our humanistic drives and their cultural reinforcements have expanded our horizons beyond simple self-preservation or a Machiavellian mentality.  Many humans have tried to propagate principles such as honesty, democracy, egalitarianism, immaterialism, sustainability, and altruism around the world, and they are often high-jacked by our often short-sighted sexual and survival-based instinctual motivations to gain sexual mates, power, property, a higher social status, etc.  Changing particular genes should also allow us to change these (now) disadvantageous aspects of human nature and as a result this would completely change how we look at every problem we face. No longer would we have to say “that solution won’t work because it goes against human nature”, or “the unfortunate events in human history tend to recur in one way or another because humans will always…”, but rather we could ask ourselves how we want or need to be and actually make it so by changing our human nature. Indeed, if genetic engineering is used to accomplish this, history would no longer have to repeat itself in the ways that we abhor. It goes without saying that a lot of our behavior can be changed for the better by an appropriate form of environmental conditioning, but for those behaviors that can’t be changed through conditioning, genetic engineering may be the key to success.

To Be or Not To Be?

It seems that we have been given a unique opportunity to use our ever increasing plethora of experiential data and knowledge and combine it with genetic engineering techniques to engineer a social organism that is by far the best adapted to its environment.  Additionally, we may one day find ourselves living in a true global utopia, if the barriers of human nature and the de-synchronization of biological and cultural evolution are overcome, and genetic engineering may be the only way of achieving such a goal.  One extremely important issue that I haven’t mentioned until now is the ethical concerns regarding the continued use and development of genetic engineering technology.  There are obviously concerns over whether or not we should even be experimenting with this technology.  There are many reasonable arguments both for and against using this technology, but I think that as a species, we have been driven to manipulate our environment in any way that we are capable of and this curiosity is a part of human nature itself.  Without genetic engineering, we can’t change any of the negative aspects of human nature but can only let natural selection run its course to modify our species slowly over time (for better or for worse).

If we do accept this technology, there are other concerns such as the fact that there are corporations and interested parties that want to use genetic engineering primarily if not exclusively for profit gain (often at the expense of actual universal benefits for our species) and which implement questionable practices like patenting plant and animal food sources in a potentially monopolized future agricultural market.  Perhaps an even graver concern is the potential to patent genes that become a part of the human genome, and the (at least short term) inequality that would ensue from the wealthier members of society being the primary recipients of genetic human enhancement. Some people may also use genetic engineering to create new bio-warfare weaponry and find other violent or malicious applications.  Some of these practices could threaten certain democratic or other moral principles and we need to be extremely cautious with how we as a society choose to implement and regulate this technology.  There are also numerous issues regarding how these technologies will affect the environment and various ecosystems, whether caused by people with admirable intentions or not.  So it is definitely prudent that we proceed with caution and get the public heavily involved with this cultural change so that our society can move forward as responsibly as possible.

As for the feasibility of the theoretical applications mentioned earlier, it will likely be computer simulation and computing power that catalyze the knowledge base and capability needed to realize many of these goals (by decoding the incredibly complex interactions between genes and the environment) and thus will likely be the primary limiting factor. If genetic engineering also involves expanding the DNA components we have to work with, for example, by expanding our base-four system (i.e. four nucleotides to choose from) to a higher based system through the use of other naturally occurring nucleotides or even the use of UBPs (i.e. “Unnatural Base Pairs”), while still maintaining low rates of base-pair mismatching and while maintaining adequate genetic information processing rates, we may be able to utilize previously inaccessible capabilities by increasing the genetic information density of DNA.  If we can overcome some of the chemical natural selection barriers that were present during abiogenesis and the evolution of DNA (and RNA), and/or if we can change the very structure of DNA itself (as well as the proteins and enzymes that are required for its implementation), we may be able to produce an entirely new type of genetic information storage and processing system, potentially circumventing many of the limitations of DNA in general, and thus creating a vast array of new species (genetically coded by a different nucleic acid or other substance).  This type of “nucleic acid engineering”, if viable, may complement the genetic engineering we’re currently performing on DNA and help us to further accomplish some of the aforementioned goals and applications.

