PARIS — Half-animal, half-human? The astounding developments in nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science (NBIC) are posing problems that we thought only existed in science fiction.
Recent studies have brought us closer to Planet of the Apes, written by French novelist Pierre Boulle in 1963. In three experiments, the last one of which was published in Current Biology last month, scientists have improved the intellectual capacities of mice by modifying their DNA sequences with segments of human chromosomes or by injecting them with human brain glial cells.
These modified animals have bigger brains and can perform difficult tasks more quickly. The DNA sequences that were successfully modified are involved in language and brain size in humans. This comes after a study on successful genetic modifications on two small monkeys was published in Nature in March of last year. Meaning that the success of cognitive improvement of mice will soon be verified in monkeys.
These manipulations were achieved with DNA-modifying enzymes. For about $12, a biology student these days can create these enzymes and conduct genetic engineering, making it incredibly cheap to create animal-man chimeras. Decade after decade, new findings and experiments will have breathtaking consequences.
[rebelmouse-image 27088690 alt="""" original_size="220x154" expand=1]
DNA-modifying enzyme — Source: Zephyris/GFDL
How will we prevent some animal lovers from ordering a more intelligent, more emphatic, more "human" dog? There will always be room for indulgence in relation to cognitive enhancement of animals. Society will be presented with a fait accompli, as it is now with same-sex couples buying children from surrogate mothers in foreign countries.
What will the ethical standards be? Will we allow chimpanzees to become more intelligent? As dignity and respect for animals grow in our societies, the issue will only become more relevant. How will we view animals if and when their IQs are modified to be close to that of today's humans? Should we decree a conceptual intelligence monopoly for our species and computers with artificial intelligence — therefore barring animals from such recognition?
This NBIC revolution will raise philosophical questions about what makes us humans by abolishing two limits that were previously thought to be impassable: that which separates us from animals, with neuro-enhancement, and that which separates us from machines, with artificial intelligence. In both cases, doesn't access to intelligence and awareness also mean accessing a dignity equal to that of any human being? What status should we then allow enhanced animals and robots in our society?
The emergence of new, intelligent electronic or biological creatures also has religious consequences. Some theologists, such as Reverend Christopher Benek, want intelligent machines to receive baptism if they express such a desire.
The NBIC are raising truly groundbreaking questions that will have consequences for the future of humankind. But to properly answer them, we need a new political elite. Among today's political class, very few are capable of fully comprehending these questions.