A hard drive and a jar of random genes

Space flight finally makes the big news again. That certainly has a lot to do with clever PR from new private space companies. There seems to be a renewed space race and people are thrilled about it. I am too. Launches can be watched live. Cameras show every absurd angle of the rockets mid-flight. The whole stuff just seems to be extremely cool and many people want to join the hype. It has been a while, since the last person set foot on another celestial body, so it seems to be about damn time to aim higher than just the moon. A manned trip to Mars finally seems to be in reach and beyond that merely a question of time and stamina. And, of course, these trips must be manned, what would be the point of it otherwise? Here, I guess, we are touching a field I am extremely interested in: authenticity.

When looking up to the moon, it gives a warm feeling imagining that someone – a real human being – has been up there. Touched it – at least to the extent that is permissible by the surrounding vacuum. Has set his eyes on it. That makes one dizzy and proud. How far has humanity come? But why the hell should I personally give a fuck? It wasn’t me that had been up there, and if it would have been me, the same problem would arise for you.

The pictures brought back by astronauts from Apollo missions, are stunning. And to some extent they let us picture ourselves in these situations. It is great PR work and enables us to dream, even though almost none of us will ever set foot on another planet. And here is the key point I am struggling with. Why should anyone ever travel to another planet and if they do, what exactly is it, that we as humanity are sending to outer space?

Don’t get me wrong, I am entirely for an expansion into space. It sounds like a logical step to me. I am questioning some of our ideas behind manned missions though.

What exactly is it, that we are trying to send to space?

Is it a way to gather information? Well, with the increasing pace AI is developing, why would we need “real” human beings for that? Sure, astronauts take the nicer selfies on the surface of mars, but other than that, the information an astronaut sends back to me, is on some very basic level indistinguishable to me from the information sent back by a computer-controlled rover. Both sets of data rely on my imagination for me to be thrilled by it. It is both equally abstract to me. But we remain social beings, that easily feel as if the actions and experiences of others are our own. That might be the key point here. Technology outpaces our little monkey brains, but we still expect that the stories about far and distant places are told by hunters and gatherers who travelled there in person. So, oddly enough, a picture taken by a fellow human being still feels more authentic than a picture taken by a camera that controls itself.

It seems as if we only value events and things that are perceived by ourselves. This is understandable, since our own horizon is always limited by our perception. Things like language and writing are so important because they extend our reach. Yet there always has been so much more going on than anyone was aware of. The frustration this has created is quite old. At least as old as the question whether a tree that falls without anyone around makes a noise. We tend to need our perception in the equation for things to really take place.

Let’s face it though. This was never the right way to look at things – maybe the only one we could fully understand – and things are changing drastically. If we are looking at the amount of information that is being processed today without any human interaction or attention, we come to realize that we are already being left behind. This is not necessarily a negative thing, but rather it now becomes merely more obvious. It came as a shock, when we realized that there might never be any polymaths again. Polymath as someone who has a understanding of all available knowledge a certain era could provide – an idea that was especially popular during the renaissance or maybe during our romanticized view on the renaissance. But I wonder if someone like Galileo would have survived on his own on a desert island. Could he have fed himself? Or did his knowledge not include basic concepts of hard labor?

Even Galileo would have missed almost everything around him. Humans just work that way.

Even if Galileo would really have had a perfect understanding of everything, how would other people have benefited from that? Galileo did write books, sure – and some of his texts got him into deep trouble -, but most people did not read them and the information they were containing was quite limited. If you know something I don’t, you might teach me some aspects of your knowledge or you might make me benefit from your knowledge in indirect ways, but your direct experience can never be shared.

So, if you land on Mars, your own experience of the situation is limited and even more limited is your ability to share your experience with others – even with fellow astronauts who join you on your journey.

Saving Humanity

But maybe the key reason for manned space travel would be to save humanity from looming doom, by expanding out to space and therefore, limiting the chances that all of humanity might be whipped out by a single catastrophe on a global scale.

What exactly is this “humanity” mentioned here?