Lastly, while some of the theoretical applications of genetic engineering that I’ve presented in this post may not sound plausible at all to some, I think it’s extremely important and entirely reasonable (based on historical precedent) to avoid underestimating the capabilities of our species.  We may one day be able to transform ourselves into whatever species we desire, effectively taking us from trans-humanism to some perpetual form of conscious evolution and speciation.  What I find most beautiful here is that the evolution of consciousness has actually led to a form of conscious evolution. Hopefully our species will guide this evolution in ways that are most advantageous to our species, and to the entire diversity of life on this planet.

Neuroscience Arms Race & Our Changing World View

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At least since the time of Hippocrates, people began to realize that the brain was the physical correlate of consciousness and thought.  Since then, the fields of psychology, neuroscience, and several inter-related fields have emerged.  There have been numerous advancements made within the field of neuroscience during the last decade or so, and in that same time frame there has also been an increased interest in the social, religious, philosophical, and moral implications that have precipitated from such a far-reaching field.  Certainly the medical knowledge we’ve obtained from the neurosciences has been the primary benefit of such research efforts, as we’ve learned quite a bit more about how the brain works, how it is structured, and the ongoing neuropathology that has led to improvements in diagnosing and treating various mental illnesses.  However, it is the other side of neuroscience that I’d like to focus on in this post — the paradigm shift relating to how we are starting to see the world around us (including ourselves), and how this is affecting our goals as well as how to achieve them.

Paradigm Shift of Our World View

Aside from the medical knowledge we are obtaining from the neurosciences, we are also gaining new perspectives on what exactly the “mind” is.  We’ve come a long way in demonstrating that “mental” or “mind” states are correlated with physical brain states, and there is an ever growing plethora of evidence which suggests that these mind states are in fact caused by these brain states.  It should come as no surprise then that all of our thoughts and behaviors are also caused by these physical brain states.  It is because of this scientific realization that society is currently undergoing an important paradigm shift in terms of our world view.

If all of our thoughts and behaviors are mediated by our physical brain states, then many everyday concepts such as thinking, learning, personality, and decision making can take on entirely new meanings.  To illustrate this point, I’d like to briefly mention the well known “nature vs. nurture” debate.  The current consensus among scientists is that people (i.e. their thoughts and behavior) are ultimately products of both their genes and their environment.

Genes & Environment

From a neuroscientific perspective, the genetic component is accounted for by noting that genes have been shown to play a very large role in directing the initial brain wiring schema of an individual during embryological development and through gestation.  During this time, the brain is developing very basic instinctual behavioral “programs” which are physically constituted by vastly complex neural networks, and the body’s developing sensory organs and systems are also connected to particular groups of these neural networks.  These complex neural networks, which have presumably been naturally selected for in order to benefit the survival of the individual, continue being constructed after gestation and throughout the entire ontogenic evolution of the individual (albeit to lesser degrees over time).

As for the environmental component, this can be further split into two parts: the internal and the external environment.  The internal environment within the brain itself, including various chemical concentration gradients partly mediated by random Brownian motion, provides some gene expression constraints as well as some additional guidance to work with the genetic instructions to help guide neuronal growth, migration, and connectivity.  The external environment, consisting of various sensory stimuli, seems to modify this neural construction by providing a form of inputs which may cause the constituent neurons within these neural networks to change their signal strength, change their action potential threshold, and/or modify their connections with particular neurons (among other possible changes).

Causal Constraints

This combination of genetic instructions and environmental interaction and input produces a conscious, thinking, and behaving being through a large number of ongoing and highly complex hardware changes.  It isn’t difficult to imagine why these insights from neuroscience might modify our conventional views of concepts such as thinking, learning, personality, and decision making.  Prior to these developments over the last few decades, the brain was largely seen as a sort of “black box”, with its internal milieu and functional properties remaining mysterious and inaccessible.  From that time and prior to it, for millennia, many people have assumed that our thoughts and behaviors were self-caused or causa sui.  That is, people believed that they themselves (i.e. some causally free “consciousness”, or “soul”, etc.) caused their own thoughts and behavior as opposed to those thoughts and behaviors being ultimately caused by physical processes (e.g. neuronal activity, chemical reactions, etc.).

