Across every continent and throughout every ocean, evolution has woven living tapestries of awesome complexity and beauty. In perhaps the most exquisite motif of all, evolution has even given rise to minds able to recognize and appreciate this beauty. But the artistry we observe should not be confused with determined craftsmanship, for evolution does not create any blueprints or write any recipes before laboring. It sounds like an incorrect answer given by a sassy teenager on a test, but evolution by natural selection is, in reality, just a bunch of stuff that happens.
Because it is a non-intelligent process – the unavoidable reality that conditions will always favor some designs over others – evolution by natural selection has to break many, many eggs in order to make an omelet. When we marvel at the swiftness of the cheetah, we do not see the billions of ancestral cousins that weren’t quite fast enough. When we delight in the vibrant plumage of many birds, we do not see the loveless flocks of bachelors that weren’t quite attractive enough.
Modern humans share a lineage no less brutal than those of our fellow animals. Even the unique cognitive ability reflected in the name homo sapiens sapiens – the thinking thinking man – is the result of a merciless game in which the perpetuation of genetic information is the only condition for victory. From our most logical calculations to our most passionate urges, our minds are orchestras assembled and tuned solely to perform magnificent renditions of the simplest melody: the call of the wild.
But by developing such an exquisite and versatile tool as the human brain, evolution has unwittingly (for that is the only way it can ever act) given us a means of escaping the cruel laboratory of natural selection. For despite the peculiar tuning prescribed by nature, general intelligence – the kind historically unique to humans – can play more than one song.
This is not to say that becoming masters of our own evolution is as simple as recognizing our origins and deciding not to be played. Until very recently, the only tool we’ve had to influence our genetic evolution was selective breeding, and since people tend to dislike being killed or forbidden to reproduce for the sake of the gene pool, we rightly look upon the science of eugenics with great suspicion. Also, people frequently diverge in their choice of preferred genetic traits. At best, they tend to favor qualities that nature already selects. At worst, they hold prejudices that lead to ethnic cleansing and genocide.
Today, we know genes can be altered in a more targeted fashion, assuming we can decide which configurations are best to give our children. But this level of genetic engineering will require many decades-long studies and scientific breakthroughs before coming of age, and raises disturbing questions about the ethical desirability of a “designer baby” society.
Perhaps we find genetic engineering and eugenics unsatisfactory in part because they fail to do any better than natural selection at providing personal freedom; while parents using these techniques may appreciate greater reproductive control, their children would still inherit a particular genome without having any say in the matter. Breaking out of this constrictive paradigm requires technology that can allow individuals to decide for themselves what kinds of minds and bodies they will possess, thus making evolution a personal decision.
Given genetic engineering’s lengthy development cycle, it seems natural to view the more advanced technology needed for personal evolution as a distant fantasy. After all, this would require either superior alternatives to human bodies or the ability to reconfigure living bodies at the sub-cellular level – themes of only the most speculative science fiction. Nanotechnology – the nascent field of engineering materials and devices at molecular scales – can conceivably meet these specifications. But despite the accelerating progress that is starting to make nanotechnology a household word, humans are poorly suited for engineering the level of complexity and control needed for these advanced applications; we are evolved for activities of a completely different magnitude. (For instance, manufacturing trillions of multipurpose medical nanobots might be “easy” compared to making them all operate intelligently.)
Even so, the formidable barriers of advanced technology may fall easily if, instead of confronting them directly, we first build on our unique evolutionary legacy of general intelligence. The ad-hoc intellectual orchestra improvised by natural selection could almost certainly be outperformed by one assembled intelligently from the beginning. The creation of artificial general intelligence (AGI) represents a unique and formidable challenge, but holds tremendous promise as a way of playing to our greatest strength and augmenting it. In fact, the moment we achieve greater intelligence has such “singular” significance that futurists refer to it as the Singularity.
An adequately designed AGI could provide enormous assistance in the design of still more intelligent minds – a process that can be repeated in a self-reinforcing cycle. An AGI could also stand squarely outside the survival-promoting distortions that evolution has built into our thought processes, but at the same time possess a sympathetic respect for human ethics – a trait called Friendliness by some researchers. These new kinds of minds – free, capable, and compassionate to an unparalleled degree – would be invaluable partners in safely mastering technologies that can make personal evolution a reality.
Admittedly, opening a mind-and-body shop will probably not be the most urgent service performed by any Friendly AI. Indeed, it is the suffering of millions from potentially curable diseases and social conditions that should be making Friendly AI a world-wide research priority. (Many experts believe that AGI can be created in one or two decades with just a fraction of the funding devoted to causes like cancer research.) But initiating the transhuman destiny of homo sapiens sapiens is perhaps the most significant long-term achievement we can imagine; after that, who can say what dreams and challenges await?
We presently live in a beautiful-but-indifferent world where death and hardship are the norm. Adversity is, after all, the driving force behind natural selection. But as if that weren’t enough, evolution has tragically engineered us not to experience lasting happiness, but to restlessly tend insatiable appetites in the service of our genes. With help from Friendly new minds, however, the enduring frustrations of the human condition can be severed as the cold strings of a mindless puppeteer. The creation of greater intelligence is the first step towards evolution by choice: the freedom to create our own better selves.
Â©2002 by Mitchell Howe