Should we upgrade the intelligence of animals?

Well, it finally happened. As we reported last week, scientists have successfully enhanced the intelligence of rhesus monkeys using a brain implant, albeit temporarily. Futurists and science fiction authors have speculated about this possibility for years — and now the reality is upon us. And it's clear that this precedent-setting breakthrough is just the tip of the iceberg: Ongoing advancements in pharmacology, genetics, and cybernetics hold huge promise for the further development of "uplift" technologies.

The question now is: Should we go around enhancing the brains of other living creatures? Do we have the right? Would we live to regret it?

To help us better understand the implications of this breakthrough, we spoke to futurist David Brin, author of Existence and the Uplift saga (both of which feature uplift scenarios), and bioethicist James Hughes from Trinity College in Connecticut and director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. It became clear through our conversations with them that animal enhancement is about to become very real, a development that will irrevocably alter our relationship with the animal kingdom. The challenge, they say, will be in doing it safely and smartly.

The limits of of science fiction

As is typically the case, science fiction has given us a tremendous head start in thinking about these issues. Writers such as H.G. Wells, Pierre Boule, Cordwainer Smith, Grant Morrison, and (of course) David Brin have offered considerable food for thought as far as the potential promises and pitfalls of animal uplift are concerned. More recently, films like Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Ridley Scott's Prometheus have toyed with the notion of meddling with lower life forms to make them more capable and clever. These stories tend to serve as cautionary tales in anticipation of our own hubris. And as these stories suggest, enhancing animals could result in something that quickly escapes our control.

Should we upgrade the intelligence of animals?S

At the same time, however, sci-fi can be relatively one-dimensional when it comes to assessing the broader impacts of emerging technologies. "Nearly all such tales assume that it will be done stupidly — because stupidity makes it easy to write an action plot," David Brin told io9, "Mistakes create peril, so they portray the uplifters being callous, unwise, even vicious slave-masters." When authors put together stories like these, says Brin, "the plot almost writes itself."

What's more challenging, says Brin, is to write a story that shows humanity doing something well, or at least with good intentions — and still have a premise that leads to a story filled with action and excitement. He pines for stories that are written openly and honestly, "where those Crichtonian errors can get discovered through vibrant criticism."

That said, Brin is fairly certain that anyone who does start uplifting higher lifeforms will face considerable backlash. "The Right will attack the arrogance of usurping God's power," says Brin, "The Left will scream over the insult, proclaiming that dolphins [and other animals] already are smart enough, have their own culture and dignity, and do not need Homo sapiens thrusting our notions of ‘intelligence' upon others."

Brin doesn't buy either of these sentiments. "In all my research I have concluded that cetaceans, primates, corvids (crows), parrots, pinnipeds (sea lions), and many other species on Earth appear to be stuck under a firm glass ceiling," he told us, "roughly the same level of thinking, problem-solving, linguistic ability, and evolution seems stingy about letting any of them crash through."

Subsequently, Brin argues that it may actually be selfish for us to deny high-functioning animals our enhancement technologies. He pictures a potential future Earth civilization enlightened by diverse voices. "Imagine dolphin philosophers, bonobo therapists, raven playwrights and poets," he says, "How lonely, if we turn away without trying."

But should we go down that path, argues Brin, there will still be inevitable problems. "Even if we take it wisely, openly, with generosity of spirit — there will be pain along the way."

The bioethics lens

Needless to say, animal uplift will necessarily require experimentation — a prospect that has some scientists, ethicists, and animal rights advocates very worried.

And indeed, the potential for animal uplift has not gone unnoticed by the medical establishment. Back in 2011, the Academy of Medical Science issued a report calling for new rules to supervise sensitive research involving the "humanization" of animals. Their concern was in response to the potential for "Category Three" experiments in which animals would be given human-like traits — things like the capacity for speech and human-levels of intelligence. Their report reflected a Frankensteinian fear that the humanization of animals might lead to the creation of "monsters".

