The Power of a Single Word

I said that I would provide some suggestions to people working in the fields of artificial intelligence (AI) and genetic engineering meant to help improve the debate on the moral and ethical issues that are so important to both fields.  Words are very powerful.  Even a small change in the words we use can have a major impact on the perception of the public and even on the self-perception of those involved in the debate. This example is more than one word, but ask a physician if she or he thinks medicine should not bother with the Hippocratic Oath as it is just words and nothing more.

I will quickly mention one example of an extremely controversial topic (it still is) and how this sudden realization on the part of people on both sides of a highly emotional debate led them to finally realize that they both needed to choose their words more carefully.

I am talking about abortion.  I remember that period years ago when those who defended a woman’s right to choose abortion stopped calling themselves “pro-abortion” and  decided to call themselves “pro-choice”, while those who had called themselves “anti-abortion” decided to call themselves “pro-life”.  The debate continued and continues today, but I have witnessed an increased willingness of the public to consider the views of both groups and a decreased level of the extreme emotionalism, even violence, that characterized the debate in the early days.  The words we use to describe who we are and what we do are very powerful words indeed.

On that note, let me proceed.

EI, not just AI

With AI, the troublesome word is “artificial”. These days, the word “natural’ is used all the time and often inappropriately, but people much prefer things that are natural to things that are artificial. Artificial intelligence sounds like something separate from you and me, something that could challenge us or even turn on us.  Calling it “machine intelligence”, as some do, really doesn’t help at all. In fact, it makes the situation a little worse.   On the other hand, calling it “natural intelligence” doesn’t make any sense.

I suggest using two terms.   I think in terms of a Group A and a Group B.  Group B would include all human beings. Group A would include everything that was not in Group B.

For group A, I would call it artificial intelligence because it has nothing to do with humans directly, so the word artificial is much less likely to be perceived as a danger to humans.

For Group B, I would call it Enhanced Intelligence, EI. I would stress that the purpose of research in this field was designed to enhance human intelligence and help us enjoy better lives, not replace us or attack us.

I think it is important to stress enhancement of human intelligence as the goal when dealing with humans. It is just as simple as that. That takes the scare factor out of the equation and encourages us to focus on humans receiving direct benefits from this kind of intelligence. And I think it is a simple reminder to researchers to focus on what I think they should be focusing on, enhancing the human experience.

How would this actually work?  One key is very likely to be found in research on a brain-computer interface (BCI) where the brain and computer work together wirelessly and as close to instantly as you are likely to get.  Sound too far out?  Actually research and design in this speciality has been underway for four decades.  It has a long way to go, but it has already come a long way.

Let’s take a look at a simple example.  Jan Sheuermann is quadriplegic, unable to move her arms and legs.  Understandably, she has never piloted an aircraft.  But she has worked with a brain-computer interface, so she was connected to a flight simulator and the results can be seen in a 40-second video at this Wired report (scroll down a little to see the video, but the text is worth reading too)  As the article points out and the video demonstrates, you won’t want her to be your pilot any time soon, but what should expect of someone with no background in piloting?  It’s not a “fail”, it is a great demonstration of a rapidly developing and very promising technology.  This is just one interesting, but very simple, example of EI.

As we are constantly told, research in this field and others like it is growing “exponentially”, happening so rapidly that it is nearly impossible to keep up with it, if you are not employed in that field and not always easy if you are.  But the day can come, sooner than we may think now, when an experienced pilot can have access to EI through a brain-computer interface that he or she can access at any time and fly the plane directly from the brain without having to use hands or arms.  The precious seconds saved could save even more precious lives.

This was a simple demonstration of a very sophisticated approach. It draws attention due to the unusual background of the pilot. But it is far more than this demonstration and the potential is huge. It took a lot of innovation to get to this stage, but that stage is history. The future will bring far more innovation and its application will dramatically enhance our human capabilities.

It’s only changing one word when talking about humans, and yet I think that one word carries a great deal of real power.

Enhancement, not just Engineering

I would recommend something very similar with genetic engineering. Here the word “engineering” is the problem. It makes everything that has genes sound like it’s nothing more than a machine and human beings do not like to be referred to as machines. I think that is the core of a problem in public perception.

Dividing Group A and Group B is a little more challenging here. Group B would include all human beings. Group A could include everything else. However, there may be good reason to include other species of animals in Group B, but that is a matter to be determined by the field of genomics and and an informed public. It has its own ethical and moral dimension, but for the moment, I will focus on the humans in Group B.

Again, I would like to see that field emphasize the direct benefits to humans of their work.  For Group B, I would focus on genetic enhancement, not genetic engineering.  In other words, let’s drop “designer babies” and focus on saving the lives of babies…and all of us.  Honestly, I have come to really despise the term “designer babies”.   Sure, it will attract a lot more attention than ‘gene enhancement for babies” and the media loves the attention, but it is not the actual focus of the research.

In any case, we are subject to too much use of the word “engineering”.  It turns people off.  That should be obvious.  No, I do not think the emphasis in the field of genomics is on building some new kind of “super-human”, a new version of human who, like AI above, might turn on us and choose to eliminate us.  

So, you want a super-human?  Here’s my suggestion as to how to get a super-human that we not only can live with, but can be!

We use genetic enhancement to eliminate genetic disease, increase our health, fitness, and longevity.  If we can enhance our intelligence genetically, fine, but that is when EI comes in to add the enhancement of artificial intelligence without creating ‘killer robots”.

Not a new species to threaten us, but an enhanced species…us.  That should be the goal.

And will the wealthy be the only ones to benefit?  Welcome to the human desire to improve our lives and to the free market.  I heard the same fears about computers, the Internet, even cell phones and guess what?  They all spread far further and far faster than anyone had predicted and they haven’t stopped yet.  The same will be true with enhanced genetics and EI, but even more so.  If they are successful in fulfilling their promise, any people or nation who refuses them will quickly fall behind. That will be their choice and should be, but I would not bet on them to be the majority and in fairly short order.

I began this series with sharp criticism for some “leading authorities” and the language they use when discussing these two topics.  I have not changed my opinion on that at all, but I have said what I needed to say and will move on to another topic.  I will come back to this when I have anything new to add, but for now, enough.

A few weeks ago, I wrote on the subject of the emerging global upper class.  In my next post, I plan to return to that topic, but with some statistics that are directly relevant to that discussion.  How rich are these people?  How many of them are there?  Where do they call “home”?  And so forth.  I hope you join me for that.  It’s a very interesting topic indeed and you may be a little surprised.


This is a personal blog, more of a personal notebook, unadvertised and without promotion. I try to post on a weekly basis. Should you stumble across it and wish to be notified of new posts, just enter your email address at the upper-right of this page. I have no other use for email addresses. Rest assured, yours will be kept private. I also now tweet to share articles and essays that I think are important, but do not have room for here. You are welcome to make comments, if they are on topic and polite. I have no time or space for insults, foul language, or anything I judge to be offensive to readers.

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