Daniel Lemire's blog

, 3 min read

Is genetically engineered intelligence worth it?

We have been hearing reports that China is planning to use genetic engineering to make its population smarter. In fact, there are claims that China has been practicing eugenics for quite some time. (Others think that this is rubbish.) In any case, the idea is on the table. Should we pursue genetic-engineering policies that would make future generations smarter? Should we try to create superb engineers and scientists through genetic manipulations?

Let us leave aside the obvious ethical considerations involved. (Or what it tells us about Americans that they are entertaining such fears about China.) Let us just ask whether it would work.

The core problem with this project is that our intelligence is not limited or defined by our brains. So far, computers have made us much smarter much faster than biology could. We have no idea how to design a brain that has Wikipedia at its virtual finger tips, or that can compute the first 10,000 digits of pi in less than a second… yet most of us have this power right now. A cheap smart phone can do these things easily. Our brains can’t.

As time passes, the fraction of our intelligence that is born out by our brain is less and less. This fraction was never 100%. Human beings build tools, they form communities. When times come to solve problems, they use this environment in their favor. In many ways, equipped with Google Scholar, I am a much better scholar than 99.999% of all scholars that lived before we had the Web. In turn, the scholars that had access to large libraries (e.g., the Library of Alexandria) were much better than those who did not.

In a very real way, we are getting smarter and smarter, even if our brains are standing still biologically. What if, after a couple of generations (say 50 years), China could rise the average IQ of its population by 5 points using genetic engineering? How much would that matter? Probably not much at all. In 2060, the fraction of our intelligence that will depends on our brains will be tiny, assuming biological brains are even still relevant.

Some might object that intelligence is more than just having access to information. They would object that there are brains that are truly superior in ways that computers cannot mimick. Let us take an example: chess. Playing a good game of chess was once the summon of raw intelligence. And the greatest chess player of all time is still with us: Garry Kasparov. I am sure his brain is quite unique. Yet it did not stop computers from beating him. Again and again.

Scientists will object that they are nothing like chess players. Their work is at a higher cognitive level. Maybe so, but Kasparov was beaten by a computer fifteen years ago. And back then, he accused IBM of cheating, because he saw true intelligence in how the computer was playing. It is absolutely certain that in 20 to 50 years, computers will generate original mathematics and science that will leave human beings behind.

It does not mean that biology is uninteresting. I am generally favorable to any biological technology that can enhance intelligence. For example, it appears that amphetamines can boost intellectual performance substantially… at least for a time. I would be a user if it did not also have the side-effect of destroying your sex life. Short of using such strong drugs, I drink coffee and, thankfully, it looks like taking coffee once per day does make you smarter. Yet I don’t know any biological trick that can boost my intelligence like computers can. I also think that any long-term intelligence improvement strategy has to take into account that we are become hybrids, part machine, part human beings… In short: if China is really investing in a costly program to boost the intelligence of future generations using genetic engineering, they are wasting their time. I imagine my descendants having computer gear wired directly in their brains, or maybe living directly inside computers.

Disclosure: I am a computer scientist, not a biologist.

Further reading: The reinvention of self.

Credit: Allen Knutson and John Baez.