But given last week's uplift breakthrough, it would appear that medical research has officially entered into this phase of animal experimentation.

Monsters or not, attempts to intellectually enhance animals (whether it be done for the purposes of a study, or to genuinely uplift an animal), could result in some very ethically dubious experiments — tests that could lead to psychologically and emotionally tormented test subjects. Scientists will have to be extremely careful about messing with the subjective well-being of their test subjects.

Should we upgrade the intelligence of animals?

These fears have also trickled into the bioethics and technoprogressive communities. "In general, I'm uncomfortable with invasive medical research on primates and especially great apes on the grounds that they should be protected by personhood rights," says James Hughes. As an active voice for the promotion of nonhuman animal personhood, Hughes is concerned about the potential for abuse and the gross underestimation of the latent capacities of animals such as cetaceans, elephants, and great apes.

He draws a comparison to working with disabled humans. "Of course we wouldn't and shouldn't tolerate doing a lot of invasive and lethal intelligence enhancement research on disabled humans without consent with the promise that someday it might benefit the cognitively disabled," Hughes tells io9.

At the same time, however, Hughes believes that research on augmenting the intelligence of primates is one area in which they might actually be the direct beneficiaries of the research. Over time, argues Hughes, animal uplift experiments could be of great benefit to the individual animals involved — and even their entire species.

Like Brin, Hughes believes that animal uplifting could represent an historic opportunity to alter the makeup of intelligent life on this planet. Uplifting could be seen as a kind of enlightened domestication. We may very well voluntarily choose to relinquish our monopoly as the Earth's intellectual top dogs, and introduce an entirely new set of uplifted species into the global conversation.

And indeed, any potential risks posed to the animals, says Hughes, may be worth it in the long run, serving as a powerful force for species-engineering. "At least it slightly improves the ethical calculus to say that a line of research may eventually give apes the capacity to reason, communicate and make the case for their own subjectivity," he argues. Hughes says the argument works even better for genetic and psychopharmaceutical therapies than for brain-machine implants.

Should we upgrade the intelligence of animals?S

There's also the issue of consent. How do we know that animals actually want to be enhanced? As humans, we have placed tremendous value on our intelligence and our ability to set a course for our own destiny — one outside of Darwinian processes. If it's good for us, goes the thinking, why not the rest of the animal kingdom? At the same time, however, uplifting could be construed as being imperialistic and over-domineering — an unfair and unwarranted imposition of "humanness" onto the animal kingdom. Perhaps there's something to be said for living in an innocent state of mind — even if it is in the jungle.

Looking ahead

It's still very early days, and we're quite a ways off from having the capacity to enhance animals in a Planet of the Apes sort of way. And in fact, even last week's breakthrough may have been overstated in terms of its impact. As Brin told us, there's a tendency to get carried away with this kind of research.

"The prosthesis was designed to bypass a very specific type of temporary debilitation caused by cocaine in a specific part of the brain," said Brin, "This is not the universal 'smart-maker' that might help us get out of so many jams, or cause social ructions, as in Daniel Wilson's novel Amped." That said, it may offer some insights that lead to a long chain of experiments leading down that path.

He also reminds us that the rhesus monkeys were implanted with a mechanical device. "So even if we find ways to apply a super version to dolphins and apes, it won't modify their natural, genetic abilities — but perhaps that won't matter."

Indeed, it's clear from talking with Brin and Hughes that there's much we still don't understand about how this story will unfold. The entire project may never get off the ground on account of the inevitable pressure that will be exerted by various various political, social, and activist groups. And given that enhancement could come from any number of technological realms, it's virtually impossible to predict how they will be applied, and the kinds of augmentations that might occur.

But what is perfectly clear at this point is that the conversation needs to get started. We are now officially at the dawn of the animal uplift era.

Top image via HBO. Inset images: Jim Burns (Startide Rising), We3 (Grant Morrison/Frank Quitely), Futurama (OV Guide).