Subject X17's Surgery

post by HonoreDB · 2010-12-30T19:01:05.812Z · score: 11 (12 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 15 comments

Edit: For an in-depth discussion of precisely this topic, see Nick Bostrom and Anders Sandberg's 2008 paper "The Wisdom of Nature: An Evolutionary Heuristic for Human Enhancement", available as a pdf here.  This post was written before reading the paper.

There doesn't seem to be a thread discussing Eliezer's short-short story X17.  While I enjoyed the story, and agreed with most of its points, I disagree with one assertion in it (and he's said it elsewhere, too, so I'm pretty sure he believes it).  Edit: The story was written over a decade ago.  Eliezer seems to have at least partially recanted since then.

Eliezer argues that there can't possibly be a simple surgical procedure that dramatically increases human intelligence.  Any physical effect it could have, he says, would necessarily have arisen before as a mutation.  Since intelligence is highly beneficial in any environment, the mutation would spread throughout our population.  Thus, evolution must have already plucked all the low-hanging fruit.

But I can think of quite a few reasons why this would not be the case.  Indeed, my belief is that such a surgery almost certainly exists (but it might take a superhuman intelligence to invent it).  Here are the possibilities that come to mind.

 

  1. The surgery might introduce some material a human body can't synthesize.1
  2. The surgery might require intelligent analysis of the unique shape of a subject's brain, after it has developed naturally to adulthood.
  3. The necessary mutation might simply not exist.  The configuration space for physically possible organisms must surely be larger than the configuration space for human-like DNA (I get the sense I'm taking sides in a longstanding feud in evolutionary theory with this one).
  4. The surgery might have some minor side effect that would drastically reduce fitness in the ancestral environment, but isn't noticeable in the present day.  Perhaps it harnesses the computing power of the subject's lymphocytes, weakening the immune system.

I wonder if perhaps these possibilities are specifically ruled out in the Lensman scene this is parodying.  I haven't read any of it.  In that case, Eliezer is saying something weaker than he seems to be.  But my guess is we really do have vastly differing intuitions on this.

1The Baron may not even realize that his vanadium scalpel is essential to the process!  I've read that early blacksmiths believed, incorrectly, that a charcoal fire was hotter than any other fire.  They believed this because iron smelted over a charcoal fire ended up stronger and more malleable.  In fact, this happened because small amounts of carbon from the charcoal were bonding with the metal.

 

15 comments

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comment by [deleted] · 2010-12-30T21:09:16.417Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

intelligence is highly beneficial in any environment

This seems obviously false, to me. A critter only has to be smart enough to solve one problem.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2010-12-30T21:27:19.194Z · score: 3 (7 votes) · LW · GW

A critter only has to be smart enough to solve one problem.

Perfectly. Which necessarily involves taking over the universe.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2010-12-30T20:16:43.440Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Eliezer argues that there can't possibly be a simple surgical procedure that dramatically increases human intelligence. Any physical effect it could have, he says, would necessarily have arisen before as a mutation. Since intelligence is highly beneficial in any environment, the mutation would spread throughout our population. Thus, evolution must have already plucked all the low-hanging fruit.

I'd be surprised if EY were actually arguing this.

The argument you summarize here isn't just an argument against the possibility of surgically improving intelligence, it's an argument against the possibility of technologically improving on any evolved capability (say, cars, or penicillin, or writing).

Come to that, it's an argument against any evolved species developing useful abilities that any other evolved species didn't develop.

comment by HonoreDB · 2010-12-30T20:29:52.500Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'm confused too. But I really didn't take any liberties with my paraphrasing. Here's an exact EY quote, albeit from a deprecated essay:

any simple intelligence enhancement will be a net evolutionary disadvantage - if enhancing intelligence were a matter of a simple surgical procedure, it would have long ago occurred as a natural mutation.

comment by ata · 2010-12-31T00:07:22.398Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

This seems to be his most recent writing on the subject. In a comment on that post, he says that the formulation you refer to is "part of an even stranger phase of [his] earlier wild and reckless youth, age fifteen or thereabouts", so it probably doesn't make sense to argue against this as something that "Eliezer argues"; possibly better to just say something like "some have argued..." or show why it's an intuitively appealing idea and then argue that there are counterexamples.

comment by HonoreDB · 2010-12-31T01:19:45.411Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for the link! Glad to see people have discussed this.

