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Advances in neural implants and genetic engineering suggest that in the not–too–distant future we may be able to boost human intelligence. If that’s true, could we—and should we—bring our animal cousins along for the ride?
Human brain augmentation made headlines last year after several tech firms announced ambitious efforts to build neural implant technology. Duke University neuroscientist Mikhail Lebedev told me in July it could be decades before these devices have applications beyond the strictly medical.
But he said the technology, as well as other pharmacological and genetic engineering approaches, will almost certainly allow us to boost our mental capacities at some point in the next few decades.
Whether this kind of cognitive enhancement is a good idea or not, and how we should regulate it, are matters of heated debate among philosophers, futurists, and bioethicists, but for some it has raised the question of whether we could do the same for animals.
There’s already tantalizing evidence of the idea’s feasibility. As detailed in BBC Future, a group from MIT found that mice that were genetically engineered to express the human FOXP2 gene linked to learning and speech processing picked up maze routes faster. Another group at Wake Forest University studying Alzheimer’s found that neural implants could boost rhesus monkeys’ scores on intelligence tests.
The concept of “animal uplift” is most famously depicted in the Planet of the Apes movie series, whose planet–conquering protagonists are likely to put most people off the idea. But proponents are less pessimistic about the outcomes.
Science fiction author David Brin popularized the concept in his “Uplift” series of novels, in which humans share the world with various other intelligent animals that all bring their own unique skills, perspectives, and innovations to the table. “The benefits, after a few hundred years, could be amazing,” he told Scientific American.
Others, like George Dvorsky, the director of the Rights of Non-Human Persons program at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, go further and claim there is a moral imperative. He told the Boston Globe that denying augmentation technology to animals would be just as unethical as excluding certain groups of humans.
Others are less convinced. Forbes’ Alex Knapp points out that developing the technology to uplift animals will likely require lots of very invasive animal research that will cause huge suffering to the animals it purports to help. This is problematic enough with normal animals, but could be even more morally dubious when applied to ones whose cognitive capacities have been enhanced.
The whole concept could also be based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of intelligence. Humans are prone to seeing intelligence as a single, self-contained metric that progresses in a linear way with humans at the pinnacle.
In an opinion piece in Wired arguing against the likelihood of superhuman artificial intelligence, Kevin Kelly points out that science has no such single dimension with which to rank the intelligence of different species. Each one combines a bundle of cognitive capabilities, some of which are well below our own capabilities and others which are superhuman. He uses the example of the squirrel, which can remember the precise location of thousands of acorns for years.
Uplift efforts may end up being less about boosting intelligence and more about making animals more human-like. That represents “a kind of benevolent colonialism” that assumes being more human-like is a good thing, Paul Graham Raven, a futures researcher at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, told the Boston Globe. There’s scant evidence that’s the case, and it’s easy to see how a chimpanzee with the mind of a human might struggle to adjust.
There are also fundamental barriers that may make it difficult to achieve human-level cognitive capabilities in animals, no matter how advanced brain augmentation technology gets. In 2013 Swedish researchers selectively bred small fish called guppies for bigger brains. This made them smarter, but growing the energy-intensive organ meant the guppies developed smaller guts and produced fewer offspring to compensate.
This highlights the fact that uplifting animals may require more than just changes to their brains, possibly a complete rewiring of their physiology that could prove far more technically challenging than human brain augmentation.
Our intelligence is intimately tied to our evolutionary history—our brains are bigger than other animals’; opposable thumbs allow us to use tools; our vocal chords make complex communication possible. No matter how much you augment a cow’s brain, it still couldn’t use a screwdriver or talk to you in English because it simply doesn’t have the machinery.
Finally, from a purely selfish point of view, even if it does become possible to create a level playing field between us and other animals, it may not be a smart move for humanity. There’s no reason to assume animals would be any more benevolent than we are, having evolved in the same ‘survival of the fittest’ crucible that we have. And given our already endless capacity to divide ourselves along national, religious, or ethnic lines, conflict between species seems inevitable.
We’re already likely to face considerable competition from smart machines in the coming decades if you believe the hype around AI. So maybe adding a few more intelligent species to the mix isn’t the best idea.
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In an interview at Singularity University’s Exponential Medicine in San Diego, Richard Wender, chief cancer control officer at the American Cancer Society, discussed how technology has changed cancer care and treatment in recent years.
Just a few years ago, microscopes were the primary tool used in cancer diagnoses, but we’ve come a long way since.
