The science of artificial brain improvement is making quick progress in labs across the country. Earlier this month, a team of researchers from the University of Rochester and the University of California, Los Angeles announced that they’d created smarter-than-average rodents by injecting human brain cells into the forebrains of newborn mouse pups. Other scientists have used electronic brain implants to improve the memory first of rats, then of rhesus monkeys. Once the province of science fiction and medical thrillers, “cognitive enhancement” is now a real (if distant) prospect for human beings.
Debates over proper use of the technology have already begun. Some thinkers eagerly anticipate the day when we can use a combination of genes, drugs, and electrodes to blow past the natural biological limits of our three-pound brains. Others say more caution is in order—first we need to decide how such powerful tools should be used, or whether it’s proper to meddle with the brain at all.
So far, the assumption in these debates has been that all this research is being done for the benefit of humans. But as the science moves forward, a handful of philosophers, futurists, and transhumanists are making another case: As we learn to amplify our own intellects, we should bring animals along with us. “There are other creatures on this planet that may be in need or deserving of also getting these sorts of interventions,” says George Dvorsky, who directs the Rights of Non-Human Persons program at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. “We should always be considering the larger family of sentient organisms on this planet—not just human beings.”
The notion of building brainier animals, sometimes also called “animal uplift,” is a radical, sometimes unsettling proposition. At the extreme, it brings to mind such fantastical possibilities as talking chimps and voting dolphins—a future in which humans no longer sit alone at the top of the intellectual ladder. And even if we never end up heading to the voting booth alongside a family of genius monkeys, merely grappling with the prospect, and all its potential implications, could force us to think more deeply and sensitively about our relationship to other species.
Animals have long served as test subjects for medical science, and have often shared in its benefits. Veterinarians prescribe antihistamines to alleviate allergies, Prozac to calm anxious pets, and chemotherapy to vanquish animal cancers. Oncologists at the Tufts School of Veterinary Medicine have given bone marrow transplants to dogs; in December, cardiologists at Angell Animal Medical Center outfitted a West Highland terrier with a pacemaker.
If and when cognitive enhancement becomes routine, we should similarly see it as an advance to be shared, “part of a common good,” Dvorsky says. Withholding its benefits from other species—some of which have served and died in the research—would be just as unethical, he argues, as withholding them from certain human populations, such as people who cannot afford them.
Dvorsky is just one of a handful of thinkers who have been making the case, in journal articles and at scientific conferences, that boosting animal intelligence is an ethical imperative.
David Brin, a scientist and author, sparked many of the first conversations on animal enhancement with his series of award-winning science fiction novels on uplift. For Brin, our obligation to animals becomes stronger when you consider the intellectual gifts that our species has been given. Although an array of recent studies has shown apes, dolphins, elephants, crows, and other creatures to be remarkably intelligent, “they all crowd up against a glass ceiling that only one phylum has ever broken through,” Brin says. “And boy did we break through. We’re the lucky ones, we made it through, and we turn around and refuse to lend a hand? Who are we to say: We could help you, but you’re fine the way you are?”
There’s no reason to think that animals won’t benefit from increased intelligence, just as humans have, says Sarah Chan, a bioethicist at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. “If we think about the kinds of things that make a chimpanzee’s life go either well or badly, the kind of things that might make its life go well are being able to find food more easily, being able to create a comfortable and secure environment, being able to avoid danger, enjoying social interaction—all of these things are probably activities that would be assisted by being more intelligent,” she says.Continued...