Superhuman intelligence: the new Cold War?

In my last blog posting, I explained how the body of academic literature on human intelligence is increasingly clear: IQ tends to be largely inheritable, with up to 60% of IQ variability explained by genetic factors.

I also introduced recent research at US San Francisco which highlighted the ‘VS’ variant of a gene called KL. The VS variant of the KL gene (known as KL-VS) may explain up to 3% of variability in human cognition  (equivalent to roughly 6 IQ points). This has led some people to question whether researchers may be able to manufacture superhuman intelligence by manipulating genes.

6 IQ points may not sound like a lot, but over a population, this will have a noticeable difference. Literacy rates would be expected to improve, and more people might be inclined to pursue a higher level of education.

But superhuman intelligence would start with the manipulation of not just KL-VS, but 1000s of genes which are thought to have an influence on human cognition and IQ. You would only need to find a way to ‘switch on’ the positive variants of the IQ genes, and to have a 1/200th of an IQ point impact over the 10,000 genes to yield a 50 IQ point advantage. Given that the average IQ is advanced nations is thought to be around 100 IQ points, this would mean that genetically modified brains could end up with 150+ IQs, which is currently a score recorded by 1 in 1,125 people (16 SD). And what if you found that the average impact was 1/100th on an IQ point, than you would be talking about an IQ score of 200 points (currently 1 in 4.8 million people). Where does superhuman intelligence start? IQs of 150 are rare, but found, so this might not constitute superhuman intelligence. But at 200+, there is little doubt that this constitutes superhuman intelligence.

Superhuman intelligence: genomics may be the gateway

Stephen Hsu, a theoretical physicist from Michigan State University is a scientific advisor to the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI). Hsu believes that superhuman intelligence may be closer than we think.

BGI is currently trying to map the genome based on 2,000 individuals with some of the highest IQs ever recorded. The purpose of the exercise is to shed light on genetic sequencing that is associated with higher order cognitive ability. The end goal is to be able to offer treatment and embryonic selectivity to create babies with superhuman intelligence.

Hsu published an article in which he speculates what humans with superhuman intelligence might look like and what types of skills these people may possess. The results are both amazing and frightening, and beyond comprehension for most of the human population with ‘normal’ IQs.

I would personally be the first one to sign up for a treatment which might increase my IQ by 6 points. 10-15 IQ points, quite possibly. But beyond this level, I am not so sure. Super-charging human cognition to the existing limits of human brains is both difficult to imagine, and the consequences difficult to predict. I see more value in helping people who find themselves, through no fault of their own, towards the bottom end of the distribution as this could really help life outcomes of such people. There is no question when dealing at the upper end, the ethical considerations are immense.

Superhuman intelligence: the new Cold War?

Let’s analyise some of the ethical consequences for a minute. The benefits could be dramatic: eradication of diseases, solving of complex mathematical problems which have eluded humans for centuries, space travel, dramatic explosions in technology. But the more harmful consequences are also quite obvious: a more complex society, supercharged criminal networks, inequality and potential abuses of power and tyranny.

But it is all good and well to think Science Fition, but the real problem is that even if the technology were here today, some countries may have bans on the technology on ethical grounds. But other countries might not. And therein creates the prisoner’s dilemma and game theory dynamics which may be highly problematic.

Would the West dig its heals as other less ethical countries start producing babies and armies with superhuman intelligence? This type of technology may be 10-15 years away. But when it comes, it may revolutionize the world as we now if today. For the better? I am not so sure.

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