“We still look at a microscope, we still look at what organ the cancer started in,” Wender said. “But increasingly we’re looking at the molecular signature. It’s not just the genomics, and it’s not just the genes. It’s also the cellular environment around that cancer. We’re now targeting our therapies to the mutations that are found in that particular cancer.”
Cancer treatments in the past have been largely reactionary, but they don’t need to be. Most cancer is genetic, which means that treatment can be preventative. This is one reason why newer cancer treatment techniques are searching for actionable targets in the specific gene before the cancer develops.
When asked how artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies are reshaping clinical trials, Wender acknowledged that how clinical trials have been run in the past won’t work moving forward.
“Our traditional ways of learning about cancer were by finding a particular cancer type and conducting a long clinical trial that took a number of years enrolling patients from around the country. That is not how we’re going to learn to treat individual patients in the future.”
Instead, Wender emphasized the need for gathering as much data as possible, and from as many individual patients as possible. This data should encompass clinical, pathological, and molecular data and should be gathered from a patient all the way through their final outcome. “Literally every person becomes a clinical trial of one,” Wender said.
For the best cancer treatment and diagnostics, Wender says the answer is to make the process collaborative by pulling in resources from organizations and companies that are both established and emerging.
It’s no surprise to hear that the best solutions come from pairing together uncommon partners to innovate.
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Ask any neuroscientist to draw you a neuron, and it’ll probably look something like a star with two tails: one stubby with extensive tree-like branches, the other willowy, lengthy and dotted with spindly spikes.
While a decent abstraction, this cartoonish image hides the uncomfortable truth that scientists still don’t know much about what many neurons actually look like, not to mention the extent of their connections.
But without untangling the jumbled mess of neural wires that zigzag across the brain, scientists are stumped in trying to answer one of the most fundamental mysteries of the brain: how individual neuronal threads carry and assemble information, which forms the basis of our thoughts, memories, consciousness, and self.
What if there was a way to virtually trace and explore the brain’s serpentine fibers, much like the way Google Maps allows us to navigate the concrete tangles of our cities’ highways?
Thanks to an interdisciplinary team at Janelia Research Campus, we’re on our way. Meet MouseLight, the most extensive map of the mouse brain ever attempted. The ongoing project has an ambitious goal: reconstructing thousands—if not more—of the mouse’s 70 million neurons into a 3D map. (You can play with it here!)
With map in hand, neuroscientists around the world can begin to answer how neural circuits are organized in the brain, and how information flows from one neuron to another across brain regions and hemispheres.
The first release, presented Monday at the Society for Neuroscience Annual Conference in Washington, DC, contains information about the shape and sizes of 300 neurons.
And that’s just the beginning.
“MouseLight’s new dataset is the largest of its kind,” says Dr. Wyatt Korff, director of project teams. “It’s going to change the textbook view of neurons.”
MouseLight is hardly the first rodent brain atlasing project.
The Mouse Brain Connectivity Atlas at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle tracks neuron activity across small circuits in an effort to trace a mouse’s connectome—a complete atlas of how the firing of one neuron links to the next.
MICrONS (Machine Intelligence from Cortical Networks), the $100 million government-funded “moonshot” hopes to distill brain computation into algorithms for more powerful artificial intelligence. Its first step? Brain mapping.
What makes MouseLight stand out is its scope and level of detail.
MICrONS, for example, is focused on dissecting a cubic millimeter of the mouse visual processing center. In contrast, MouseLight involves tracing individual neurons across the entire brain.
And while connectomics outlines the major connections between brain regions, the birds-eye view entirely misses the intricacies of each individual neuron. This is where MouseLight steps in.
Slice and Dice
With a width only a fraction of a human hair, neuron projections are hard to capture in their native state. Tug or squeeze the brain too hard, and the long, delicate branches distort or even shred into bits.
In fact, previous attempts at trying to reconstruct neurons at this level of detail topped out at just a dozen, stymied by technological hiccups and sky-high costs.
A few years ago, the MouseLight team set out to automate the entire process, with a few time-saving tweaks. Here’s how it works.
After injecting a mouse with a virus that causes a handful of neurons to produce a green-glowing protein, the team treated the brain with a sugar alcohol solution. This step “clears” the brain, transforming the beige-colored organ to translucent, making it easier for light to penetrate and boosting the signal-to-background noise ratio. The brain is then glued onto a small pedestal and ready for imaging.
