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Human Changing (Continued)

[the continuation of the WorldChanging Interview with Ramez Naam, James Hughes and Joel Garreau. Part One here.]

Cascio: I'm personally very much in agreement with what Mez just said.

I'd like to shift the discussion a bit. Mez said something early on that I thought really struck home for me as being descriptive of a plausible scenario of the next 10 to 20 years is that there's a difference between augmentations and enhancements people do to themselves and augmentations and enhancements people do to their kids -- or, more broadly, that there's a difference between the somatic and the germ line transformations. I'd like to have you guys think a little bit more about that. What kinds of scenarios do you see in terms of choices between making changes that don't propagate down to your progeny and changes that do? Is this something that people end up using themselves to test things that down the road they'll trust enough to apply to their kids?

Naam: I think it's a slightly different debate for people. They're not thinking n generations down, they're just thinking about caution. You know you ask people what do you want for your baby, do you want a boy or a girl, and nine times out of ten you get an answer that's something like we just want a healthy baby. Of course they'll check to see what the gender is and so on. So I think people are just more resistant to that.

I suspect that they don't think about that very much when they're modifying themselves. Maybe they would. But if you go off, let's say you're in your early 20's, people go off and do things like get tattoos and piercings and change their hair color. And with things like gene therapy you can imagine a number of things people in that age group would be interested in like getting naturally fluorescing tattoos, for instance. People are gonna, I think, view a lot of things like that as fairly harmless, and pursue them.

Now if you told that person, gosh, in the course of getting this it guarantees that any child you have will have the same naturally fluorescing tattoo, I think a certain portion of the population would think twice, others wouldn't. But even so, in the course of seeing this technology applied to adults, we'd probably be able to get some kind of longitudinal safety data that'll give us an idea of how it's gonna impact kids in the future.

Hughes: This is the loophole that we're gonna drive germline genetic modification through in that people have a right, in our society at any rate, to have children in a natural way. We don't go around saying that they're not allowed to have children because they're not genetically correct. And if I'm given the right to change my own genome, and also given the right to have children in an ordinary biological way with a woman, then that means that we have germline genetic modification because I will be able to, theoretically at least, at some point in the future, change my own reproductive cells. And parenthetically, one of the bioethics statements that Pope Benedict released three years ago said that, although he was opposed to germline genetic modification, if a man changed his own sperm - he didn't discuss the option of a woman changing her eggs - and then had, in a marital relationship, the normal sexual intercourse and had a child conceived in that way, that that would be okay by him.

So I think this is a huge ethical loophole and I just can't foresee a society where we go around and sterilize people because they have changed their own reproductive cells , or refuse to allow them to have children, or confiscate their children at birth or something. That's not the kind of society that any of us want to see.

Garreau: Agreed. On the other hand, the scenarios that I would paint would not be as far down the road as this. It's easy for us to dismiss an awful lot of hypotheticals about germline engineering because it just sounds so horrifying. Oh, no, we won't do that. But imagine pharmaceuticals that can have amazing effects. Or for that matter computer implants. Take these memory pills that will probably be on the market in three to five years. Not only do those promise to ban the senior moments of the Baby Boomers – and I personally can't wait, thank you very much – but they hold out the possibility of improving the SAT scores of kids by a couple hundred points or more. Suppose in five or ten years you've got a kid who's in school who comes home crying one more time because he hasn't been able to compete with the kids who are better behaved, more beautiful, have better cognition, and have better memory, all through stuff that's fairly unremarkable pharmaceuticals. It is not about genetic enhancement. What do you do with this crying kid? Do you say, "I don't care what other parents do with their kids, we like you just the way you are," end of story? Or do you re-mortgage the house to get him the prescriptions that the other kids have? Which is the case right now with an awful lot of Ritalin. Or do you try to get the Enhanced kids banned from your school? I think it's going to come down to the parents who are facing this arms race with their kids in the very near future. That's going to be the tough decision.

Hughes: I agree. I mean solving the problems of somatic, genetic engineering is a bit down the road right now and these problems that you're pointing to are very immediate. There's a continuity in the ethical questions that people will face which is basically that we have an ethical responsibility as a society, and as parents, to increase the options and the capabilities of our children. So any social policy that suggests that all the abilities and capabilities of the next generation should be intentionally crimped, given the options that we have, in order that the kids who won't have those options won't feel discriminated against, I don't think that that's a responsible policy. I don't think that we would permit parents' rights to be infringed in that way and I can't see us adopting as a social policy that the next generation should only have X amount of IQ and no more.

