Are We Getting Dumber?

The New York Times is hosting an online debate on the state of human intelligence in the modern world and whether it will decline or improve in the coming generations. All debaters make interesting points, and the commentary from readers can be just as insightful. I encourage you all to share your views (here or there), or at least reflect upon the arguments made. The fates of this planet and our species are dependent upon are own intellectual and innovative capital.

For the record, I don’t believe we’re devolving intellectually – relative to historical levels, a larger number of people are more knowledgeable than ever. It’s just that the standards have changed, and the vast abundance of knowledge – as well as it’s increased availability – raises our expectations for intelligence. I do, however, fear that the growing technological convenience of the modern world may pose a risk to our cognitive development, as it may lead to a disincentive to learn more things or acquire new skills.

Alas, I’m heading to bed, so I can’t expound on my point as much as I’d like. But I will certainly be revisiting this later. As always, I welcome your own input.

Technology and Economics

The other day, I was reflecting on a two-month old article about a planned factory in Taiwan that will produce advanced robots for manufacturing. It was pretty brief, so I’ll share its entire contents below:

Taipei, Oct. 29 (CNA) Hon Hai Precision Industry Co. Chairman Terry Gou signed a letter of intent with Taichung Mayor Jason Hu Saturday, confirming the company’s determination to build an intelligent robotics and automation equipment manufacturing hub in the Central Taiwan Science Park.

President Ma Ying-jeou attended the signing ceremony to show his appreciation for Hon Hai’s commitment to expand investment in Taiwan.

In addition to signing the pact, Gou also presided over a ground-breaking ceremony for an intelligent robotics technology research facility and the inauguration of a factory of Foxnum Technology Co., a Hon Hai subsidiary dedicated to development and production of automation equipment, at the central Taiwan high-tech park.

Gou said Hon Hai will build an “intelligent robotics kingdom” in the park in the coming few years. The project is expected to generate an estimated NT$120 billion (US$4 billion) in production value in the next three to five years and create about 2,000 jobs, he added.

An age-old concern among futurists and technoprogressives immediately came to my mind: what are the consequences of relying too much on technology to carry out our economic activity? While building and maintaining these machines will produce well-needed jobs, how much will that compare to the net human employment that will be lost by using them? How many people will otherwise have been employed if it weren’t for the utilization of mechanized labor?

Of course, these worries are hardly the purview of science fiction buffs or economists – average people have long held similar concerns, going back all the way to the mid-18th century, around the beginning of the industrial age (read up on the luddites, and their modern day successors, for a start). New inventions, starting most prominently with the cotton gin, were beginning to reduce the need for as much human labor as before, raising concerns about mass unemployment and the consequent socioeconomic troubles that would follow.

Indeed, just about every technological achievement that ever been made with the capacity to improve productivity – and reduce the need for as much, if any, manpower – is met with the same apprehension. Such innovations and inventions are double-edged swords: they make our lives easier, and our products cheaper, but they could also lead to problems of their own. Plus, while some people may benefit, those who lose out to technological efficiently don’t fare so well, and dispute their worth. These debates and mixed reactions become cyclical, and computers and robots are only the most recent example.

Of course, the cotton gin and all the machines and equipment that followed didn’t lead to systemic long-term unemployment. In many cases, they created new jobs, such as in their maintenance, design, and construction. Automobiles may have put horse-drawn carriage riders out of work, but they were soon replaced by taxi drivers, and a plethora of businesses – from parts supplies to gas stations to car repairs – emerged, providing work that wouldn’t otherwise have been around. Advancements in farming equipment and techniques, along with these newly created industries, drew surplus ex-farmers into cities, swelling the labor pool and creating a market for commerce. Ostensibly, a virtuous cycle of supply and demand ensued, continuing to this very day.

Besides, as I learned in Economics, luddites were adhering to a lump of a labor fallacy – assuming that there are a set number of workers versus a set number of jobs. But jobs come and go all the time, as do the people that seek them. Most importantly, just because someone finds a better or faster way of doing something, doesn’t mean they’ll stop there: why not make more cotton gins, which will increase the need for transporters, retailers, marketers, and more operators? “Destroying” jobs in one area merely creates more elsewhere, with the bonus of providing newer and better goods at a faster and cheaper rate. Capitalism and free-markets at their finest.

But what if this conventional wisdom, validated (but disputed) for so long, doesn’t hold true forever? What if we reach a watershed where new technological developments disrupt the economy and workforce on a greater scale than any others before? What if technology becomes so efficient that even the alternative businesses they generate won’t be enough to make up for their disruption?

