Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The dream of 'designer babies'

Some things in the media are so mind-numbingly stupid that I feel frozen into dumbness: 'Where would I start?'

Where is the politician or pundit who simply states - in exasperation:
"Why wouldn't we want designer babies? Is random better? And when you choose your partner with care, aren't you trying - in  part - to optimise your children? Listen people, we already do designer babies! And that's good and indeed evolutionarily obvious."
OK, I never heard that. Ever.

But we will soon be able to make more informed choices about the genomes of our offspring. Three obstacles:
  1. We need to understand the phenotypical effects of alleles (existing or even new)
  2. We need certainty about the effects of genetic engineering - no mistakes
  3. We need to make it easy and convenient to access and then implant the modified cell.
So, once fixed, my question is: what do we want to do?



Firstly, there seems to be a biological recognition of kin-similarity. Babies swapped unknowingly at birth who grow up with unrelated 'parents' do seem to feel that something is wrong. I don't think we understand causally-genomically what is going on here and changing too many alleles, increasing the genomic distance between parents and child, may start to impact the relationship.

Secondly, you can't optimise everything. It may be true - as Steve Hsu has insisted - that high IQ tends to correlate with general health and superior performance in most areas. And if it's a question of minimising genetic load you can see why.

But beyond a certain point, high IQ seems to require that more of the brain is devoted to the processing of abstractions leaving less for other things. This is probably part of the underlying etiology for different personality types.

There seem to be few highly-intellectual axe-wielding warriors.

Thirdly, there is a feeling that although some parents might want their children to be great athletes or painters or musicians or novelists or priests or therapists or .. parents, there is something special about IQ.

Without intelligence we are sunk, none of the rest is going to work as our civilization will collapse. And that has been true up to now: all that smart fraction stuff - that you need a lot of folks with IQ 105+ just to run a complex society. And that the real innovation comes from those world-class people with IQs in excess of 160.

But .. I have not the slightest doubt that by the time we are able to routinely engineer the genomes of our offspring, we will have AI systems which are conceptually-competent way beyond the smartest humans that we can envisage.

We know what really smart people do: they internalise and extend a vast set of abstractions and manipulate them in interesting and complex ways to engage with problems. The lower foothills of this space are already colonised by deep-learning systems: their future seems pretty scalable.

It's not at all clear that the destiny or destination of the human race is or should be unbounded smartness, once we correct the errors of mutational load.


I've just finished reading "The Strangest Man: The hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius" by Graham Farmelo.

Amazon link

Dirac was plainly one of the smartest people who have ever lived. He is also generally assessed as autistic (Asperger's syndrome). In Farmelo's account, although not chronically unhappy, he hardly seems to have led a fulfilled life. His total, obsessive focus on developing theory seems to have led to a final disillusionment with the state of physics when he died (1984) - and with his own life's work.

I suspect that the first epoch of empowered genomic engineering will not be a mad rush for ever higher IQ, with the target of the ubiquitous production of von Neumann equivalents. Instead, I suspect we will edit out the obvious errors and reinforce the talents already latent in the specific underlying genome.

Let a thousand flowers bloom.


I suspect the second epoch of genomic engineering will be entirely different.


  1. The Fermelo-Dirac book is a rare occasion when I have read a book prior to its review on this blog.
    I seem to recall something about going to school in Bristol...

    1. The family seem to have originated near Bordeaux, and arrived in Bristol via Switzerland. But P. A. M. Dirac certainly grew up, went to school and took his engineering degree in Bristol (my home town).

      The author observes that Dirac is almost completely forgotten in Bristol!


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