The Future of the Human Species: Genetic Engineering, Cybernetics, Artificial Intelligence and Animal Uplifting


This presentation is concerned technological self-transformation of the species and the influence of cultural mores and social systems on this possibility. What is included can be categorized into four broad technological groups; genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, prosthetics and animal uplifting – more on that last word later. These are areas of life with have seen extraordinary changes over the last fifty years and in all probability the next fifty will witness even greater changes.

Some of these changes will be challenging to our conception of what it means to be human. They may even be considered disturbing and contrary to good taste. In this light, some have raised the suggestion of the need for moral values to precedence over scientific investigation: Science writer, Gina Maranto comments that: "Humans have long since possessed the tools for crafting a better world. Where love, compassion, altruism and justice have failed, genetic manipulation will not succeed". This comment stands in contrast to the trivialization by another science writer, Lewis Thomas; "The cloning of humans is on most of the lists of things to worry about from Science, along with behavior control, genetic engineering, transplanted heads, computer poetry and the unrestrained growth of plastic flowers".

Both these points of view are unsatisfactory. One truncates the potentially beneficial role of such scientific investigation and technological development and the other trivializes very real concerns and dangers that may arise from such sciences and technologies.

Unitarians are perhaps the only religious organization in the entire world that can hold its head up high when it comes to matters of scientific investigation. Whereas every other religion (with perhaps the exception of animism and some forms of paganism) in the world has sought truth from existing publications that are given the veneer of sacred, perfect and unchanging, Unitarians have, at least from James Martineau onwards, recognized that such a proposition is an abdication of the human duty to understand the world. All texts are fallible and all must stand to scrutiny against reality and reason itself.

It is not surprising therefore that some of the most radical scientists in history feature prominently on the Unitarian roll-call: Michael Servetus on the circulation of the blood, Issac Newton on modern physics and the heliocentric view of the solar system, Charles Darwin on zoology and evolution and - to bring the discussion up to a very contemporary standard - Tim Berners-Lee, inventor the World Wide Web. The purpose of mentioning such names is simply to illustrate that we, as Unitarians, have a special commitment to science - to seek the truth - and to apply that knowledge for the social good - to serve humanity. It is imperative therefore that we seek a consistent approach to the extremely critical issue of the potential self-transformation of the species. This presentation however, can at best represent a few initial ideas in this issue.

Genetic Engineering

Beginning with genetic engineering it is worthwhile expanding the standard definition - the manipulation of genetic material to modify the proteins produced - to include genetic selectivity as well, or in other words, eugenics, and this time not based on totalitarian systematic enforcement by the state which we are all familiar with, but a new liberal eugenics, governed by individual choice. Noting of course, that individuals are equally capable as governments in engaging in some of the worst forms of destructive exclusivity based on deeply ingrained prejudices and oppressive social mores. The issue is well addressed by the Saheli Women's Resource Centre in India, who comment:

"The final goal of reproductive engineering appears to be the manufacture of a human being to suit exact specifications of physical attributes, class, caste, colour and sex. Who will decide these specifications? We have already seen how sex-determination has resulted in the elimination of female fetuses. The powerless in any society will get more disempowered with the growth of such reproductive technologies."

They write with some authority. According to UNESCO, up to 90 percent of amniocentesis centres were used for sex determination, resulting in 96 of female fetuses aborted.

This contrasts strongly with some of the reality and potential in industry and medicine. Few would question the benefits of genetically engineered human insulin for diabetics in common use since 1980, or the development of interferons for treating viral infections, bypassing the time consuming processing of human blood for small amounts. The development of the human growth hormone, used to treat persons with congenital dwarfism and promising developments in treating those who suffer from heart attacks. Or the introduction of new genetic material to treat those suffering from SCID or severe combined immune deficiency, prior to 1990, spent their lives inside sanitized plastic bubbles. One can also include contemporary retrovirus gene therapy into cancer and hemophilia.

On a related issue we can also raise the supposedly contentious issue of stem-cell research, with the main source being tissue taken from aborted fetuses for medical research. Stem-cells are considered to have good potential in the treatment of Parkinson's disease, spinal injuries and nerve cell damage. Cloning for medical purposes is also relevant in this context, reducing the time needed to make a transgenic animal model for research, cloning stem cells, cloning bone marrow or organs for transplants, or even reviving endangered or extinct species.

Whilst clearly beneficial germ-line correction may elicit strong support, it is not that distant to germ-line enhancement. For example, it has been shown the long version of the gene ACE has been correlates to greater muscle efficiency and stamina. If there are no negative effects to this genetic option it seems reasonable to assume that many, if given the opportunity, will choose greater muscle efficiency and stamina than not - and this is clearly a very short step to "designer humans" with all physical characteristics chosen by prospective parents.