In most of the developed world, the manufacturing jobs that were once the bedrock of industrialized economies have largely been marginalized like the agricultural ones before it. The majority of people in wealthy societies engage in services, ranging from sales to banking, largely because there is little else left to do. Many of these jobs don’t pay as well as manufacturing, especially the majority of occupations in retail, tourism, and dinning (which altogether represent a good chunk of the service industry). This partly explains why real wages have been stagnant for most Americans since the mid-1970s, when a combination of outsourcing and new technology began to eliminate blue-collar work.

But it’s no longer just the old and low-skilled industries that are being threatened. The old trifecta of outsourcing, technology, and administrative innovation are continuing to erode the pool of jobs that remain. Several banking, paralegal, and clerical occupations are being rendered obsolete – and these are considered relatively high-end jobs. The internet has quickly become a popular venue to shop for all sorts of goods and services, leaving me to question whether even person-to-person retail will eventually be outmoded. I wonder which jobs will no longer exist by the time I have kids old enough to join the labor force. Of those that remain, how many people will they really need?

I am only entertaining all these speculations of course. I make no predictions, much less raise any alarm. But I think this issue is worth serious consideration given the continued influx of advanced technology, in light of what may be an unprecedented (and perhaps interrelated) global economic slowdown.

Assuming the hypothetical holds true, what should we do in response, if anything? Should such technology be restricted in order to allow for more job offerings? Would that be an ethical course of action? Should we change the way we view low-paying but (so far) non-automated tasks like lawn maintenance or domestic service, making them better paying and more professional? Do share your views on the matter (or if not, at least give it some thought for your own contemplation).

Genetic Enhancements and Technoprogressive Reflections

In early November, the Transhumanism movement gained another boost when scientists managed to improve the muscle strength of mice by enhancing their genes.

A team of researchers at EPFL, the University of Lausanne and the Salk Institute created super strong, marathon mice and nematodes by reducing the function of a natural inhibitor, suggesting treatments for age-related or genetically caused muscle degeneration are within reach.

It turns out that a tiny inhibitor may be responsible for how strong and powerful our muscles can be. This is the surprising conclusion reached by scientists in EPFL’s Laboratory of Integrative Systems Physiology (LISP), in collaboration with a group in the Center for Integrative Genomics at the University of Lausanne and at the Salk Institute in California. By acting on a receptor (NCoR1), they were able to modulate the transcription of certain genes, creating a strain of mighty mice whose muscles were twice a strong as those of normal mice.

Read the whole article hyperlinked above if you wish to learn more about the technical details of this procedure and the transcription process. Unfortunately, it’s not specified how this process was “modulated,” though I assume it was through the use of some sort of chemical.

At any rate, what I find most interesting is the fact that this was accomplished through a mere* tweaking of a natural genetic component, rather than by a more intrusive or dramatic modification. By my experience, most people imagine gene enhancement to entail a far more drastic process, whereby genes are spliced, mutated, or even synthetically created.

Rather, it seems that many of the more exciting and feasible developments in gene therapy involve a tactical and relatively minimal tweaking of the right genetic parts. It’s more about improving biological efficiency through fine-tuning rather than outright reconstruction. And it seems that this somewhat less radical approach still leads to major results.

In the absence of the inhibitor, the muscle tissue developed much more effectively. The mice with the mutation became true marathoners, capable of running faster and longer before showing any signs of fatigue. In fact, they were able to cover almost twice the distance run by mice that hadn’t received the treatment. They also exhibited better cold tolerance.

Unlike previous experiments with so-called super mice, this study addresses the way energy is burned in the muscle and the way the muscle is built. Examination under a microscope confirmed that the muscle fibers of the modified mice are denser, the muscles are more massive, and the cells in the tissue contain higher numbers of mitochondria–cellular organelles that deliver energy to the muscles.

Only shutting off a specific inhibitor lead to a doubling of muscle strength, which in turn improved stamina, endurance, and even tolerance to colder temperatures (as muscles produce heat). That’s an exponential gain for a rather minor investment, though I wonder how expensive and time consuming the process was.

It was also good that research team followed up on this and closely examined the specific biological effects. As far as I could tell from this and other reports on the experiment, there have been no discernable detrimental effects, and the muscles seem as innately strong and functional as they would be through natural means of improvement.

There’s an even bigger bonus:

Similar results were also observed in nematode worms, allowing the scientists to conclude that their results could be applicable to a large range of living creatures.

