Many of today’s news stories highlight our rapidly advancing technology. Videos of Hanson Robotics’ A.I. robot Sophia have surfaced across news headlines and social media posts. New medical advances such as CRISPR-Cas9, a method of gene-editing that allows scientists to deactivate specific genes, are attracting attention due to the possibility of fixing genetic complications.
Dr. Michael Bess, a seasoned Vanderbilt professor, predicts the near future of mankind (that is, within the next hundred years) in his book Our Grandchildren Redesigned: Life in the Bioengineered Society of the Near Future (Beacon, 2015). He proposes that, with technology rapidly advancing, humans will eventually have the ability to enhance themselves through both genetic engineering and biotechnology, giving people the option to be smarter, stronger, live longer, be healthier, express certain genes, and even decide the characteristics of their own children.
With the advent of this new power, Vanderbilt and all universities will have to change in order to serve super-intelligent beings.
Dr. Bess notes that some people are already enhanced when it comes to college acceptance: “We already have bio-enhancement to get into Vanderbilt, and that is ACT and SAT prep classes, or going to a really good school as opposed to a bad school.” Students who inherit the genes for natural intelligence, or who come from a wealthy socio-economic background, have a greater chance of receiving the benefits of test prep and attending a “good school,” and therefore a higher chance of being admitted to Vanderbilt.
Add in future technology and “that phenomenon will be tremendously expanded and deepen its impact because those who are bio-enhanced are going to have truly superior capabilities at all kinds of different levels. They’ll be able to stay awake longer, be more alert, more clearly interact with advanced computers and machines, more efficiently communicate with each other, and probably have cognitive abilities that unmodified people don’t have, which will exacerbate the difference between the “haves” and “have-nots” that is already seen in colleges today.”
The consequences of these changes could lead to some universities like Vanderbilt to admit only bio-enhanced students, “just like sports events where we’ll have two Wimbledons. One for the modified and one for the unmodified.”
The Vanderbilt student population will experience a change in age as well. Instead of mostly serving 18 to 22 year olds, the university will have a disparity of ages given that enhanced people will have a much longer, healthier life with the opportunity for more careers. People will probably return to school to learn a new field or study, paid for with savings from the earlier career.
Vanderbilt within the next century will very likely become a place filled by students of various ages, many of them biologically enhanced in an advanced world.
Dr. Bess does warn against an unrestrained spring into a technologically advanced age. “Everything in our world right now is geared toward faster faster faster . . . everybody is stressed, overpressed, overworked, and it’s a situation none of us really wants. Bio-enhancement technologies feed right into that. I think if we are not careful, we are going to lose touch with what makes life worth living if we’re too busy trying to keep up in this rat-race of ever-accelerating capabilities and power.”
Given the advances you predict will occur in the future, how do you think education will have to change, specifically at Vanderbilt?
Well, we already have bio-enhancement to get into Vanderbilt, and that is ACT and SAT prep classes as an example, or going to a really good school as opposed to a bad school. One is enhanced and the other is disadvantaged. An inequality already exists the genetic inheritance from your parents or the socioeconomic background you come from and the opportunities you have or the tools you avail yourself of can better yourself and help you qualify for college. My argument is as these technologies start to become more widespread in their use, that phenomenon will be tremendously expanded and deepen its impact because those who are bio enhanced are going to have truly superior capabilities at all kinds of different levels. They’ll be able to stay awake longer, be more alert, more clearly interact with Bio-Advanced Computers and machines, more efficiently communicate with each other, and probably have cognitive abilities that unmodified people don’t have, which will exacerbate the difference between the “haves” and “have-nots” which is already seen in colleges today. There are those who try to get rid of these difference, for example Vanderbilt, if you express need will admit you debt free so that you can go to Vanderbilt without going into debt so our policies try to assess your economic differences to try and give education to those in proportion to their Merit but if we give people differences and cheer mental ability ability that will affect the difference in to who can get in and who is on track to be a more influential person.
Do you think you will have to separate schools for those modified and those not?