Neuroscience (as well as biochemistry and its underlying physics) has shed a lot of light on this long-held assumption and, as it stands, the evidence has shown this prior assumption to be false.  The brain is ultimately controlled by the laws of physics since every chemical reaction and neural event that physically produces our thoughts, choices, and behaviors, have never been shown to be causally free from these physically guiding constraints.  I will mention that quantum uncertainty or quantum “randomness” (if ontologically random) does provide some possible freedom from physical determinism.  However, these findings from quantum physics do not provide any support for self-caused thoughts or behaviors.  Rather, it merely shows that those physically constrained thoughts and behaviors may never be completely predictable by physical laws no matter how much data is obtained.  In other words, our thoughts and behaviors are produced by highly predictable (although not necessarily completely predictable) physical laws and constraints as well as some possible random causal factors.

As a result of these physical causal constraints, the conventional perspective of an individual having classical free will has been shattered.  Our traditional views of human attributes including morality, choices, ideology, and even individualism are continuing to change markedly.  Not surprisingly, there are many people uncomfortable with these scientific discoveries including members of various religious and ideological groups that are largely based upon and thus depend on the very presupposition of precepts such as classical free will and moral responsibility.  The evidence that is compiling from the neurosciences is in fact showing that while people are causally responsible for their thoughts, choices, and behavior (i.e. an individual’s thoughts and subsequent behavior are constituents of a causal chain of events), they are not morally responsible in the sense that they can choose to think or behave any differently than they do, for their thoughts and behavior are ultimately governed by physically constrained neural processes.

New World View

Now I’d like to return to what I mentioned earlier and consider how these insights from neuroscience may be drastically modifying how we look at concepts such as thinking, learning, personality, and decision making.  If our brain is operating via these neural network dynamics, then conscious thought appears to be produced by a particular subset of these neural network configurations and processes.  So as we continue to learn how to more directly control or alter these neural network arrangements and processes (above and beyond simply applying electrical potentials to certain neural regions in order to bring memories or other forms of imagery into consciousness, as we’ve done in the past), we should be able to control thought generation from a more “bottom-up” approach.  Neuroscience is definitely heading in this direction, although there is a lot of work to be done before we have any considerable knowledge of and control over such processes.

Likewise, learning seems to consist of a certain type of neural network modification (involving memory), leading to changes in causal pattern recognition (among other things) which results in our ability to more easily achieve our goals over time.  We’ve typically thought of learning as the successful input, retention, and recall of new information, and we have been achieving this “learning” process through the input of environmental stimuli via our sensory organs and systems.  In the future, it may be possible to once again, as with the aforementioned bottom-up thought generation, physically modify our neural networks to directly implant memories and causal pattern recognition information in order to “learn” without any actual sensory input, and/or we may be able to eventually “upload” information in a way that bypasses the typical sensory pathways thus potentially allowing us to catalyze the learning process in unprecedented ways.

If we are one day able to more directly control the neural configurations and processes that lead to specific thoughts as well as learned information, then there is no reason that we won’t be able to modify our personalities, our decision-making abilities and “algorithms”, etc.  In a nutshell, we may be able to modify any aspect of “who” we are in extraordinary ways (whether this is a “good” or “bad” thing is another issue entirely).  As we come to learn more about the genetic components of these neural processes, we may also be able to use various genetic engineering techniques to assist with the necessary neural modifications required to achieve these goals.  The bottom line here is that people are products of their genes and environment, and by manipulating both of those causal constraints in more direct ways (e.g. through the use of neuroscientific techniques), we may be able to achieve previously unattainable abilities and perhaps in a relatively miniscule amount of time.  It goes without saying that these methods will also significantly affect our evolutionary course as a species, allowing us to enter new landscapes through our substantially enhanced ability to adapt.  This may be realized through these methods by finding ways to improve our intelligence, memory, or other cognitive faculties, effectively giving us the ability to engineer or re-engineer our brains as desired.

Neuroscience Arms Race

We can see that increasing our knowledge and capabilities within the neurosciences has the potential for drastic societal changes, some of which are already starting to be realized.  The impact that these fields will have on how we approach the problem of criminal, violent, or otherwise undesirable behavior can not be overstated.  Trying to correct these issues by focusing our efforts on the neural or cognitive substrate that underlie them, as opposed to using less direct and more external means (e.g. social engineering methods) that we’ve been using thus far, may lead to much less expensive solutions as well as solutions that may be realized much, much more quickly.