This is probably the most important thing to consider, after safety of course. It’s no use improving the bodily function and health of an organism if it’s limited to just lab animals (although they’d probably make for interesting pets on the market). What matters in these kinds of studies is whether the results in question could actually be applicable to humans, which so far seems likely in this case (though it remains to be seen for certain of course).

If we could recreate these results in humans, and do so safely and cheaply, then we’d have the potential to improve the lives of tens of million of people, particularly the elderly, who suffer the most from fatigue or physical weakness due to muscle degeneration (slips and falls alone affect the health of millions of older Americans).

Furthermore, with nearly all populations in the developed world aging quickly, this is a vital way of reducing the subsequently high costs of healthcare and lost productivity, while giving many seniors a new lease on life. Improved functionality would allow people of retirement age to be more productive, participate in the labor force (which many would do if they physically could), and reduce the negative psychological impact of being infirm or feeling burdensome.

But wait, there’s more:

According to a second article published in the same journal and also involving EPFL’s LISP Laboratory, suppressing the NCoR1 receptor in adipose tissues (fat) also led to interesting results. By acting on this corepressor, it was possible to fundamentally change the corpulence of the mice being studied without inducing weight-related diseases. “The specimens that became obese via this treatment did not suffer from diabetes, unlike mice that become obese for other reasons,” notes Auwerx.

The scientists have not yet detected any deleterious side effects associated with eliminating the NCoR1 receptor from muscle and fat tissues, and although the experiments involved genetic manipulations, the researchers are already investigating potential drug molecules that could be used to reduce the receptor’s effectiveness.

So with more investigation, we may derive from this procedure a means of treating diabetes among the millions of mostly obese people that have it. It’s also good that scientists are exploring alternative means of invoking these changes – imagine being able to take a pill or receive a simple shot that improves muscle performance? Though I’m cautious about exaggerating the potential of this until more studies of this recent development are conducted, the long-term therapeutic applications are clearly vast.

As are the potential abuses.

If these results are confirmed in humans, there’s no question it will attract interest from athletes as well as medical experts. “It will be important for anti-doping authorities to monitor that these treatments are not used in an unauthorized manner,” concludes Auwerx.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who was drawing an analogy to steroids upon reading this. Imagine the effect on sports across the world, from College Football to the Olympics. How difficult would it be to detect something like a genetic alteration? Would there be any device cheap or efficient enough to do so before every game? What about if there were to be a black market that peddled this stuff to criminals?

Alas, every human achievement, no matter how positive the potential for humanity, is a double-edged sword: nuclear fission, rocketry, and even an improved understanding of chemistry can and have been abused for immoral ends, to name just a few examples. There’s no doubt that something which enhances physical strength will be enticing to dishonest athletes or criminal thugs. We can’t safeguard completely against the vagaries of human nature. But we can plan for it according, and take steps to mitigate abuses. Any research of this nature, especially while it’s still preliminary, should be accompanied with a technoprogressive outlook, which partly entail that the social, political, legal, and ethical implications of any technological or scientific development (especially with transhumanist potential) are taken into consideration.

In this case, researchers must consider the dishonest or illegal ways that this procedure can be utilized. Perhaps they could develop an easy way of detecting alterations to the genetic component, leaving some sort of indicator that is subdued but still noticeable with the right equipment and/or observation. I’ve heard of bioluminescence being used to detect cancerous cells and diseases in the bloodstream – could it somehow work with genetic modifications? Maybe scientists could develop some sort of physical or biological marker, such as something in the bloodstream, or inscribed surgically but minutely in the skin – basically, a genetic ID tag indicating enhancements? I’m just throwing out ideas here.

Meanwhile, policymakers and legal experts should consider sensible regulations over who could manufacture such a muscle enhancer, and/or who could provide the service. We would have to find a balance between limiting the potential for black market production and distribution, and still making it easily accessible for legal and honest intentions. It’s no easy feat, given the precedent of such oversight, but neither would be dealing with widespread illicit abuses.

Then there are the ethical and moral considerations – is it right to alter human beings in this way, even if it were to be beneficial? Are we delving into something that will fundamentally challenge our identities as a species, leading to social or psychological tensions? What if there are indeed detrimental effects that won’t be felt for generations? These are questions that pertain to many transhumanist endeavors.

Arguably, we’re at the cusp of developing all sorts of means to improve the human condition, and must be ready for the wide-ranging outcomes that are not too far off. We can’t predict the future, but we can try our best o prepare for it. Humans should never pursue fundamental changes to our biology or society without proper debate, dialogue, and analysis.