Absolutely. Just like sports events where we’ll have two wimbletons. One for the modified and one for the unmodified, because it would just be boring to watch a modified person playing against an unmodified person like me playing against Federer. It will be that kind of difference. Now transpose that into the mental realm, and you have a sense of what kinds of disparities we will see.
Do you think we will see people going to school longer given the longer lifespan and health?
Yes. I think the way it’s gonna work is, more likely than not, people will have many different careers over the course of their lifetime. Already today that is more true than 50 years ago. 50 years ago you get a job at IBM, you stay at IBM your whole life, they pay your pension, that’s it. Nowadays people have to switch careers because ‘hey, my entire line of work has just disappeared through automation or whatever.’ That tendency is going to get more acute over the coming decades. Simply, after you do 30 or 40 years work as, let’s say, a lawyer, you may get tired of it. So it is quite likely people will opt to go back to school. So school will no longer be just for those 18-22 year olds. You’ll have a much wider range of ages and people will go back and re-tool and re-educate themselves to do something else. And they’ll be able to pay for it because they have savings by that point. Now of course all of these predictions could be put in the background of another prediction which is rising automation. People will become more wealthy over time because they can accumulate more wealth over a lifespan. The countervailing tendency will be that our machines will become more and more brilliant, and more and more domains of the human life are going to be automated, so I suspect that 30 or 40 or 50 years from now the machines will be doing most of the work. We are going to have to find a way to give people a decent life without work. You see books coming out called ‘Basic Income’ in which everybody, regardless of whether you work or don’t work, gets $50,000 a year. Enough to live on decently. We are going to have to figure out a way to do that. This pushes us toward a system like Sweden that raises taxes to cover wages and healthcare and expenses. This is not just me talking.
What do you think the biggest challenge will be in educating smarter people?
The same challenges will exist that there are now. How can we be new and innovative? I think as we interact with better artificial intelligence and entities, it becomes harder to predict what outcomes will occur in the future. If we develop human-level AI, it is going to be hard to know what impact that is going to have on our lives. One of the things I worry about in that regard is human-level AI, an AI that has capabilities of original thought, would be able to turn those abilities on itself and redesign itself and make itself even more powerful than it is, and then do that again and again. The rising gradient of capability fits the theme of fiction literature in runaway-AI, basically an exponential self-improvement process, which transmogrified itself beyond all recognition and becomes vastly more powerful and out of our control.
Do you suggest we put some sort of cap on how far we can go?
Yes, but that is very hard to do, even if we want to and can all agree, it is very hard to do. I’m writing a book on how we are going to control AI if we can.
Is there anything you’d like to tell the student population at Vanderbilt, to warn them or make any suggestions for the future?
Everything in our world right now is geared toward faster faster faster. Everybody is in a hurry. Everybody is stressed, overpressed, overworked, and it’s a situation none of us really wants, but we all run faster because we see everyone running all around us so we run as fast as we can and they see us running so they run faster. It’s an endless treadmill escalating, a sort of inflation of stress and pressure. At one level we’re more productive, but on another level I think it robs us of quality of life. I think if we are not careful, we are going to lose touch with what makes life worth living if we’re too busy trying to keep up in this rat-race of ever-accelerating capabilities and power. Bioenhancement technologies feed right into that, and I think we need to be very critical and skeptical, looking at the whole of the human being. Yes I can enhance myself to have X and Y capabilities, but at what cost? Looking at the wholeness of who I am. People will tend to just say ‘I want that capability’ without looking at the wholistic analysis, and it will take a toll on their live that they might not realize until much later. When large numbers of people are doing it, you get a society that has run away out of control. There are positive signs to everyone having a smartphone, and there are negative signs. In my class I have banned laptops. I visited my colleagues’ classrooms when they first came out and I looked down and saw everyone is on Facebook or buying something on Amazon. This machine, which was supposed to augment how smart we are, turned out to be a Trojan horse. At some level it is wonderful to have a smartphone and laptop. But we need to be judicious and critical. What makes a human life worth living? What makes a human being flourish? That is the yardstick we should be putting up for ourselves as we choose whether or not to adopt these things.