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The Joy of High Tech


Rodford Edmiston

This being a collection of random thoughts on bits and pieces of information which should interest the technically oriented reader.

Please note that while I am an engineer (BSCE) and do my research, I am not a professional in this field. Do not take anything here as gospel; check the facts I give. And if you find a mistake, please let me know about it.

Two Heads Are Better

     The Human Genome Project went much faster than many of its critics expected. In fact, it went faster than many of its proponents expected. Once the demand was present and the needs were clear, engineers and resourceful scientists developed improved equipment and techniques for the work which have made it proceed much more quickly than predicted. The basic mapping is now completed; what is left is to figure out what in the map does what. And what to do with that knowledge

     Some tasks are obvious. For instance, we should develop genetic therapies for known inherited ailments, such as sickle cell anemia. We should also learn how to detect and correct teratologies, situations where the genetic blueprint is read incorrectly while a fetus is developing. Of course, even here, in the area of merely correcting mistakes, there are moral questions of a complexity and emotional magnitude to keep a staff of Solomons busy indefinitely. (I once had a woman accuse me of wanting to kill her when I stated that very soon we would be able to correct the genetic defect which causes a particular ailment she happened to have. Apparently she missed my statement that this included curing it in adults.) When someone proposes using this knowledge to change an existing animal in ways beyond simply correcting something which is wrong, things will really get roaring.

     The most important step in genetic engineering is deciding on what the goal should be. More milk production per cow? Greater disease resistance in humans? The second most important step is determining how one change will affect everything else. That is neither easy nor simple, but far from impossible.

     It is inevitable that the suggestion will be made to create a new intelligent species, using animals as the base stock and endowing them with human-level cognitive abilities. There will be many justifications given, some noble, some ignoble, many trivial, a few perverse. There will be just as many reasons - and of the same varieties - given for not creating such species. Most of these will be emotionally based, variations on the "Man must not play God" theme. Some objections will be carefully thought out and justifiable.

     People on both sides - an in the middle - need to remember that few things are absolute. In this world of ours we must balance the cost against the benefits. That is especially important with genetic engineering, and is the third most important step. Yes, these new species may become rivals for humanity, but that seems more like a scenario from a bad SF movie than a real threat. More significant are the moral questions involved. How do we prevent these creatures from being taken advantage of? Possible abuses in this area range from individual (custom-bred sex toys) to the multiple (thousands of slave laborers). Also, how do we deal with the social dichotomy such creatures will cause? There are people already upset because the more we learn about natural animals, the less unique humans appear. How will they react to a chimpanzee/human hybrid? Especially one which can speak, read and write?

     Eventually, such creatures will be made. It is up to us to make sure they are made right, and for the right reasons.

     I am probably being optimistic in assuming that by the time biological science has developed the techniques to create genetically tailored species that the "soft" science of psychology will have working definitions of intelligence, sentience and sapience, as well as quantifiable, repeatable tests for these. To help keep us on track I will give my personal definitions of these qualities. Stated briefly: Intelligence = data analyzing ability; Sentience = self-awareness; and Sapience = self-correction capacity. Note that the vast majority of computers are not intelligent; they crunch numbers but can't make any decisions based on them, only follow instructions. Some advanced neural nets - especially those using fuzzy logic - can arguably make judgments, but this is not certain. No computer currently working is anywhere near sentient. While some cetaceans and apes may be sentient, there is little evidence that they are sapient. Yes, they learn from experience - including training - but that is operant behavior, rather than sapient.

     These are some of the problems involved in creating one or more new intelligent species. What are the benefits? Again, there are many, not the least of which is learning from doing. Most of these are technical benefits, which will advance engineering or science or medicine. There is at least one reason, though, that is of vast social importance.

     How often are problems solved by someone from outside? The "forest and trees" phenomena is legitimate. Having friends (hopefully) who are enough like us to empathize and communicate, but who are different enough to have a viewpoint unlike ours, could be vital.

     This document is Copyright 2002 Rodford Edmiston Smith. Anyone wishing to reproduce it must have permission from the author, who can be reached at: stickmaker@usa.net