As with any scientific discovery or subsequent technology produced from it, neuroscience has the power to bestow on us both benefits as well as disadvantages.  I’m reminded of the ground-breaking efforts made within nuclear physics several decades ago, whereby physicists not only gained precious information about subatomic particles (and their binding energies) but also how to release these enormous amounts of energy from nuclear fusion and fission reactions.  It wasn’t long after these breakthrough discoveries were made before they were used by others to create the first atomic bombs.  Likewise, while our increasing knowledge within neuroscience has the power to help society improve by optimizing our brain function and behavior, it can also be used by various entities to manipulate the populace for unethical reasons.

For example, despite the large number of free market proponents who claim that the economy need not be regulated by anything other than rational consumers and their choices of goods and services, corporations have clearly increased their use of marketing strategies that take advantage of many humans’ irrational tendencies (whether it is “buy one get one free” offers, “sales” on items that have artificially raised prices, etc.).  Politicians and other leaders have been using similar tactics by taking advantage of voters’ emotional vulnerabilities on certain controversial issues that serve as nothing more than an ideological distraction in order to reduce or eliminate any awareness or rational analysis of the more pressing issues.

There are already research and development efforts being made by these various entities in order to take advantage of these findings within neuroscience such that they can have greater influence over people’s decisions (whether it relates to consumers’ purchases, votes, etc.).  To give an example of some of these R&D efforts, it is believed that MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) or fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) brain scans may eventually be able to show useful details about a person’s personality or their innate or conditioned tendencies (including compulsive or addictive tendencies, preferences for certain foods or behaviors, etc.).  This kind of capability (if realized) would allow marketers to maximize how many dollars they can squeeze out of each consumer by optimizing their choices of goods and services and how they are advertised. We have already seen how purchases made on the internet, if tracked, begin to personalize the advertisements that we see during our online experience (e.g. if you buy fishing gear online, you may subsequently notice more advertisements and pop-ups for fishing related goods and services).  If possible, the information found using these types of “brain probing” methods could be applied to other areas, including that of political decision making.

While these methods derived from the neurosciences may be beneficial in some cases, for instance, by allowing the consumer more automated access to products that they may need or want (which will likely be a selling point used by these corporations for obtaining consumer approval of such methods), it will also exacerbate unsustainable consumption and other personal or societally destructive tendencies and it is likely to continue to reduce (or eliminate) whatever rational decision making capabilities we still have left.

Final Thoughts

As we can see, neuroscience has the potential to (and is already starting to) completely change the way we look at the world.  Further advancements in these fields will likely redefine many of our goals as well as how to achieve them.  It may also allow us to solve many problems that we face as a species, far beyond simply curing mental illnesses or ailments.  The main question that comes to mind is:  Who will win the neuroscience arms race?  Will it be those humanitarians, scientists, and medical professionals that are striving to accumulate knowledge in order to help solve the problems of individuals and societies as well as to increase their quality of life?  Or will it be the entities that are trying to accumulate similar knowledge in order to take advantage of human weaknesses for the purposes of gaining wealth and power, thus exacerbating the problems we currently face?

The Co-Evolution of Language and Complex Thought

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Language appears to be the most profound feature that has arisen during the evolution of the human mind.  This feature of humanity has led to incredible thought complexity, and also provided the foundation for the most simplistic thoughts imaginable.  Many of us may wonder how exactly language is related to thought and also how the evolution of language has affected the evolution of thought complexity.  In this post, I plan to discuss what I believe to be some evolutionary aspects of psycholinguistics.

Mental Languages

It is clear that humans think in some form of language, whether it is accomplished as an interior monologue using our native spoken language and/or some form of what many call “mentalese” (i.e. a means of thinking about concepts and propositions without the use of words).  Our thoughts are likely accomplished by a combination of these two “types” of language.  The fact that young infants and aphasics (for example) are able to think, clearly implies that not all thoughts are accomplished through a spoken language.  It is also likely that the aforementioned “mentalese” is some innate form of mental symbolic representation that is primary in some sense, supported by the fact that it appears to be necessary in order for spoken language to develop or exist at all.  Considering that words and sentences do not have any intrinsic semantic content or value (at least non-iconic forms) illustrates that this “mentalese” is in fact a prerequisite for understanding or assigning the meaning of words and sentences.  Complex words can always be defined by a number of less complex words, but at some point a limit is reached whereby the most simple units of definition are composed of seemingly irreducible concepts and propositions.  Furthermore, those irreducible concepts and propositions do not require any words to have meaning (for if they did, we would have an infinite regress of words being defined by words being defined by words, ad infinitum).  The only time we theoretically require symbolic representation of semantic content using words is if the concepts are to be easily (if at all) communicated to others.