Building upon an established method called “two-photon microscopy,” the team then tweaked several parameters to reduce imaging time from days (or weeks) down to a fraction of that. Endearingly known as “2P” by the experts, this type of laser microscope zaps the tissue with just enough photos to light up a single plane without damaging the tissue—sharper plane, better focus, crisper image.
After taking an image, the setup activates its vibrating razor and shaves off the imaged section of the brain—a waspy slice about 200 micrometers thick. The process is repeated until the whole brain is imaged.
This setup increased imaging speed by 16 to 48 times faster than conventional microscopy, writes team leader Dr. Jayaram Chandrashekar, who published a version of the method early last year in eLife.
The resulting images strikingly highlight every crook and cranny of a neuronal branch, popping out against a pitch-black background. But pretty pictures come at a hefty data cost: each image takes up a whopping 20 terabytes of data—roughly the storage space of 4,000 DVDs, or 10,000 hours of movies.
Stitching individual images back into 3D is an image-processing nightmare. The MouseLight team used a combination of computational power and human prowess to complete this final step.
The reconstructed images are handed off to a mighty team of seven trained neuron trackers. With the help of tracing algorithms developed in-house and a keen eye, each member can track roughly a neuron a day—significantly less time than the week or so previously needed.
A Numbers Game
Even with just 300 fully reconstructed neurons, MouseLight has already revealed new secrets of the brain.
While it’s widely accepted that axons, the neurons’ outgoing projection, can span the entire length of the brain, these extra-long connections were considered relatively rare. (In fact, one previously discovered “giant neuron” was thought to link to consciousness because of its expansive connections).
Images captured from two-photon microscopy show an axon and dendrites protruding from a neuron’s cell body (sphere in center). Image Credit: Janelia Research Center, MouseLight project team
MouseLight blows that theory out of the water.
The data clearly shows that “giant neurons” are far more common than previously thought. For example, four neurons normally associated with taste had wiry branches that stretched all the way into brain areas that control movement and process touch.
“We knew that different regions of the brain talked to each other, but seeing it in 3D is different,” says Dr. Eve Marder at Brandeis University.
“The results are so stunning because they give you a really clear view of how the whole brain is connected.”
With a tested and true system in place, the team is now aiming to add 700 neurons to their collection within a year.
But appearance is only part of the story.
We can’t tell everything about a person simply by how they look. Neurons are the same: scientists can only infer so much about a neuron’s function by looking at their shape and positions. The team also hopes to profile the gene expression patterns of each neuron, which could provide more hints to their roles in the brain.
MouseLight essentially dissects the neural infrastructure that allows information traffic to flow through the brain. These anatomical highways are just the foundation. Just like Google Maps, roads form only the critical first layer of the map. Street view, traffic information and other add-ons come later for a complete look at cities in flux.
The same will happen for understanding our ever-changing brain.
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Many of us intuitively think about intelligence as an individual trait. As a society, we have a tendency to praise individual game-changers for accomplishments that would not be possible without their teams, often tens of thousands of people that work behind the scenes to make extraordinary things happen.
Matt Ridley, best-selling author of multiple books, including The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, challenges this view. He argues that human achievement and intelligence are entirely “networking phenomena.” In other words, intelligence is collective and emergent as opposed to individual.
When asked what scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit, Ridley highlights collective intelligence: “It is by putting brains together through the division of labor— through trade and specialization—that human society stumbled upon a way to raise the living standards, carrying capacity, technological virtuosity, and knowledge base of the species.”
Ridley has spent a lifetime exploring human prosperity and the factors that contribute to it. In a conversation with Singularity Hub, he redefined how we perceive intelligence and human progress.
Raya Bidshahri: The common perspective seems to be that competition is what drives innovation and, consequently, human progress. Why do you think collaboration trumps competition when it comes to human progress?
Matt Ridley: There is a tendency to think that competition is an animal instinct that is natural and collaboration is a human instinct we have to learn. I think there is no evidence for that. Both are deeply rooted in us as a species. The evidence from evolutionary biology tells us that collaboration is just as important as competition. Yet, at the end, the Darwinian perspective is quite correct: it’s usually cooperation for the purpose of competition, wherein a given group tries to achieve something more effectively than another group. But the point is that the capacity to co-operate is very deep in our psyche.
RB: You write that “human achievement is entirely a networking phenomenon,” and we need to stop thinking about intelligence as an individual trait, and that instead we should look at what you refer to as collective intelligence. Why is that?