Garreau: Betcha we're gonna get red-state/blue-state differences on that.

Naam: I think that you guys are both right. This is a really germane topic and a germane debate that's gonna happen pretty soon and it's something that Bill McKibben brings up a lot in his book [Enough]. But James started on a response to this a while back that was basically that literacy is similar and I think that there's lot of other things that parents do that are similar now: they read to their kids early on in life, they play flash card games, they move to towns or areas that have the best possible school districts, they try to get their kids into early preschools, so for me I see it as part of a continuum of parental involvement in trying to boost their kids' accomplishments and there's a bell-curve of parents in terms of how much they're willing to do in that as well. Not every parent sells their current house and moves into the house they can just barely afford because it's in the best possible school district. Different people have different thresholds for those sorts of choices.

Cascio: To what degree does the general hesitance about the use of biotech to enhance the abilities of individuals come from our experience with the imperfection of pharmaceuticals? Vioxx being a very relevant, recent example of something that the public was told was safe, only to find shortly thereafter that, no, actually, it wasn't, and the manufacturer apparently knew about it.

Garreau: I think that's a huge issue. I can easily imagine some kind of a human enhancement Chernobyl. That's one of the questions that we've got on the table here: just how inevitable is this rapid change? When I ask myself what could derail it, just such a medical Chernobyl is a no-brainer place to start.

Hughes: I think we've already had a medical Chernobyl which is the hormone replacement therapy experience (which was an anti-aging therapy). HRT was a therapy to try to turn back the ravages of menopause, and it turned out that we didn't have enough information about its consequences. But I think also that HRT illustrates that the best that we can do is muddle along. We know that there are some dangers from taking aspirin, and now we understand there are a lot of benefits from taking aspirin. We know that some women don't have the risks from hormone replacement therapy that a lot of women do.

So we just have to keep muddling along and what I wanna see is a reformation in the practice of clinical testing and the open source-ness of that information. In other words, I think we've got far too much corporate control right now over the clinical testing regimes and research process. What we need to do is start thinking about how to aggregate all the information from all the folks who are taking all these different things in our society and give people more access to new experimental substances. But at the same time, we, the population using experimental substances, should have a quid pro quo that we give up more information about the consequences of those substances in our bodies. We all get informed consent: this is what we knew about this drug at this point, and these are the risks that we think you're taking at this point and we'll tell you when we find out something more.

brown.jpgNaam: I'd just say that as far as public perception and adoption, the first few cases can be critical. I think the Chernobyl example is a very apt one. But it was very important for in-vitro fertilization, for instance, that Louise Joy Brown was a healthy, blond, blue-eyed girl, I don't mean that in a racist way, but she was very obviously healthy, and had the first IVF case gone awry, that might have set back the progress of IVF by years just due to public perception issues.

Garreau: I agree. Yeah, that's exactly right.

Hughes: Bruce Sterling, in one of his novels, Schizmatrix, describes one of the anti-aging therapies making people's skin peel off. That's one of the advantages of cyberpunk is that it begins to peel back the notion of flawless technological innovation. So I don't think any of us should expect that there'll be flawless implementation. We'll probably have cognitive therapies which increase your intelligence for 20 years and then increase your risk of dementia after that, and all kinds of complicated choices that people will have to make.

But those are already the choices we have to make. We already know that if we encourage people to drink red wine in order to prevent heart disease and cancer that we're also gonna encourage certain kinds of people who have a propensity to liver disease to increase their risk. So we have all of these complicated pieces of information. What we need is increasingly individualized and information-rich ways of giving people medical advice.

Cascio: Talking about transparency and the responsibility of companies to provide information, and even though we didn't mention lawsuits I think that was implicit in a lot of what we've just been talking about, it makes me think about some of the other non-technological institutions, social institutions, that really shape the way we as a society in the United States and then more broadly in the West, how we deploy our technologies.

One big one is intellectual property. James mentioned earlier regarding germline versus somatic changes that people aren't going to accept being sterilized. But what if there are the equivalent of digital rights management for your germline? You get this modification made to your sperm or to your eggs or to your body that happens to include your sperm and eggs that gives you this transformation, this enhancement, but you can't pass it along unless you license it from the developer.

Naam: That's a truly horrifying thought.

Hughes: I address that in my book and I say that we should adopt a legal code that says that you own your own genome, and you're allowed change it and pass it along. Basically that we should ignore any kind of digital rights management over genes and the body. I don't know if we'll be able to enact that, but that's the direction I'd like to go.