While some form of mentalese is likely the foundation or even ultimate form of thought, it is my contention that communicable language has likely had a considerable impact on the evolution of the human mind — not only in the most trivial or obvious way whereby communicated words affect our thoughts (e.g. through inspiration, imagination, and/or reflection of new knowledge or perspectives), but also by serving as a secondary multidimensional medium for symbolic representation. That is, spoken language (as well as its subsequent allotrope, written language) has provided a form of combinatorial leverage somewhat independent of (although working in harmony with) the mental or cognitive faculties that innately exist for thought.

To be sure, spoken language has likely co-evolved with our mentalese, as they seem to affect one another in various ways.  As new types or combinations of propositions and concepts are discovered, the spoken language has to adapt in order to make those new propositions and concepts communicable to others.  What interests me more however, is how communicable language (spoken or written) has affected the evolution of thought complexity itself.

Communicable Language and Thought Complexity

Words and sentences, which primarily developed in order to communicate instances of our mental language to others, have also undoubtedly provided a secondary multidimensional medium for symbolic representation.  For example, when we use words, we are able to compress a large amount of information (i.e. many concepts and propositions) into small tokens with varying densities.  This type of compression has provided a way to maximize our use of short-term and long-term memory in order for more complex thoughts and mental capabilities to develop (whether that increase in complexity is defined as longer strings of concepts or propositions, or otherwise).

When we think of a sentence to ourselves, we end up utilizing a phonological/auditory loop, whereby we can better handle and organize information at any single moment by internally “hearing” it.  We can also visualize the words in multiple ways including how the mouth movements of people speaking those words would look like (and we can use our tactile and/or motor memory to mentally simulate how our mouth feels when these words are spoken), and if a written form of the communicable language exists, we can actually visualize the words as they would appear in their written form (as well as the aforementioned tactile/motor memory to mentally simulate how it feels to write those words).  On top of this, we can often visualize each glyph in multiple formats (i.e. different sizes, shapes, fonts, etc.).  This has provided a multidimensional memory tool, because it serves to represent the semantic information in a way that our brain can perceive and associate with multiple senses (in this case through our auditory, visual, and somatosensory cortices).  In some cases, when a particular written language uses iconic glyphs (as opposed to arbitary symbols), the user can also visualize the concept represented by the symbol in an idealized fashion.  Associating information with multiple cognitive faculties or perceptual systems means that more neural network patterns of the brain will be involved with the attainment, retention, and recall of that information.  For those of us that have successfully used various pneumonic devices and other memory-enhancing “tricks”, we can clearly see the efficacy and importance of communicable language and its relationship to how we think about and combine various concepts and propositions.

By enhancing our memory, communicable language has served as an epistemic catalyst allowing us to build upon our previous knowledge in ways that would have likely been impossible without said language.  Once written language was developed, we were no longer limited by our own short-term and long-term memory, for we had a way of recording as much information as possible, and this also allowed us to better formulate new ideas and consider thoughts that would have otherwise been too complex to mentally visualize or keep track of.  Mathematics, for example, exponentially increased in complexity once we were able to represent the relationships between variables in a written form.  While previously we would have been limited by our short-term and long-term memory, written language allowed us to eventually formulate incredibly long (sometimes painfully long) mathematical expressions.  Once written language was converted further into an electro-mechanical language (i.e. through the use of computers), our “writing” mediums, information acquisition mechanisms, and pattern recognition capabilities, were further aided and enhanced exponentially thus providing yet another platform for an increased epistemic or cognitive “breathing space”.  If our brains underwent particular mutations after communicable language evolved, it may have provided a way to ratchet our way into entirely new cognitive niches or capabilities.  That is, by communicable language providing us with new strings of concepts and propositions, there may have been an unprecedented natural selection pressure/opportunity (if an advantageous brain mutation accompanied this new cognitive input) in order for our brain to obtain an entirely new and possibly more complex fundamental concept or way of thinking.