The principle stated there, that any "genetically easy" modification to humans should be expected to cause a net reduction of fitness, seems useful and unimpeachable. With, of course, the caveat that we're not in the ancestral environment. Smart people can get all the calories, antibiotics, and c-sections they need.

But calling it the Algernon Principle implies that we should equate "physically easy" with "genetically easy." That seems unlikely to be true in general.


Pardon me while I have a strange interlude. We can show that the range of humanoids that you can build from proteins is astronomically greater than the range of humanoids you can build from genomes. Let N be the number of possible humanoid genotypes. For each n of those N genotypes, Prometheus can build a man who is somatically Walter Cronkite but whose germline DNA is derived from genotype n. Thus we have N distinct viable humanoids, all of whom look like Walter Cronkite. Since we know that not all viable humanoids look like Walter Cronkite, we know that there are more than N viable humanoids. Therefore, there are viable humanoid blueprints that are not accessible via mutation. Now imagine that I bothered to extend this proof in a bunch of combinatorial and exponential directions, and we get the astronomical part.


So, yes, we can deduce that any brain modification which evolution could easily do on its own is very unlikely to improve the subject's fitness. But we should not confuse this with the more general case, and the more general case is large. Which means that it's an unfair maligning of the experimenters in Algernon and Lensman to suggest that they should have known their efforts would end in disaster, any more than the Montgolfier brothers should have known that any hot air balloon must inevitably kill its passengers.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2010-12-30T21:20:44.545Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

(nods) Fair enough... that sure does sound like it's saying what you understand it to be saying.

I can imagine ways to rescue that quote by taking very strict interpretations of "simple surgical procedure," I guess. E.g., maybe a simple surgical procedure can't enhance intelligence, any more than simple mathematics can predict trajectories in atmosphere, fine, but I can't see why that's an interesting question. But I'm really uninterested in exegesis, let alone eisegesis.

For my own part, I can imagine several technological procedures to enhance human intelligence that seem plausibly within the reach of applied cognitive science in my lifetime.

comment by CronoDAS · 2010-12-31T23:54:26.230Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Orson Scott Card once wrote a short story in which a "simple" (in concept) procedure ends up dramatically enhancing human intelligence, without violating the "why hasn't this happened naturally" rule. The procedure repurposes the parts of your brain responsible for processing visual input: you end up much smarter, but you also go blind.

comment by giambolvoe · 2011-01-03T03:02:04.489Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I would undergo the procedure iff I knew I could maximize its effectiveness. I doubt I could maximize the effectiveness, though, so it would be a tough sell.
Good for a "would you rather" scenario, though.

comment by timtyler · 2010-12-30T21:36:22.501Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Since intelligence is highly beneficial in any environment, the mutation would spread throughout our population.

Pah! Someone should look at the energy and nutrient demands of a running brain, compare with paleolithic calorie and nutrient sources - and then reconsider this point.

comment by HonoreDB · 2010-12-30T21:47:11.743Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

A side effect of increased nutritional requirements falls under my objection 4.

comment by ThomasR · 2011-01-01T17:41:37.681Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

A weird version: http://www.vetscite.org/publish/items/005309/index.html

comment by kpreid · 2011-01-01T00:52:48.251Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

[Discussion of fiction:]

What is the Lensman connection? I don't recall any intelligence enhancement by medical means. Or is it rather the Philips treatment, enabling regrowth of body parts?

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2010-12-30T19:31:08.811Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Eliezer argues that there can't possibly be a simple surgical procedure that dramatically increases human intelligence.

Indeed, my belief is that such a surgery almost certainly exists (but it might take a superhuman intelligence to invent it).

If it takes a superhuman intelligence to invent it, it arguably doesn't count as 'simple'.

comment by HonoreDB · 2010-12-30T19:36:15.402Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Sure. For my purposes here, a simple procedure is one that you could teach to any skilled surgeon, regardless of how complex it is to invent or to understand why it works.