MR: The best way to think about it is that IQ doesn’t matter, because a hundred stupid people who are talking to each other will accomplish more than a hundred intelligent people who aren’t. It’s absolutely vital to see that everything from the manufacturing of a pencil to the manufacturing of a nuclear power station can’t be done by an individual human brain. You can’t possibly hold in your head all the knowledge you need to do these things. For the last 200,000 years we’ve been exchanging and specializing, which enables us to achieve much greater intelligence than we can as individuals.
RB: We often think of achievement and intelligence on individual terms. Why do you think it’s so counter-intuitive for us to think about collective intelligence?
MR: People are surprisingly myopic to the extent they understand the nature of intelligence. I think it goes back to a pre-human tendency to think in terms of individual stories and actors. For example, we love to read about the famous inventor or scientist who invented or discovered something. We never tell these stories as network stories. We tell them as individual hero stories.
“It’s absolutely vital to see that everything from the manufacturing of a pencil to the manufacturing of a nuclear power station can’t be done by an individual human brain.”
This idea of a brilliant hero who saves the world in the face of every obstacle seems to speak to tribal hunter-gatherer societies, where the alpha male leads and wins. But it doesn’t resonate with how human beings have structured modern society in the last 100,000 years or so. We modern-day humans haven’t internalized a way of thinking that incorporates this definition of distributed and collective intelligence.
RB: One of the books you’re best known for is The Rational Optimist. What does it mean to be a rational optimist?
MR: My optimism is rational because it’s not based on a feeling, it’s based on evidence. If you look at the data on human living standards over the last 200 years and compare it with the way that most people actually perceive our progress during that time, you’ll see an extraordinary gap. On the whole, people seem to think that things are getting worse, but things are actually getting better.
We’ve seen the most astonishing improvements in human living standards: we’ve brought the number of people living in extreme poverty to 9 percent from about 70 percent when I was born. The human lifespan is expanding by five hours a day, child mortality has gone down by two thirds in half a century, and much more. These feats dwarf the things that are going wrong. Yet most people are quite pessimistic about the future despite the things we’ve achieved in the past.
RB: Where does this idea of collective intelligence fit in rational optimism?
MR: Underlying the idea of rational optimism was understanding what prosperity is, and why it happens to us and not to rabbits or rocks. Why are we the only species in the world that has concepts like a GDP, growth rate, or living standard? My answer is that it comes back to this phenomena of collective intelligence. The reason for a rise in living standards is innovation, and the cause of that innovation is our ability to collaborate.
The grand theme of human history is exchange of ideas, collaborating through specialization and the division of labor. Throughout history, it’s in places where there is a lot of open exchange and trade where you get a lot of innovation. And indeed, there are some extraordinary episodes in human history when societies get cut off from exchange and their innovation slows down and they start moving backwards. One example of this is Tasmania, which was isolated and lost a lot of the technologies it started off with.
RB: Lots of people like to point out that just because the world has been getting better doesn’t guarantee it will continue to do so. How do you respond to that line of argumentation?
MR: There is a quote by Thomas Babington Macaulay from 1830, where he was fed up with the pessimists of the time saying things will only get worse. He says, “On what principle is it that with nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?” And this was back in the 1830s, where in Britain and a few other parts of the world, we were only seeing the beginning of the rise of living standards. It’s perverse to argue that because things were getting better in the past, now they are about to get worse.
“I think it’s worth remembering that good news tends to be gradual, and bad news tends to be sudden. Hence, the good stuff is rarely going to make the news.”
Another thing to point out is that people have always said this. Every generation thought they were at the peak looking downhill. If you think about the opportunities technology is about to give us, whether it’s through blockchain, gene editing, or artificial intelligence, there is every reason to believe that 2017 is going to look like a time of absolute misery compared to what our children and grandchildren are going to experience.
RB: There seems to be a fair amount of mayhem in today’s world, and lots of valid problems to pay attention to in the news. What would you say to empower our readers that we will push through it and continue to grow and improve as a species?
MR: I think it’s worth remembering that good news tends to be gradual, and bad news tends to be sudden. Hence, the good stuff is rarely going to make the news. It’s happening in an inexorable way, as a result of ordinary people exchanging, specializing, collaborating, and innovating, and it’s surprisingly hard to stop it.
Even if you look back to the 1940s, at the end of a world war, there was still a lot of innovation happening. In some ways it feels like we are going through a bad period now. I do worry a lot about the anti-enlightenment values that I see spreading in various parts of the world. But then I remind myself that people are working on innovative projects in the background, and these things are going to come through and push us forward.
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