Genetically engineered human beings could have IQs of 1000 or higher. At least that’s the theory from scientist Stephen Hsu.
Hsu is something of a scientific polymath, who has done work pertaining to quantum physics, dark energy, finance, and information security, as well as genomics and bioinformatics, or the application of computer science and statistics to biological data. He officially holds the title of Vice-President for Research and Graduate Studies at Michigan State, where he is also a professor of Theoretical Physics.
He thinks that by tweaking our genomes we could make humans drastically smarter. Hsu makes his case in Nautilus — and the implications are as tantalising as they are terrifying. He’s also published the theory in more detail at ArXiv, though it wasn’t peer-reviewed.
How to make a smarter human
“The possibility of super-intelligence follows directly from the genetic basis of intelligence. Characteristics like height and cognitive ability are controlled by thousands of genes, each of small effect,” Hsu writes.
From previous studies of the genome, Hsu says we can estimates that there are probably about 10,000 of these gene variants associated with intelligence. If we can tweak each of these to their “smart” version, so that they contribute a tiny bit to higher intelligence, we could engineer human beings who “exhibit cognitive ability which is roughly 100 standard deviations above average. This corresponds to more than 1,000 IQ points.”
Hsu is also a scientific advisor to BGI, formerly the Beijing Genomics Institute, and one of the founders of its Cognitive Genomics Lab. According to rumours that surfaced last year, BGI is currently in the process of sequencing the genomes of 2,000 of the world’s smartest people in hopes of carrying out a program like Hsu describes and engineering super-smart babies.
Hsu and BGI aren’t the only ones predicting superintelligence through genetic improvements. In his recently published book Superintelligence, Nick Bostrom, founding director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, agrees that genetics is the key to creating superintelligent humans. By using genetic screening of embryos before implantation, parents could find and select the embryos that possess these “turned-on” alleles for high intelligence.
And with “further advances in genetic technology,” Bostrom adds, “it may be possible to synthesize genomes to specification, obviating the need for large pools of embryos.”
Bostrom predicts that, “once this technology has matured, an embryo could be designed with the exact preferred combination of genetic inputs from each parent,” and “[g]enes that are present in neither of the parents could also be spliced in, including alleles that are present with low frequency in the population but which may have significant positive effects on cognition.
Superintelligent humans might resemble Vulcans, like Spock from Star Trek, more than they do us.
It’s not all fun and genome games
What would that mean, exactly? It’s almost impossible to fathom. As Hsu points out, the IQ scale devised by our puny human minds might not even mean anything at that level of intelligence. He speculates about the cognitive abilities such superhumans would possess:
[W]e can be confident that, whatever it means, ability of this kind would far exceed the maximum ability among the approximately 100 billion total individuals who have ever lived. We can imagine savant-like capabilities that, in a maximal type, might be present all at once: nearly perfect recall of images and language; super-fast thinking and calculation; powerful geometric visualisation, even in higher dimensions; the ability to execute multiple analyses or trains of thought in parallel at the same time; the list goes on.
The prospect of such superhumans roaming the same planet as us normals is, frankly, terrifying. As Hsu writes, “[t]he corresponding ethical issues are complex and deserve serious attention in what may be a relatively short interval before these capabilities become a reality.”
He speculates that some countries will make genetic engineering legal before others, and, perhaps obviously, that elites will be the first ones who can avail themselves of the benefits of superintelligence for themselves and their children. But he believes — and we should hope — that access to this kind of technology will become democratized so that everyone can benefit.
As Hsu soberly warns at the end of his article: “The alternative would be inequality of a kind never before experienced in human history.”
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