The most basic understanding of humanity might be “all humans”. Sending everyone to space would leave Earth empty. Maybe we should, instead, select a few ambassadors to represent what humanity is – I wonder how that might go. When the US sent 20 white men to the Moon, they thought of them as ambassadors for humanity. That selection makes little sense from today’s perspective.

So, if we try to be more careful, who choses these representatives? And what would be the characteristics they should fulfill? Sure, after some decades, the group of people living somewhere other than Earth might be big enough to be a good enough representation for human society, but that is not the argument I am trying to make.

We have long reached the point, where “humanity” has little to do with actual humans. Humanity might be the knowledge we have accumulated, rather the genes we carry. This move away from humans as the key factor for society and global culture is certainly going to accelerate in the future. The stuff we would like to preserve might in fact have little to do with people like you and me. Why then should we care so much in sending little me or little you to the stars? Might not a hard drive and a jar of random genetical material be the better choice?

Again, when we say that we are afraid for the fate of humanity or life in general, most of us actually mean that we are afraid for our own life’s. Maybe the ones of our children and pets. But beyond that it becomes utterly abstract. I am not saying that humans are not worth preserving, but if we want to send intelligence and life to other planets, for them to being colonized or fertilized, maybe sending a couple thousand humans might not be the most reasonable choice. Sure, preserving my own genes would be the decision I would make – that is what my genes ask for. But would that be the best way to move forward? I doubt it.

Like so many generations before us, we are witnessing the future from the point of a spectator that won’t participate in the fun stuff. I guess that this is OK. I don’t like it either.

Things are changing all around us. Technology has become part of evolution and this accelerates the pace at which things move forward. We might feel left behind, but that is not new in the cycle of life and death. Maybe we are going to reach the point, when we – as human individuals – are just not a key part of future developments anymore. It must have been a terrible sight for early humanoids in the African savannah, when they were witnessing the next evolutionary step in the form of other humanoids carrying sticks.

The Stuff that is wrong with Intelligence

I have listened to the latest podcast by Sam Harris earlier today. I am not following him that closely, so when he was talking about the heat he was getting on the Internet recently that was new to me. I did not spend too much time looking into it but merely rely on what he was telling on his podcast, but that I take as an excuse to write about something that bothers me for quite some time.

So, Harris seems to have drawn a lot of criticism for talking about research that links intelligence to genes – more specifically genes that are linked what is classified as race. The second cause for outrage seemed to be that he was talking about this with Charles Murray, a right-leaning researcher that talks maybe slightly too much about this connection to be considered open minded about the topic of race – to be polite. Harris complains about the debate culture today, that prevents researchers like him, to talk about certain findings in certain fields, that cannot be addressed without facing criticism on the basis of political correctness.

I have serious issues with the idea of political correctness as it is enforced by some groups and individuals today and would be the first to protect Sam Harris in that respect. I think this has become a curse, that makes a badly needed public discourse in these fields unnecessarily hard and plays in the hands of groups on the right. The left had always had a wonderful talent to tear itself apart, rather than focusing on it’s real opponents.

That aside, I do believe that Mr. Harris is badly wrong in many ways.

Let us just assume that there is no issue with the general concept of intelligence – I’ll come back to this point later, since this would be my key theory. So, let’s assume that intelligence does exist and it can be measured, since this is definitely a prerequisite when arguing that intelligence and a selection of genes are somehow connected. To say that changes in certain genes have a positive or negative effect on the level of intelligence, one has to define what would be counted as intelligence.

The problem I see with this is one that has to do with the general nature of human beings. Humans tend to form groups and associate themselves with others that share interests and traits. In a professional environment that seems quite logical. Physicists have more in-depth interaction with other physicists than say with janitors. But this lumping creates little echo chambers. Not only are you biased on your own towards what your interest is in, but the people around you give you the impression that these biases might be valid. Conferences are a good place to see this in action. I went to a conference, where archivists all agreed that their field was the most crucial for the development of society and I went to another, where historians claimed the same about their trade. I guess that this might explain why many janitors share some prejudice against “learned people”. The janitors know something we have missed – that is that the world would fall apart without them. At least that might be the stuff janitors agree on.

