Science, Ethics, and the Future of Human Intelligence (Response to Athens Dialogues: Science and Ethics)


Bookmark and Share

Response to Athens Dialogues: Science and Ethics

Science, ethics, and the future of human intelligence


The Science and Ethics session to which this paper contributes is introduced in the Athens Dialogues official statement thus:
The enormous achievements of Science and Technology provide both huge promises but also highly dangerous threats. Ethical questions have moved from the realm of philosophy to the practicalities of medical treatments. [...] The emergence of new technologies [...] could have an unprecedented effect on the brains of future generations.

The official statement quoted above makes three points.

Firstly, it highlights the importance of the (positive or negative) impact the advancements of science and technology might have on our lives; and urges us to think about it.

Secondly, it draws our attention to a particular field of research in which such impact needs to be carefully investigated: the human brain – how it works and how it can be best preserved or even enhanced by means of the latest scientific discoveries.

Thirdly, it suggests that questions about what is (morally) good or bad (for example in relation to the scientific manipulation of the human brain) are not anymore within the remit of philosophy; they are now within the remit of science (in this case medicine).This point is very broad and there is a variety of ways of understanding it.

On one interpretation, it might suggest that whatever facilitates scientific advancements is good: for example if a certain operation on an individual’s brain is going to damage the individual but benefit the human species (by e.g. providing a better understanding of how the brain works), then it is a good thing to do. But while medicine can explain how value enters interaction between living creatures, how would it explain that we value abstractions, for instance that we value human autonomy or that value human dignity? Accounting for values such as autonomy and dignity is within the remit of philosophy, and philosophy can provided reasons and arguments in their support.

In this very brief contribution to the Athens Dialogues, I will argue that science and technology constantly raise new intellectual challenges for us; and that we need philosophy to address them. My argument rests on a thought experiment regarding the enhancement of human intelligence through modern technology. I will describe the experiment; then give reasons why this thought experiment presents a coherent possibility that cannot be ruled out on in-principle reasons; and finally, I will raise some of the challenges this experiment presents to us. I will conclude by very briefly pointing out why this challenges are beyond the remit of science, and require philosophical investigation.

The thought experiment I will present will also show my reasons for disagreeing with Professor T. P. Tassios on the issue of the relation between science and ethics. In his paper “Moral issues and Technology. Possible lessons from Ancient Greece” (version submitted to the Athens Dialogue but unpublished) Professor Tassios writes that
Technology does not ‘create’ new moral problems; it merely accentuates (sometimes disproportionately) existing moral issues.
The thought experiment I present below shows that technology does create new moral problems, which we have not encountered before.

A new challenge from science and technology

My argument that science and technology raise new ethical issues that philosophy is called upon addressing focuses on the following question: What if machines become more intelligent than humans ?

The hypothesis was explored first by J. Good, in 1965, in his Speculations Concerning the First Ultraintelligent Machine . Good writes:
Let an ultra-intelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultra-intelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an “intelligence explosion”, and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultra-intelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.
The key idea is that if humans will ever be able to design a machine that is more intelligent than humans, call it M1, this machine will be better than humans at designing machines. It follows that M1 will be capable of designing a machine more intelligent than the most intelligent machine that a human can ever design. In particular, M 1 will be capable of designing a machine more intelligent than itself, call it M 2 . By similar reasoning, M 2 will also be capable of designing a machine more intelligent than itself, call it M 3 . But M 3 will also be capable of designing a machine more intelligent than itself, call it M 4 ... and so on and so forth. Thus, if every machine in turn does what it is capable of, we should expect a sequence of ever more intelligent machines – and ultimately an intelligence explosion.This intelligence explosion is known in the philosophical literature as the “Singularity problem”. Philosophers have discussed it in depth, and found no incoherency in the argument from which the Singularity problem follows.[1]

Questions raised by the possibility of an intelligence explosion

The possibility that there will be an intelligence explosion is a coherent thought; and the fact that its realization is for now practically impossible, does not rule out that it might be possible at some point in the history of humanity. We are all well aware that scientific and technological advances that were considered unthinkable just a few decades or even years ago are now part of our everyday life.

If so, the Singularity problem briefly sketched in the section above deserves very careful consideration. The possibility of an intelligence explosion raises very important practical and philosophical new concerns. For, if it happened, it would have enormous potential benefits, by facilitating now unthinkable scientific advances in every direction, and hence helping with all sorts of difficulties the human race faces at present. Superintelligence, if achieved, would help securing health, food, energy etc. for the whole of humanity. On the other hand, an intelligence explosion would also have very serious potential dangers; for, the very same scientific advances it would facilitate could lead to the distruction of the human race and of the planet.

The Singularity problem raises questions about the nature of intelligence and about the mental capacities of artificial machines. In addition it requires us to think afresh about values and morality; and about consciousness and personal identity. Some of the questions it raises are the following:

  • Are there good reasons to believe that there will be an intelligence explosion?
  • If it is possible that there will be an intelligence explosion, how can we maximize the chances of a good outcome? (and what counts as a good outcome?)
  • What will be like to be a human being in a world where an intelligence explosion has happened?
  • Can human beings survive, and if possible benefit from an intelligence explosion; and if yes, in which way?

For reasons of brevity, I will expand only on the last question. Suppose for the sake of argument that human beings can survive an intelligence explosion, by having their brain migrate to a superintelligent machine, i.e. by having their mental functions uploaded on to the machine.

Uploading can take place in many different ways. Which is the best one? (And first of all, on the basis of which criteria do we rank ways of uploading?)

Suppose, once again for the sake of argument, that a possible, and perhaps the best way of uploading on a superintelligent machine is by gradual nanotransfer. The details of this process don’t matter in this context, but have been discussed in the philosophical literature on the Singularity problem. A brief sketch of how nanotransfer might happen follows. Imagine nanotechnology devices inserted into the human brain and attached to a neuron each. On this scenario, each device learns to simulate the behaviour of the associated neuron, and also learns about its connectivity. Once it has learned to simulate well enough the neuron’s behaviour, the device takes the place of the original neuron, off-loading the relevant processing to a computer. At this point the device moves to other neurons and repeats the same procedure, until eventually every neuron has been replaced by an emulation, and all processing has been off-loaded to a computer.

So, suppose that I can upload my brain this way, by gradual nanotransfer, on to a computer. Will the resulting superintelligent machine with my mental activities running on it be “me”? This question can be explored in many directions:

  • What happens to consciousness during the uploading process?
  • Under what circumstances does a person persist over time?
  • Suppose that after uploading, my cognitive systems are enhanced to the point that they use a wholly different cognitive structure. Would I survive this process, and how?
  • If uploading will eventually be possible and will be a good outcome for the human race, how can we in the present ensure that it will happen in the future?

These are questions that go beyond what medicine and science in general can investigate, but philosophy can help with.


An excellent study of the Singularity problem, on which this essay is based, is to be found in David Chalmers “The Singularity: a philosophical analysis”, forthcoming in a special issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies entirely devoted to this theme.