Garreau: One of the disconnects I'm having here is I think about the politics that exist today and then I think about the great things that would be terrific like global governance and some global mechanism to control corporate behavior and so forth and I get a disconnect. I just don't see how we're going to get there from here. This goes to the issue of whether we're going to co-evolve or not. It's child's play to point out that life is getting more complicated and is going to continue to get more complicated exponentially. It's easy to point to the increasing problems. The question is whether there is some sort of increase in solutions, whether in fact you are seeing co-evolution. What is the hard evidence of this?

In "Radical Evolution"I have some hopeful thoughts that we are seeing co-evolution. You could be forgiven if you looked at the military technology in the 80's – the internet – and you didn't see eBay in your personal future, much less Google. Howard Rheingold has written about the power of swarms who have been enabled by technology like cell phones. That's going to be the core question. We're playing for really high stakes. This is not theoretical. We don't see any evidence of any other intelligent life in the universe. Maybe it's because all of the other species faced this transcendence test and flunked horribly. We talking about dramatic change in the next few years.

I'm really interested in trying to figure out how you actually get out the other end of this. How do you co-evolve? How do you create these mechanisms? That's why I'm left scratching my head when I hear – well, the solution would be global governance or a global police force to look after research. I mean it's a great theory, but I have difficulty picturing it in practice. And I'm really interested in practice because I think it's going to boil down to whether we live or die.

Naam: I have a slightly different perspective on this I think which is I think more about diversity. I think about agricultural biotech -- this might seem a diversion but bear with me. The biggest problem with agricultural biotech I think is not the science, but how it's employed, and the fact that agribusiness that uses it creates these massive mono-cultures. If you were to look at what's the best likelihood of an ecological catastrophe on the planet as a result of our current agricultural processes it would be that one virus does wipe out all of the wheat in the world because all the wheat is the world is exactly the same in a genetic sense.

So from a human sense, if we can put aside for a moment the likelihood of rogue replicators that destroy the world, the best way to avoid really catastrophic problems based on our modification of our own genes and so on is to encourage diversity and that to me is about encouraging individual freedom. Whether that freedom is kind of enthroned by a global government or not I think there's a lot that we can do in individual nations to kind of put this power in people's hands.

And this is also where I diverge a little bit from Joel's assessment of kind of a tiered model or a stratification between those who do use this technology and those who choose not to and those who have no choice. I think it's actually more widespread in that potentially because a lot of these technologies have trade-offs. So I might be able to choose a behavioral modification, for instance, that makes me more relaxed and happy with my life, or one that makes me more driven and more successful in my career, but the two may conflict. So I think different people, at least given our understanding of human behavior and the underlying genetics and biology that are at right now, people will, I'm guessing, choose many, many different ways to go with this stuff in the long term and that to me is fundamentally very healthy.

Hughes: I think one element that we need to also keep in mind here is not just the threats that we face from ourselves, the rogue and accidental releases of these technologies or the social conflicts that might arise from these technologies, but the fact that, as Joel pointed out, intelligent life in the universe looks to be a fairly rare phenomenon. One of the principal reasons for life's rarity is because the universe itself is pretty inimical to it. There's these gamma ray bursts. There's all different kinds of natural disasters. I just finished Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything and it really struck me when he was talking about the last time Yellowstone Park, which is basically one big volcano, blew up. It buried half of North America under six feet of soot. And if we have just one of those kinds of volcanic eruptions civilization as we know it could be on the skids.

So I think one of the perspectives that we need to have is that human transcendence, in a lot of different ways, may be the key to surviving in this very hostile universe. We need to imagine that we are under those kinds of threats, not just from the technologies and the progress that we're making, but also from the sun and near-Earth asteroids, and things like that. I would like to see us become an entirely more invincible species than we currently are now. The directions that we're going with genetics and nano point in that direction. So we at least need to have that as a balance to our concerns about the threats from those technologies.

Garreau: In the Prevail scenario, Jaron Lanier is saying that the problem with an awful lot of our Heaven scenarios is that they are individual. They talk about, "I'm going to have greater cognition" or "I'm going to have greater memory" or "I'm going to have better kids" or blah, blah, blah. The Greek philosophers would laugh at us if they heard us being so self-centered. They would argue that any kind of real transcendence is going to be social. The measure is going to be whether or not we get through this together in some fashion. Do we want to talk about whether there's a social element to this?

Cascio: That would be terrific.

Hughes: I completely agree. I don't think it makes any sense to talk about intelligence enhancement as an individual thing. For instance both in Mez's book and in mine we talk about the Flynn Effect. If we look back over the last hundred years we see that intelligence has increased something like 30 IQ points, and a lot of that has had to do with how we stimulate one another, the kinds of social complexity that we've created, that requires that people get smarter just by existing in this society. And so it's not just a matter of individual minds, it's a matter of individual minds in communication.

