Posted: Mon, October 22, 2012 | By: David Pearce
How recursively self-improving organic robots will modify their own source code and bootstrap our way to full-spectrum superintelligence.
“Homo sapiens, the first truly free species, is about to decommission natural selection, the force that made us…. Soon we must look deep within ourselves and decide what we wish to become.”
Edward O. Wilson, Consilience, The Unity of Knowledge, 1999
“I predict that the domestication of biotechnology will dominate our lives during the next fifty years at least as much as the domestication of computers has dominated our lives during the previous fifty years.”
Freeman Dyson, New York Review of Books (July 19, 2007)
1. The Fate of the Germline
Genetic evolution is slow. Progress in artificial intelligence is fast. Only a handful of genes separate Homo sapiens from our hominid ancestors on the African savannah. Among our 23,000-odd protein-coding genes, variance in single nucleotide polymorphisms (”SNPs”) accounts for just a small percentage of phenotypic variance in intelligence as measured by what we call IQ tests. True, the tempo of human evolution is about to accelerate. As the reproductive revolution of “designer babies” gathers pace, prospective parents will pre-select alleles and allelic combinations for a new child in anticipation of their behavioural effects - a novel kind of selection pressure to replace the “blind” genetic roulette of natural selection.
In time, routine embryo screening via preimplantation genetic diagnosis will be complemented by gene therapy, genetic enhancement and then true designer zygotes. In consequence, life on Earth will also become progressively happier as the hedonic treadmill is recalibrated. In the new reproductive era, hedonic set-points and intelligence alike will be ratcheted upwards in virtue of selection pressure. For what parent-to-be wants to give birth to a low-status depressive “loser”? Future parents can enjoy raising a normal transhuman supergenius who grows up to be faster than Usain Bolt, more beautiful than Marilyn Monroe, more saintly than Nelson Mandela, more creative than Shakespeare - and smarter than Einstein.
Even so, the accelerating growth of germline engineering will be a comparatively slow process. In this scenario, sentient biological machines will design cognitively self-amplifying biological machines who will design cognitively self-amplifying biological machines. Greater-than-human biological intelligence will transform itself into posthuman superintelligence. Cumulative gains in intellectual capacity and subjective well-being across the generations will play out over hundreds and perhaps thousands of years - a momentous discontinuity, for sure, and a twinkle in the eye of eternity; but not a BioSingularity.
2. Biohacking Your Personal Genome
Yet germline engineering is only one strand of the genomics revolution. Indeed after humans master the aging process, the extent to which traditional germlines or human generations will persist in the post-ageing world is obscure. Focus on the human germline ignores the slow-burning but then explosive growth of somatic gene enhancement in prospect. Later this century, innovative gene therapies will be succeeded by gene enhancement technologies - a value-laden dichotomy that reflects our impoverished human aspirations. Starting with individual genes, then clusters of genes, and eventually hundreds of genes and alternative splice variants, a host of recursively self-improving organic robots (“biohackers”) will modify their genetic source code and modes of sentience: their senses, their moods, their motivation, their cognitive apparatus, their world-simulations and their default state of consciousness.
As the era of open-source genetics unfolds, tomorrow’s biohackers will add, delete, edit and customise their own legacy code in a positive feedback loop of cognitive enhancement. Computer-aided genetic engineering will empower biological humans, transhumans and then posthumans to synthesise and insert new genes, variant alleles and even designer chromosomes - reweaving the multiple layers of regulation of our DNA to suit their wishes and dreams rather than the inclusive fitness of their genes in the ancestral environment. Collaborating and competing, next-generation biohackers will use stem-cell technologies to expand their minds, literally, via controlled neurogenesis. Freed from the constraints of the human birth canal, biohackers may re-sculpt the prison-like skull of Homo sapiens to accommodate a larger mind/brain, which can initiate recursive self-expansion in turn. Six crumpled layers of neocortex fed by today’s miserly reward pathways aren’t the upper bound of conscious mind, merely its seedbed. Each biological neuron and glial cell of your growing mind/brain can have its own dedicated artificial healthcare team, web-enabled nanobot support staff, and social network specialists; compare today’s anonymous neural porridge. Transhuman minds will be augmented with neurochips, molecular nanotechnology, mind/computer interfaces and full-immersion virtual reality (VR) software. To achieve finer-grained control of cognition, mood and motivation, genetically enhanced transhumans will draw upon exquisitely tailored new designer drugs, nutraceuticals and cognitive enhancers - precision tools that make today’s crude interventions seem the functional equivalent of glue-sniffing.
By way of comparison, early in the twenty-first century the scientific counterculture is customizing a bewildering array of designer drugs that outstrip the capacity of the authorities to regulate or comprehend. The bizarre psychoactive effects of such agents dramatically expand the evidential base that our theory of consciousness must explain. However, such drugs are short-acting. Their benefits, if any, aren’t cumulative. By contrast, the ability genetically to hack one’s own source code will unleash an exponential growth of genomic rewrites - not mere genetic tinkering but a comprehensive redesign of “human nature”. Exponential growth starts out almost unnoticeably, and then explodes. Human bodies, cognition and ancestral modes of consciousness alike will be transformed. Post-humans will range across immense state-spaces of conscious mind hitherto impenetrable because access to their molecular biology depended on crossing gaps in the fitness landscape prohibited by natural selection. Intelligent agency can “leap across” such fitness gaps. What we’ll be leaping into is currently for the most part unknown: an inherent risk of the empirical method. But mastery of our reward circuitry can guarantee such state-spaces of experience will be glorious beyond human imagination. For intelligent biohacking can make unpleasant experience physically impossible because its molecular substrates are absent. Hedonically enhanced innervation of the neocortex can ensure a rich hedonic tone saturates whatever strange new modes of experience our altered neurochemistry discloses.