Summary

It seems evident to me that communicable language, once it had developed, served as an extremely important epistemic catalyst and multidimensional cognitive tool that likely had a great influence on the evolution of the human brain.  While some form of mentalese was likely a prerequisite and precursor to any subsequent forms of communicable language, the cognitive “breathing space” that communicable language provided, seems to have had a marked impact on the evolution of human thought complexity, and on the amount of knowledge that we’ve been able to obtain from the world around us.  I have no doubt that the current external linguistic tools we use (i.e. written and electronic forms of handling information) will continue to significantly alter the ongoing evolution of the human mind.  Our biological forms of memory will likely adapt in order to be economically optimized and better work with those external media.  Likewise, our increasing access to new types of information may have provided (and may continue to provide) a natural selective pressure or opportunity for our brains to evolve in order to think about entirely new and potentially more complex concepts, thereby periodically increasing the lexicon or conceptual database of our “mentalese” (assuming that those new concepts provide a survival/reproductive advantage).

Technology, Evolution, and the Fate of Mankind

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Introduction

One could easily argue that human technology is merely a by-product of evolution, or to be more specific, a by-product of natural selection, since any animal possessing a brain and body capable of manipulating their environment to such a high degree is likely to have a higher survival rate than those that do not.  Technology can also be seen as an external evolving feature of the human race, that is, it is changing over time based on environmental pressures that exist, yet it is evolving somewhat independently of our own physical evolution.  Environmental pressures aside, it is clear that our technology has also evolved as a result of our own desire for convenience, entertainment, and pure novelty.  Throughout this post, I plan to discuss our intimate relationship with technology, its evolutionary effects, and also how this may affect the future of our species.

Necessity for Survival?

While technology has provided us with many conveniences, it has also become something that many have come to rely on for their survival (albeit to varying degrees).  Certainly one of our largest problems as a species is our unprecedented reliance on so much technology, not to mention the lack of sustainability for its use.  We have so much infrastructure utilizing enormous amounts of non-renewable fossil fuels, and a host of other interconnected electro-mechanical technologies required for the operation of our civilized world.  We also have medicine and other medical devices that so many depend on, whether to survive an accident, to combat a chronic illness, or to compensate for any number of genetic shortcomings.  Whether it’s a need for prescription glasses, anti-biotics, or a dialysis machine, it is clear that there are a large number of people that couldn’t live without many of these technologies (or would be much less likely to survive without it).

Genetic Change Induced by Technology and Society

I find it interesting to think about how the gene pool has changed as a result of our technology.  There are a considerable number of people living with various life-threatening illnesses, poor eye-sight, obesity, diabetes, sexual dysfunction, etc., due in part to the fact that various synthesized pharmaceuticals and medical advancements have allowed many of these people to live long enough and reproduce.  Not long ago, many people living with these types of impairments would have died young and their genes would have been eradicated.  Now it goes without saying that any advancements we’ve made in terms of genetic engineering or gene therapy, that is, any advancements that actually increase our fitness genetically (and can thus be passed on to future offspring), are not an issue.  Rather, it is all of the other advancements that have merely provided a band-aid approach in order for the genetically less-endowed individuals to survive and reproduce.

Now granted, many of the health problems we encounter in society are largely a result of environmental circumstances (caused by technology or otherwise) transpiring ontogenically as opposed to those which are largely inherited genetically.  There are also a large number of conditions surfacing simply because we’ve increased our life expectancy in such a short amount of time.  Regardless, the gene pool has indeed been affected by a plethora of heritable factors resulting from our technologically pampered society.

It must be said that our gene pool has seen this genetically sub-par influx partly due to the fact that the previous environmental pressures that would have eradicated these genes has been replaced with a technologically savvy super-organism that values human life regardless of how much each life contributes to, or detracts from, the longevity of our species.  Unlike most species, we are at least self-aware, and many of us fully understand the possibility that some of our choices may lead to the extinction of our species (as well as others).  However, I believe that this possibility of extinction hasn’t been taken very seriously and thus there hasn’t been enough invested in evaluating the direction we are heading as a species, let alone the direction we are heading as an entire planet.