Another area of concern has been the propagation of genetically modified organisms especially in food where new genes and gene products, mainly from bacteria, viruses and other non-food species have been introduced to food products. This raises new safety concerns as all species interacting with genetically modified crops and organisms are exposed to new proteins, which may cause allergic or otherwise negative immunological responses. To say the least these safety concerns are hardly being adequately addressed and nor in most parts of the world - Australia being a currently worthwhile exception - labeling of the existence of GMOs in a food product is still not mandatory.

By starting this section with the dangers inherent in genetic selectively by cultural prejudice, it seems appropriate to conclude with emphasizing the dangers inherent in genetic engineering by institutional interests. The issue of safety has already been raised - powerful particular interests have a systematic telos to minimize their particular costs even when they are contrary to the general interest. A particular example can be cited with the private property rights over patents and the possibility that particular genetic sequences or even an entire genome may be subject to being patented.

Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and Prostheses

Artifical intelligence and robotics are two closely related issues which also attract concerns on the technological self-transformation of the species. Most current philosophical and scientific opinion seems less concerned with these developments compared to genetic engineering on the basis that it seems unlikely that any level of artificial intelligence or robotics will be able to develop consciousness in the human sense of being able to understand and generate mutual symbolic values. Instead, the suggestion is that rather than consciousness per se, what artificial intelligence and robotics may generate is something akin to expert systems, which learn heuristically from experience, depending on the complexity of the machines in question.

This suggestion does still remain however in what is called the "strong AI" camp that the capacity to generate such mutual symbolic values itself is at least partially a function of complexity and this does seem to have at least a kernel of truth. In that light then, it is extremely interesting to review the recent works of one Hans Marvec, a principle research scientist at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. Marvec, using a fairly conservative timeline of evolving complexity in computer processing, estimates that by 2010 "utility robots" (such as a "smart" vacuum cleaner), with a brain with lizard-like complexity will be available on the mass market and by 2050 robotic and computer machines will have greater processing power than biological humans.

Still hardware does not equate with software, and as a physical anthropologist will tell you, the oversized brain of the Homo Sapien Neanderthal did them no good with impoverished means of communication. Nevertheless even in that field contemporary trends in these fields of research are closing the gap between the human and the computer - neural networks, Baysian set theory, distributed processing, the mechanics of vision and the senses, heuristic searching and so forth are all significantly adding to the development of artificial intelligence.

The development of prosthetics and the related discipline of orthotics in the twentieth century was initially the result of requirement arising from the "broken men" of the second world war. Mostly forgotten these days was the extraordinary (and necessary) advances in this field by the Soviet Union. Today, advances in technology and design have resulted in relatively gradual improvements for those with disabilities and impairments in neuromuscular and musculoskeletal impairments as both the range complexity of such bionics (e.g., hand and foot impairments, visual and auditory senses) are increased. "Virtual Reality" machines have been used succesfully to reduce trauma in burn patients. Just this week, researchers at Penn State University reported development on a tiny implant to monitor blood sugar levels for diabetics using the same technology to protect retail merchandise. In a similar light, attention is drawn to the implant 'tagging' system commonly used for pets, but also used to track non-dangerous convicted criminals in favour of incarceration. All of this contributes to the nascent science of nanotechnology, the application of robotics on the molecular level.

Another important point which long-term Artificial Intelligence advocate Marvin Minsky illustrates that human intelligence is becoming increasingly “artificial”. Human individuals and human society is now extremely dependent on machine-stored knowledge, whether it be bookmarks on webpages, various databases, sound and video recordings. Some have even sprung up - like the magnificent website thememoryhole - to keeps track of alterations, deletions and cover-ups in the digital world of politically sensitive information.

With regards to artificial intelligence, prostheses and related fields it seems, like with case with genetic engineering and with thememoryhole serving as an illustrative answer that once again a criticial issue is raised over the role of intellectual property and the promotion of particular interests over public interests. The beneficial possibilities in robotics, artifical intelligence, expert systems and prothetics are invariably overwhelmed by the fact of enormous expenditure on such technological systems from advanced military institutions – the future of war in this mindset is the cybernetically enhanced soldier, automated weaponary and vehicles, and space and naval robotic systems. With no sense of irony, such machines are called 'smart weapons' - engaging in the least intelligent application of technology possible.

Animal Uplifting

The final area of concern in this presentation is that of animal uplifting. 'Uplifting' is a term appropriated from science fiction author David Brin referring to the genetic or other enhancement of non-human animals to human-like intelligence. This is certainly not as strange as it may first sound. It has been long recognized by scientists that the cephalopods (squid and octopus) posses extremely high mobility, large brain to body mass ratios, and advanced means of communication.