Naam: I agree. You know the technology that I'm most personally interested in is brain-computer interfaces which I think is the furthest out of the ones I talk about in my book but there I see it becoming a communications technology more than anything else and past communication technologies have I think revolutionized the world more than past individual enhancements.

Garreau: You think the mind-machine interface is far out?

Naam: Anything more than fairly simple uses, anything that's really cognitive. I think patching in sensors, controlling motion, those things are now kind of reduced to engineering problems and medical problems, rather than basic science. But things like tapping into memory, communicating thoughts, ideas, even communicating emotion I think are still unknowns.

Cascio: Cognitive versus neuro-mechanical.

Naam: Yeah.

Garreau: Although we just had the guy send his first email with his thoughts last year.

Naam: Yeah, but he used his thoughts to move a computer cursor around and click buttons. He didn't just think the thought and have it suddenly sent to his email.

Garreau: Well it's still in beta but nonetheless...


Naam: And watch out for the blue screen.

Garreau: Right.

Cascio: "You appear to be thinking email, would you like some assistance with that?"

Garreau: "You have thoughts!"


Garreau: I guess the question that Jaron and his ilk are asking is how would you measure connections between humans? How would you measure the notion that we are increasing them? The intelligence effect, if that turns out to be true, would be splendid. But my first-blush reaction is that's almost too good to be true. Globalization right now, for example, is leading to conflict as much as it is to understanding, witness al-Qaeda, witness the backlash that the developed world is getting from all sorts of third world populations...

Hughes: I don't really think that's true. You know there have been calculations done of what your risk of dying a violent death has been over the last couple thousands of years and that risk has been steadily declining. We are creating, for the majority of the people on the planet, an increasing likelihood of a long and peaceful life. Yeah there will be new kinds of conflict that will come from globalization. But I'm basically a dialectician when it comes to globalization, like Marx was, I think that globalization will lead to political globalization, and to various ways to stabilize our global polity and prevent conflict. I hear that you're pessimistic about that, Joel, but I often find it puzzling when people who think we're at the beginning of a third age, an entirely new age of humanity, but global governance? "Well we can't have that, I mean, global governance, that's utopian." But we can totally redesign the human body, that's no problem at all. Why can't we redesign the human political condition?

Cascio: James, just to be fair, I don't think that Joel was saying that global governance et cetera is impossible, per se. I think he was saying, at least I interpret him as saying, that how to get from the political state that we're in now to such a condition it's hard to see that path. It's much easier to see the path that would take us to the kind of radical transformation of the human body and human behavior.

Garreau: Right. Thank you. I didn't mean to poo-poo the idea. It was a discussion of practicalities. How do you get there from here.

Naam: Going back to the question of how would we know if global connection between people is increasing, I'm not sure you can tell that directly, but I think that shows up in all sorts of other measures. And just to be maybe old fashioned in this, but look at things like just economic metrics, why is the well being of the average person on the planet rising so dramatically, as it were? Why is the economic well being of Asia, the median-person there rising so much faster than it is in the West? And I think a lot of that is a result of this greater connection between people. Our whole scientific enterprise is only possible because of rich connections between people. Almost everything that we do at a technical or scientific level these days is not doable by individuals. So separating out the component that is increased connection between people, I'm not sure we can do it, but I'm sure that it's one of the key drivers of our progress right now.

Garreau: I hope you're right.

Cascio: That leads me towards what I will probably be our final bit to grapple with. I think we all have expressed, in varying ways, a recognition that the transformations that the various technologies will and could make possible are not unvarnished goods, that there are some significant challenges that will arise from the implementation or at least the availability and consideration of these technologies. Where would you look for solutions? And I'm not asking what those solutions would be necessarily, but where would you start looking? What kinds of places, people, ideas, models, tools, would you consider as being a good first step for working out ways to resolve or at least deal with some of these problems?

Garreau: Great question.

Naam: Well I think, like you Jamais, like the comment you made earlier about biowarfare, I think kind of the global network of individuals, scientists, the market, as it were, with kind of appropriate regulation, I think we've demonstrated over the last few decades that we're becoming more agile at dealing with social problems when the pop up, at least in some cases, not in all. For me I think one of the key points is that every technology that has really majorly affected or improved our lives has come with its share of downsides: automobiles lead to highway deaths and smog, the birth control pill lead to changes that some people thought were unhealthy for society, antibiotics contributed to the vast population growth of this century. The problems that came about from them were not necessarily the ones that people anticipated ahead of time. And had people tried to rigidly stop the development of these technologies for the reasons that they saw, the quite possibly would have been misguided, better I think to take cautious steps forward with these things, see what actually happens, and then remain agile and able to respond to that.