Pilot studies of radical genetic enhancement will be difficult. Randomised longitudinal trials of such interventions in long-lived humans would take decades. In fact officially licensed, well-controlled prospective trials to test the safety and efficacy of genetic innovation will be hard if not impossible to conduct because all of us, apart from monozygotic twins, are genetically unique. Even monozygotic twins exhibit different epigenetic and gene expression profiles. Barring an ideological and political revolution, most formally drafted proposals for genetically-driven life-enhancement probably won’t pass ethics committees or negotiate the maze of bureaucratic regulation. But that’s the point of biohacking. By analogy today, if you’re technically savvy, you don’t want a large corporation controlling the operating system of your personal computer: you use open source software instead. Likewise, you don’t want governments controlling your state of mind via drug laws. By the same token, tomorrow’s biotech-savvy individualists won’t want anyone restricting our right to customise and rewrite our own genetic source code in any way we choose.
Will central governments try to regulate personal genome editing? Most likely yes. How far they’ll succeed is an open question. So too is the success of any centralised regulation of futuristic designer drugs or artificial intelligence. Another huge unknown is the likelihood of state-sponsored designer babies, human reproductive cloning, and autosomal gene enhancement programs; and their interplay with privately-funded initiatives. China, for instance, has a different historical memory from the West.
Will there initially be biohacking accidents? Personal tragedies? Most probably yes, until human mastery of the pleasure-pain axis is secure. By the end of next decade, every health-conscious citizen will be broadly familiar with the architecture of his or her personal genome: the cost of personal genotyping will be trivial, as will be the cost of DIY gene-manipulation kits. Let’s say you decide to endow yourself with an extra copy of the N-methyl D-aspartate receptor subtype 2B (NR2B) receptor, a protein encoded by the GRIN2B gene. Possession of an extra NR2B subunit NMDA receptor is a crude but effective way to enhance your learning ability, at least if you’re a transgenic mouse. Recall how Joe Tsien and his colleagues first gave mice extra copies of the NR2B receptor-encoding gene, then tweaked the regulation of those genes so that their activity would increase as the mice grew older. Unfortunately, it transpires that such brainy “Doogie mice” - and maybe brainy future humans endowed with an extra NR2B receptor gene - display greater pain-sensitivity too; certainly, NR2B receptor blockade reduces pain and learning ability alike. Being smart, perhaps you decide to counteract this heightened pain-sensitivity by inserting and then over-expressing a high pain-threshold, “low pain” allele of the SCN9A gene in your nociceptive neurons at the dorsal root ganglion and trigeminal ganglion. The SCN9A gene regulates pain-sensitivity; nonsense mutations abolish the capacity to feel pain at all. In common with taking polydrug cocktails, the factors to consider in making multiple gene modifications soon snowball; but you’ll have heavy-duty computer software to help. Anyhow, the potential pitfalls and makeshift solutions illustrated in this hypothetical example could be multiplied in the face of a combinatorial explosion of possibilities on the horizon. Most risks - and opportunities - of genetic self-editing are presumably still unknown.
It is tempting to condemn such genetic self-experimentation as irresponsible, just as unlicensed drug self-experimentation is irresponsible. Would you want your teenage daughter messing with her DNA? Perhaps we may anticipate the creation of a genetic counterpart of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to police the human genome and its transhuman successors. Yet it’s worth bearing in mind how each act of sexual reproduction today is an unpoliced genetic experiment with unfathomable consequences too. Without such reckless genetic experimentation, none of us would exist. In a cruel Darwinian world, this argument admittedly cuts both ways.
Naively, genomic source-code self-editing will always be too difficult for anyone beyond a dedicated cognitive elite of recursively self-improving biohackers. Certainly there are strongly evolutionarily conserved “housekeeping” genes that archaic humans would be best advised to leave alone for the foreseeable future. Granny might do well to customize her Windows desktop rather than her personal genome - prior to her own computer-assisted enhancement, at any rate. Yet the Biointelligence Explosion won’t depend on more than a small fraction of its participants mastering the functional equivalent of machine code - the three billion odd ‘A’s, ‘C’s, ‘G’s and ‘T’s of our DNA. For the open-source genetic revolution will be propelled by powerful suites of high-level gene-editing tools, insertion vector applications, nonviral gene-editing kits, and user-friendly interfaces. Clever computer modeling and “narrow” AI can assist the intrepid biohacker to become a recursively self-improving genomic innovator. Later this century, your smarter counterpart will have software tools to monitor and edit every gene, repressor, promoter and splice variant in every region of the genome: each layer of epigenetic regulation of your gene transcription machinery in every region of the brain. This intimate level of control won’t involve just crude DNA methylation to turn genes off and crude histone acetylation to turn genes on. Personal self-invention will involve mastery and enhancement of the histone and micro-RNA codes to allow sophisticated fine-tuning of gene expression and repression across the brain. Even today, researchers are exploring “nanochannel electroporation” (NEP) technologies that allow the mass-insertion of novel therapeutic genetic elements into our cells. Mechanical cell-loading systems will shortly be feasible that can inject up to 100,000 cells at a time. Before long, such technologies will seem primitive. Freewheeling genetic self-experimentation will be endemic as the DIY-Bio revolution unfolds. At present, crude and simple gene editing can be accomplished only via laborious genetic engineering techniques. Sophisticated authoring tools don’t exist. In future, computer-aided genetic and epigenetic enhancement can become an integral part of your personal growth plan.
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This essay is a preprint of a paper that will appear in the forthcoming Springer volume: The Singularity Hypothesis: A scientific and philosophical assessment. (2012). Eden, A, Sørake, J., Moor, JH., Steinhart, E., eds. Berlin: Springer.
This article was previously published by the Institute for Ethics and Emerging technology, here