A Timorous New World

Badgers can already kill people. Why not make them bigger, stronger, and give them weapons?
I was all set to write a fun post about superheroes, the people who love them, and the hope they engender. Even when their story arcs go off the rails, and bad things happen, they come back to realizing they exist for the common good. But, as fate would have it, I’d tucked away a link from, internationally renowned scientist and author, David Brin. For those of you who don’t know him I’ll summarize his decades of work by saying he’s an optimist. He believes humanity will always end up showing its better self. Nowhere is this more evident than in his UPLIFT series. It is a universe where humans use technology to bring pre-sentient creatures, such as apes and dolphins, into full sentience and make them productive members of society. For the record, I’m a huge fan and my copies of each book in the series are dog eared as hell.

I, on the other hand, am not so sure. I’ve lived a tough life, done a short stint or two in jail, and have seen how humans treat those they deem inferior. When I wrote The Brittle Riders, it was with my life experiences in mind. Now, while I’m nowhere near the level of Mr. Brin, it was fun (for me) when a reader noticed our divergent visions by writing “If David Brin came off a three day tequila bender and dropped acid, he would have written The Brittle Riders.” Suffice it to say my version of the future is darker, and a little bent.

Now, to be fair, Mr. Brin is a brilliant scientist and futurist and I’m just this dude in Chicago who sells shit at a word rate that barely rivals the penny a word Dickens got for writing A Tale of Two Cities in 1859. In other words, there is no way in hell I’m equating us as writers or thinkers.

All that said, I still had the link tucked away. And it kept beckoning me. So I broke down and clicked it. Less than ten seconds into the article all my thoughts of superheroes had died and several of my nightmares seemed to be real.

Edd Gent, over at singularity Hub, had written an article about the possible ways we humans could alter animals to make them sentient.

Because? Reasons.

Human brain augmentation made headlines last year after several tech firms announced ambitious efforts to build neural implant technology. Duke University neuroscientist Mikhail Lebedev told me in July it could be decades before these devices have applications beyond the strictly medical.

But he said the technology, as well as other pharmacological and genetic engineering approaches, will almost certainly allow us to boost our mental capacities at some point in the next few decades.

Whether this kind of cognitive enhancement is a good idea or not, and how we should regulate it, are matters of heated debate among philosophers, futurists, and bioethicists, but for some it has raised the question of whether we could do the same for animals.

There’s already tantalizing evidence of the idea’s feasibility. As detailed in BBC Future, a group from MIT found that mice that were genetically engineered to express the human FOXP2 gene linked to learning and speech processing picked up maze routes faster. Another group at Wake Forest University studying Alzheimer’s found that neural implants could boost rhesus monkeys’ scores on intelligence tests.

The concept of “animal uplift” is most famously depicted in the Planet of the Apes movie series, whose planetconquering protagonists are likely to put most people off the idea. But proponents are less pessimistic about the outcomes.

Science fiction author David Brin popularized the concept in his “Uplift” series of novels, in which humans share the world with various other intelligent animals that all bring their own unique skills, perspectives, and innovations to the table. “The benefits, after a few hundred years, could be amazing,” he told Scientific American.

Others, like George Dvorsky, the director of the Rights of Non-Human Persons program at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, go further and claim there is a moral imperative. He told the Boston Globe that denying augmentation technology to animals would be just as unethical as excluding certain groups of humans.

Others are less convinced. Forbes Alex Knapp points out that developing the technology to uplift animals will likely require lots of very invasive animal research that will cause huge suffering to the animals it purports to help. This is problematic enough with normal animals, but could be even more morally dubious when applied to ones whose cognitive capacities have been enhanced.

The whole concept could also be based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of intelligence. Humans are prone to seeing intelligence as a single, self-contained metric that progresses in a linear way with humans at the pinnacle.

In an opinion piece in Wired arguing against the likelihood of superhuman artificial intelligence, Kevin Kelly points out that science has no such single dimension with which to rank the intelligence of different species. Each one combines a bundle of cognitive capabilities, some of which are well below our own capabilities and others which are superhuman. He uses the example of the squirrel, which can remember the precise location of thousands of acorns for years.

Uplift efforts may end up being less about boosting intelligence and more about making animals more human-like. That represents “a kind of benevolent colonialism” that assumes being more human-like is a good thing, Paul Graham Raven, a futures researcher at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, told the Boston Globe. There’s scant evidence that’s the case, and it’s easy to see how a chimpanzee with the mind of a human might struggle to adjust.

There are also fundamental barriers that may make it difficult to achieve human-level cognitive capabilities in animals, no matter how advanced brain augmentation technology gets. In 2013 Swedish researchers selectively bred small fish called guppies for bigger brains. This made them smarter, but growing the energy-intensive organ meant the guppies developed smaller guts and produced fewer offspring to compensate.

This highlights the fact that uplifting animals may require more than just changes to their brains, possibly a complete rewiring of their physiology that could prove far more technically challenging than human brain augmentation.

Our intelligence is intimately tied to our evolutionary history—our brains are bigger than other animals’; opposable thumbs allow us to use tools; our vocal chords make complex communication possible. No matter how much you augment a cow’s brain, it still couldn’t use a screwdriver or talk to you in English because it simply doesn’t have the machinery.

Before we go on, squirrels, for the record, show many of the signs of a pre-sentient race. I’ll add them to crows, octopuses, and others. Badgers, as noted in the graphic above, are capable of developing tools to escape human cages. And they are strong enough to kills us. So there’s a happy thought.

Anyway, no, a cow doesn’t have “the machinery” to talk. But what about a cow/human hybrid? You see this technology makes that a real possibility. If it just becomes a problem of assigning genes to an embryo, then any sort of chimera is possible.

Then it all becomes a matter of which vision is viable. Will these new creatures be our allies in developing a future for all, or will they become our replacements?

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