Monday, March 23, 2009

Will we "uplift" animals to sapiency?

David Brin is guest blogging this week.

Greetings, oh developing sentient beings! Let me thank George Dvorsky for this opportunity to chatter with his blogizens and answer a few questions -- or else face some of the "reciprocal accountability" of which I am supposedly some kind of champion.

George selected a range of interesting topics, upon which I've arrogated opinions in the past. All are passionately interesting! Though I must keep each day's involvement here quite brief. Alas, life has become frenetic, with speeches and consulting work, my new inventions, and three active kids (the biggest project of all!) Because of this, I am forced to draw some lines, if only to save some time for writing!

So, for starters, those of you who don't know me can view a brief bio at-bottom...or else here. Also see my profile as a public-speaker/pundit. (I'll be appearing in DC and Phoenix, across the next few months.)

Let's begin.

George intro'd today's topic:
Biological uplift describes the act of biologically enhancing nonhuman animals and integrating them into human and/or posthuman society. There is no reason to believe that we won’t some day be able to do so; the same technologies that will someday work to augment the human species could also be applied to other animals. The big questions now have to do with whether or not we should embark on such a project and how we could do so in an ethical and responsible manner.

Recently on his blog, David Brin wrote, “[See] Developmental and ethical considerations for biologically uplifting nonhuman animals,” by George Dvorsky... opining that we humans will soon attempt what I described 30 years ago, when I coined “uplift” in several novels that explored the concept from many angles. George's fascinating paper, might have benefited from more on the sfnal history of the idea. Before me, HG Wells, Cordwainer Smith, and Pierre Boulle depicted humans endowing animals with powers of intelligence and speech - though always in a context of abuse and involuntary servitude. Indeed, those cautionary tales may have helped ensure that it will be done openly and accountably, hence qualifying the tales as "self-preventing prophecies." Allowing me to be the first to ponder "what if we tried to do uplift ethically and well?"
All right. I am not a biologist. My training was in astrophysics and electrical engineering. But, as a science fiction author, I feel liberated to explore any topic, especially if I can gain access to real experts using pizza and beer! Hence, I got to know some people working in research on dolphins and apes. I was also, for a year, the managing editor of the Journal of the Laboratory on Human Cognition (UCSD). So (perhaps arrogantly) I felt free to speculate about humans modifying animals to make them intelligent partners if our civilization.

There are so many issues here.

1. Can we replicate - in other creatures or in AI - the stunning way that Homo sapiens outstripped the needs of mere hunter-gathering, to reach levels of mentation that can take us to other planets and invent symphonies and possibly destroy the world? That was one hell of a leap! In Earth I speculated about half a dozen quirky things that might explain that vast overshoot in ability. In my next novel Existence I speculate on a dozen more.

In truth, we just don't know. I frankly think it may be harder than it looks.

2. SHOULD we do such a thing, say, to dolphins or chimps. If someone tried to, they would be hounded and bombed by animal rights people. Even though - if the attempt were successful - the descendants of such apes or cetaceans would be glad it happened. Of course, there would be pain, along the way.

3. That pain and controversy was why I felt I could avoid the simplistic "idiot plot" that sucked in almost every other Uplift author, from Wells to Boulle. The notion that we would abuse or enslave such creatures has some deep metaphorical resonance -- and during a long transition they would not be our peers. But as a goal? A reason to create new beings? It really is kind of pathetic, as are the simplistic tales.

I wanted, instead, to explore what might happen if we took on such a challenge with the BEST of intentions! Wouldn't the new species have problems anyway? Problems that are much more subtle and interesting than mere oppression?

My own artistic fetish is always to show the New Thing being done openly, with all systems of accountability functioning and civilization and citizens fully engaged, aware and intelligently involved. The reason I do this is simple... because absolutely nobody else writing fiction or movies today EVER does that. Ever. At all. Hence, making that assumption always leads in refreshing and original directions.

4. Artistically, of course, it is wonderful to work with characters who come from an uplifted species. I get to stretch my imagination, and the reader's, exploring what sapient dolphins or chimps might feel and think, under the pressure of such development, tugged between both the ancient instincts of their forebears and the new template being imposed upon them by their "patrons."

And that will have to do. I welcome feedback & questions, but there's so little time. If you feel I've neglected you or if you have more to say, feel free to drop in at my own blog CONTRARY BRIN.

With cordial regards,

David Brin

David Brin’s bestselling novels, such as EARTH and KILN PEOPLE, have been translated into more than 20 languages. THE POSTMAN was loosely KevinCostnerized in 1998. A scientist and futurist, Brin speaks and consults widely about over-the-horizon social and technological trends. THE TRANSPARENT SOCIETY won the nonfiction Freedom of Speech Award of the American Library Association.

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