Hughes: Back to our social models in the developing world, I think India is a country where I hope there will be an increasing explosion of technological and social models because it's such an incredibly diverse subcontinent, it's a liberal democracy. Not as good as it could be but none of us are. I was, for instance, very impressed that one of the anti-retroviral knock-off drugs that was developed, which brought the cost of anti-retroviral therapy down to a dollar a day, came out of Indian medical research. So if there's gonna be a rival to the Chinese authoritarian capitalist model I hope it's the Indian social-democratic model.

Garreau: I hope you're right, but this is the same country that was talking about pursuing nanotech for military reasons.

Hughes: And it has an active Hindu-fascist party that was recently in governance. So yes, it's got its own problems too. But I guess we can't be throwing stones about having religious fascists in power.


Cascio: Joel, where would you start looking?

Garreau: I don't have very much faith in top-down solutions. I keep on getting hung up on the practicalities of top-down solutions like massive regulatory. For example Francis Fukuyama proposes some global regulatory regime to deal with the evil potentials of some of these technologies. At one level that's courageous. But on the other level I'll believe it when I see it. I'm much more interested in what happens in a kind of bubble-up way. The printing press was a form of co-evolution that intrigues me as an historical antecedent. You were able to suddenly start pooling human knowledge and trading it around. That helped lead to the rise of global trade and democracy and the Enlightenment and science itself. In this fashion, apparently intractable problems all of the sudden had a glimmer of hope of a solution. I'm trying to figure out what the equivalent would be for us. How would you know if you were seeing new means of solving problems that were emerging in a bubble-up way that was beyond the understanding or the creation of any one individual or even any one nation? That's what I'm looking for, some evidence to suggest that we're seeing that kind of a bubble-up creation of new institutions.

Of course, we have worldchanging.com so I guess that's the answer to my question, isn't it?

Hughes: Worldchanging is a good example, I think, of the kinds of information sharing that we need. We need a system for rapid acknowledgment of diseases and potential threats. But we also need rapid acknowledgment and information sharing about successes. And Worldchanging is a perfect example of that.

Cascio: Well thank you very much. And thank you very, very much. This has been an utterly fascinating discussion. I'm very, very happy that we got a chance to speak with each other and that you all could take the time and talk to me about this.

Hughes: And thank you for setting it up.

Garreau: Indeed.


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Comments (5)


Awesome read. thank you for posting this, it was worth the time.

Agree that top-down is not a good model. However I think you still need a top to coordinate things -- you often have a situation where there are multiple possible solutions, and choosing any one of them will be better than some people doing one and some doing the other. Like do you drive on the left or the right side of the road?

So what I am hoping will happen is that the top stops dictating their One True Way, and instead becomes the arbiter between competing ideas. An institution or party that has broad goals but does not define itself by a set of specific policies.

Paul Harrison
[enhancement: modavigil]

fission chips:

a few ideas - overspecialization causes extinction, only by starting with the most comprehensive "biggest-picture" system and then chunking down can we properly predict the behavior of individual elements within that system. (see R. Buckminster Fuller's definition of "synergy").

evolution does not simply occur by inner-system filiatian, but rather by inter-system compatability, complementarity and so on. nothing about the bee nor the flower when taken independently predicts the other, yet they have a symbiotic, complementary affinity that causes their co-evolution.

regarding top-down hierarchical/serial/sequential organization v. bottom-up "grass-roots" etc, i would point to Deleuze & Guattari's definitions of "arborescent" and "rhizomatic," respectively. some good info there.

regarding the East v. West debate in all this, be careful not to become an Orientalist (Edward Said definition) - someone who romanticizes the East as a kind of mystical and wond'rous other ...

suggested reading:

* R. Buckminster Fuller - Synergetics
* Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari - A Thousand Plateaus
* Edward Said - Orientalism


As a relative newcomer to worldchanging I have found this interview to be most interesting and refreshing. A nice summary of so many of the ideas that are important for our future. Thanks for posting it.

Wow, fascinating discussion! This was all over a bit too soon, I wish you all could come over sometime for a weekend of good eating, relaxation and conversation.. Anyway, if you find yourselves in the Netherlands anytime soon, drop me a note - this whole area of interest fascinates me..


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