Engineered Selection

Now it may be that one day our technology will allow us to understand and manipulate our genome (or that of any other species) such that we can prevent and/or cure any disease or handle any environmental change, effectively eliminating our form of natural selection from the evolutionary equation.  After all, if we could simply modify our gene pool in order to survive any environmental change that is otherwise out of our control, then the gradual course for natural selection and the mutations previously required to make it an effective mechanism, would be replaced by what I would call an “engineered selection”.

We’ve already greatly altered natural selection (relative to other animals) by manipulating our own environmental pressures via technology.  We’ve also created artificial selection (i.e. selective breeding) and utilized this to domesticate various plants and animals, as well as to create breeds possessing traits we find advantageous.  If we actually managed to complement this with a mastery in genetic engineering technology, we would potentially be able to “select” our own species (and the future species we’d become) indefinitely.  The key would be in understanding genetic causal relationships, even if this knowledge required the use of complex genetic evolutionary simulations, supercomputers, etc.

I definitely think that the most significant change for our species lies in this field of genetic engineering, as opposed to any other technological niche.  The possibilities provided by mastering genetic engineering are endless.  We may use it in order to design future offspring with genetic traits that we’re already familiar with (preferably to increase their fitness in the present environment as opposed to superficial motivations), we may add traits from other species (e.g. ability to re-grow limbs, develop wings so we can fly, etc.), or we may even employ some method of integrating communication devices or other deemed “synthetic” technologies into our bodies such that they are biologically grown and repairable, etc.  Humans may use this to genetically engineer brains such that the resulting consciousness has completely different properties, or they may be able to use genetic engineering to create consciousness in a biological “robot”.  If genetically engineered brains result in a more beneficial form of consciousness, higher intelligence, etc., then genetic engineering may end up as a sort of cognitive-evolutionary/technological catalyst thus allowing us to exponentially increase our capacities to solve problems and build ever more advanced technologies.  That is, our enhanced brains and the resulting technology produced would help us to further enhance our brains and technology ad infinitum.  The possibilities are endless if we manage to acquire enough knowledge, acquire the ability to produce engineered DNA sequences, and potentially acquire a way to accelerate the ontogenic evolution of anything produced in order to verify experimental hypotheses/theories in the absence of sufficient computer simulation capabilities.

Fate of Mankind

We are definitely on the cusp of a potentially dramatic evolutionary change for our species.  However, we are also at a very vulnerable stage, for much of our technology has caused our gene pool to regress in terms of physical fitness within a society that could one day be deprived of much of this technology.  Technology has also led to an incredible population explosion, mainly due to agriculture and the fossil-fuel-catalyzed industrial revolution.  This population explosion has helped us in some ways by providing an increase in idea collaboration (thus leading to an exponential increase in technological evolution), but it has also led to much more disastrous effects on the environment including an increased difficulty in sustainability.

Now from an evolutionary perspective, one could argue that currently, our technology is but an extension of ourselves, and our well-developed brains have more than compensated for our physical regression.  While this claim has some truth to it (at the moment anyway), if we lost our ability to mass-produce the technology required for industrialized agriculture, running water, medicine, transportation, sanitation, etc., whether caused by depleting our non-renewable energy sources or even caused by something like a solar-induced electro-magnetic pulse that takes out our power distribution systems (i.e. the entire electrical grid), how many would perish as a result?  In my opinion, the ideal level of evolutionary progression should be such that removing any non-renewable energy source or other vulnerable technology isn’t catastrophic to the survival of our species.  This way our species is less vulnerable to anything that forces us to take a step backwards.  Currently, if we did lose our non-renewable infrastructure, I believe it would be catastrophic and it would be the hunter-gatherers and/or smaller-scale agrarians (i.e. those that are completely off the grid) that would survive, rise up and once again dominate the gene pool as was the case with our ancestors.

Will we survive until an exclusively “engineered selection” is attained?  Or will we simply fall off the evolutionary cusp and potentially extinguish ourselves with the very technology that led to civilization in the first place?  The answer may depend on our level of respect and caution for the technology we so often take for granted.