Thursday, April 19, 2012

Implications of Cochrane's "Spell Checker" Narrative

As promised in the last post, let's return to the implications of Cochrane's narrative.
For the sake of having a tractable beast to grapple with, I'll summarize it:

Most of the genetic component of whatever capability you have is based not so much on which genetic variants you have, but the number, severity, and positioning of the minor mutations you have accumulated, courtesy of your own insults and the total accrued mutational load of your ancestors.
So, under this narrative, people who are smart for genetic reasons are just less damaged than people who are average, or in some cases, just damaged in different ways.

He therefore says that if we could 'spell-check' a person's genes, that we could expect very significant improvements in their performance in a host of ways.  This would be akin to doing some maintenance and repair to an old ship that is barely running---a lot of low-hanging fruit is probably available for the picking.

Now, in order to implement this sort of thing, we need not just READ capability on genes, which we have at the semi-productized level (PGD screening for single gene defects is available now), but also WRITE capability (and of course, knowing what to write, to spell-check one needs to know how to spell in the first place). 

If this narrative turns out to be the substantively correct one, I don't see any huge insurmountable technological obstacle to implementing it.  One learns what an undamaged copy of gene X variant Y looks like by inspecting lots of different people's versions of it, and you can infer what a pure copy of it should look like, in a similar manner to defect metrology in semiconductor manufacturing development (where if you had a gold copy for comparison, you wouldn't need to do the development in the first place and even once you master the process, you STILL have defects and have to throw away some of the chips you manufacture).

Also, this narrative would tend towards working on existing people in addition to prospective ones.  The only advantage PGD patients would have is the vastly smaller number of cells that would require spell-check.  So this poses questions of when do I cease to be me as well as when do children cease to be 'mine'.

Let's say Cochrane develops a spell checking engine that uses a tailored virus to accomplish damage control---going through your cells and fixing them progressively to the proper spec for whatever genetic variants you happen to have.
Let's stipulate that his technology is good enough that you experience around a 10% improvement in general functioning, by taking out a reasonable amount of the trash that you've accumulated.  Are you still you?  Maybe you can run a 40 yard dash a little faster and you're somewhat healthier with a few years more expected lifespan, and improvements in your brain are on the order of 5 points of IQ or so.

I'm inclined to say, yes---with the hedge that at some point, quantitative improvements take on a qualitative character.  People who have major dysfunctions corrected---for instance, thyroid regulation---often experience greater effects than these and I've not seen them lament that they are not 'Themselves' anymore, nor have I heard such reports from those around them.
I'd be less confident if the improvements were much larger though---for instance, say a person went from the equivalent of an 70 IQ to a 160 IQ---would anyone recognize them?  Would they recognize themselves?  Would their soul depart and be replaced by another?  At this point, we just don't know.  This is far outside of our realm of experience.  The insights gained from this research tread on theological as well as scientific grounds.  Is the idealized version of you still you?
Looking at the PGD case, it raises the question, is the idealized version of your son still your son?

Being a reactionary Christian, I don't honestly worry terribly much about this, as God has already promised me an even more idealized version of my body post-resurrection than Cochrane could ever hope to deliver and assured me that it will still be me, just more so.  So technology which simply hopes to repair some of the effects of the degradation post-Fall hardly threatens me.

But for a hint as to what sort of opposition that said technology would encounter if this is the correct narrative (in question) and should it be developed and productized (almost certainly if the first premise is true), I invite you to ask the question....who....whom.
I'm sure the Second Sigma, for instance, would gin up all sorts of reasons that the protocol is evil if it looked likely to reduce their effective advantages and position in society.  I'm also certain that the usual suspects in love with Death (and frequently also, with Sin who is the mother of it), would find reason to howl at the prospect of even a 10 year extension of average maximum lifespans.
Let them howl, should the center hold, their sound and fury will signify nothing.  Betting on a technology not being developed and used when the prerequisites are present is, IMO, a fool's wager.


Anonymous said...

I agree that if you believe in God and the soul, this is less of a problem.

However, if your a secular who believes only in the material world and you hold evolution as your God...

Jehu said...

Darwin is a terrible God, like a Baal from the Old Testament. He absolutely LOATHES His worshippers. But He loves the Duggars. Blessed are they in His Eyes.

Hail said...

What would a society look like in which every human was genetically-engineered to be born with an identical IQ?

Jehu said...

Very good question---likely it would have nearly everyone engineered to have as high a genetic capability in as many attributes as possible, which would depend on the tradeoffs that turned out to exist.
I suspect that it would behave a lot closer to 'rational economic man'. The topic is one pretty studiously ignored in a lot of future science fiction though, including by authors who ought to know better like Vinge.
I guess the real question you're asking is:
what would a society look like with much less genetic inequality---if everyone were build on the same number of 'points' to use a gaming metaphor.

Hail said...

The child's critique of Marxism would seem apt:

If everyone were the same (equal), wouldn't that be boring?

Jehu said...

If everyone were equal in the sense that characters in a point-based generation system are 'equal', then lots of elements of the left narrative would actually be mostly true. The world would look nothing at all like the one we live in.

Hail said...

Philosophically, would humanity, the Earth, the universe, -- whatever -- be better-off or worse-off if the left-narrative were actually true, as you put it?

This is pretty much academic, dealing with wild hypotheticals, but then this whole thread does so.

Jehu said...

It is likely that if the center holds and the 'spell checker' narrative is true, that you'll see societies with vastly tighter spreads of ability in the various attributes that are highly genetic and that people care about. Tighter spreads with considerably higher means would give you a very different society. The options for 'getting ahead' would be very constrained relative to today, making nepotism very very attractive. Most of your 'result inequality' would be there.

You'd also get to answer the question: is there any such thing as a 4 sigma plus neurotypical?
Of course, make enough 4+ sigmas and whatever the hell they actually are becomes the new neurotypical, doesn't it?

As to whether it's better off, I suspect it would be---even if, for instance, all the capability that we had would be to raise everyone to at least the current mean in the various attributes, it would likely reduce a lot of social dysfunctions pretty massively.

Anonymous said...

It would be such a different world that speculation seems almost useless. The actual results likely to be radically different from our predictions, and our future society of geniuses to scoff at our notions like we scoff at past societies foolishness.

In Brave New World it was posited that a society of all Alphas would destroy itself.

Jehu said...

I think there's a range of societies that we could make reasonable predictions about, primarily because we have nearly self-contained subcultures that are mostly already there.
For instance, an awful lot of people have next to no contact with anyone below around a 90 IQ. A good number have none below 100. A fair number even have next to none below around 115, and a few with 120-130 or so.
So speculating within those regions is probably not entirely idle. I agree that higher than that it becomes very hard.
My experience from viewing history is that nearly any society ultimately destroys itself. My memory of Brave New World was that Alphas were also pretty socially dominant besides being smart, and I could see particular problems with that. IMO, societies beyond the subcultures that we've actually seen would probably make really massive use of robotics--becoming Japan on steroids perhaps?