Some species of dolphin have comparable brains and body masses equivalent to ourselves and in controlled experiements have shown the ability to grasp and communicate complex ideas. Killer whales, also with extremely large brain sizes commonly form cooperative hunting plans and the possibility has been raised that the open warfare between sperm whales and large squid is also intelligence mediated. Less than two months ago, Science reported that studies on a house dog named Rico indicated an extensive vocabulary and ability to figure out by elimination that a sound that he has never heard before must refer to a toy he has never seen before - in other words, recognizing new symbolic values.

In the main however research in animal intelligence has most comprehensively been carried out among simians and in particular chimanzees, the animal most closely related to humans. From the groundbreakiung work of Allen and Beatrix Gardner some have shown impressive development in learning the American sign language such as Washoe, who learned some 200 signs. Nim Chimsky, named in humour after Noam Chomsky, actually confirmed the famous linguists' theory that grammatical structures are learned innately and cannot be taught. But whilst Nim Chimsky never mastered the art of transformational grammar primatologist Roger Fouts who has been researching language ability among chimpanzees for over three decades notes that at least one chimpanzee has never made a grammatical error in expression.

In a very real sense, as Carl Sagan makes explicity clear in his very accessible book "The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence", none of this should surprise us. The evolution of human intelligence and communication is quite a natural process and utterly dependent on the environmental circumstances that necessitated particular characteristics for survival and adaptability. The fact that similar forms of intelligence and communication also appear in other animals and that there is some degree of cross-species communication between humans and other animals is also a natural and quite reasonable fact. To be sure, it does raise profound ethical questions about the treatment of certain animals by we as moral individuals and what rights - that is substantive political and legal rights - that they deserve.

If this is problematic enough - and it should be to members of a religion which have an explicit commitment to "respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part" - then consider the issues that arise when one combines the technological developments given previously in this presentation - genetic engineering, selective breeding, robotics and bionics, prosthetics - with the development of cross-species communication. Can we claim in all seriousness that in one hundred years human beings will continue to hold a unique level of intelligence vastly superior than that of any other species on the planet? And if that is not the case, at what point do we adapt our political and economic systems and our democratic values and ethos to apply to other sentient beings?

One thing can be certain; once again the same cultural prejudices and institutional vested interests will apply as suggested in other aspects of this presentation. Many
individuals, with metaphysical justifications, will demand the continuiation of prejudiced and ignorant mores, of an innate superiority and mastery of human beings over other beings whereas many institutions will demand the application of property law and ownership rights in a manner that is entirely comparable with nothing less than slavery.

The Possibility of Transhumanism

By way of a conclusion, the possibility of transhumanism is raised. This is the advocacy by some scientists and their allies that the human species should actively seek a technologically transformation of its own species. The fevour of some its advocates, and their rather cavalier approach to science, has led some critics to describe transhumanism as a sort of theology rather than a scientific discourse. Whilst this claim certainly has an element of truth, it should be clear from todays presentation, that mere opposition to the prospect of technological self-transformation is not a viable option. So rather than being opposed to, or in favour of, transhumanism, it is far better to acknowledge the possibility and likelihood as a simple fact resulting in the quest of human understanding.

Once this is done, the possibility to discuss the application of particular technologies becomes less cloudy. The typical extremes in the philosophy of technology are invariably weak. The social constructionalist approach claims that ultimately it is human values that determine the results and application technology. The technological determinist approach claims that human values are shaped and indeed enframed by the technological system. Both are of course, partially true, but they leave out what is perhaps the most important insight of the famous philosophers of technology Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan: Technology amplifies and enhances the effect of human decisions.

In this respect there are serious causes for concern, as this enhancement applies not only to intentional but unintentional actions. The possibility of pathological use of these technologies, the possibility that unforseen consequences arise, the possibility of sheer clumsiness and error are extremely high and necessitate strong democratic control over the development of these technologies along with equally strong freedoms for their self-regarding application by individuals.

From this rather preliminary review the most likely possibility of the technological transformation of the species is one of some sort of hybrid being: partially the result of natural human DNA, partially genetically engineered, partially incorporating some other animal DNA, partially managed by expert systems and enhanced brain capacity, partially including prosthetics. This cyborg, possibly monstrous to our early 21st century eyes, will in all likelihood be stronger, smarter, faster and commanding a superior lifespan. The important question however, is whether such a being will itself command a greater moral sense than the common prejudices and misconceptions that we see today, and whether it will exist within a social and political system that provides more freedoms and more democracy that is currently the case. Because if this is not so, it will not be the cyborg that is monstrous but rather the world it lives in.

Address to the Melbourne Unitarian Church, Sunday August 1st, 2004