Maybe you get my point.

I believe that a similar thing is at stake once we look at how intelligence is measured. If the definition of what intelligence is and the development of adequate tests would be left up to the combined force of janitors, the outcome might be different from what we have in place now. But they are not the ones to decide. It is another sub-set of society that has taken on this task. Still, the problems are the same. Whatever group plays the most important role in developing the definition of intelligence, social science relies on mostly, there are certainly a lot of similarities between its members. And these members – knowingly or not – are biased to include those things in their classification that are skills needed to be successful in their own trade. If they even work on a classification of intelligence, well they have certainly to be included – right?

Sam Harris, in his podcast, talked about quantum physicists as a group that certainly excluded people of average intelligence. Ok, I have rarely met quantum physicists, but the physicists (more of a macroscopic kind) I have met would have a hard time holder a hammer at the right end. Not saying that this would be a skill that best defines intelligence; I am rather trying to make the point that any definition of intelligence might be tailored to include certain groups and exclude others.

Of course, this is oversimplified. These definitions are not developed with a group of people having some beers and musing over what it is that makes them so amazingly clever. It is far more subtle and I have no doubts that most of these researchers have the best intentions. They work hard to make their definition as waterproof as possible. Still, the bias, it always finds its way.

Even if one could come up with a virtually bias-free setting, this still would be no solution for the issue I am having.

The fundamental problem with the concept of intelligence

A certain level of intelligence is something we attribute to each and every individual. And I believe that herein lies the problem. Humans have never existed outside a group structure. Even if you would end up – Robinson-style – on a remote desert island, you would still rely on every knowledge society has bestowed upon you to that point. But not only our practical knowledge relies on the knowledge already in existence within the society that surrounds us, but so is every last concept of abstract things, such as logic.

I think we ought to look at intelligence as something that is inherit in our society as a whole rather than something that could be coped with on an individual level. I find it very amusing, when people freak out about the rise of intelligent machines. “Oh my god! Computers are going to be more intelligent than humans!”. That is the fear. If we just look at humans and the idea of intelligence, we should realize that even though there might have been a person with the highest IQ amongst them all, this person was always just a speck within the bigger group. No matter how intelligent you are, you are insignificant compared to the group you are in. This way, Computers are merely going to add their intelligence to the group total – as was true with the very clever hunter in the Stone Age.

This way, intelligence is derived from diversity. The more diverse a group is, the better it is able to tackle new problems. This reflects back to the basic concept of intelligence. If we test individuals for their IQ, we tend to look at how well they react to different kinds of problems. In a group of people, this is somewhat related to genetics. When a new disease appears, a population that is genetically diverse has a better chance of dealing with the new threat than one that is genetically very homogeneous.

The question of which way to look at intelligence – on an individual level or on the level of the group as a whole – isn’t merely one of a certain perspective. Rather, I would argue, judging intelligence on a person to person basis is highly dangerous.

It is tempting to judge every individual based on his or her intelligence. This way, it is very easy to alter the intelligence of a group by adding more intelligent people or removing less intelligent ones. Sounds familiar? Sure, this is Eugenics. Something that was very much en vogue in the late 19th and early 20th century. Then it lost a little bit of favor due to the work of wee men with concentration camps. But with the promises made by genetical engineering, it is once again gaining ground. It is strange to see that, once more, scientists and racists are combining their forces.

But of course, the “intelligence” they want to enhance is shown by skills they tend to cherish in themselves. Maybe it should be classified as a cloning operation, rather than one that is aimed at improving the average intelligence of our society.

Again, I am arguing that the average intelligence of a given group rises with every different member that is included. This is why, multicultural societies are going to prepare us much better for things to come that the Easter-Island-style of culture racists dream about. Having handicapped people, people with mental problems, healthy ones, old, young, gay, straight, religious, atheist … this is the stuff that raises our intelligence – and don’t forget janitors for gods sake! And if the machines are raising? We’ll just invite them in. They will certainly be able to add their share.