Independence Day has one of my most favorite hero duos of all time: Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum. Brawn and brains, flyboy and nerd, working together to take out the baddies. It all comes down to one flash of insight on behalf of a drunk Goldblum after being chastised by his father. Cliché eureka! moments like Goldblum’s realization that he can give the mothership a “cold” are great until you realize one thing: if Goldblum hadn’t been as smart as he was, the movie would have ended much differently. No one in the film was even close to figuring out how to defeat the aliens. Will Smith was in a distant second place and he had only discovered that they are vulnerable to face punches. The hillbilly who flew his jet fighter into the alien destruct-o-beam doesn’t count, because he needed a force-field-free spaceship for his trick to work. If Jeff Goldblum hadn’t been a super-genius, humanity would have been annihilated.
Every apocalyptic film seems to trade on the idea that there will be some lone super-genius to figure out the problem. In The Day The Earth Stood Still (both versions) Professor Barnhardt manages to convince Klaatu to give humanity a second look. Cleese’s version of the character had a particularly moving “this is our moment” speech. Though it’s eventually the love between a mother and child that triggers Klaatu’s mercy, Barnhardt is the one who opens Klaatu to the possibility. Over and over we see the lone super-genius helping to save the world.
Shouldn’t we want, oh, I don’t know, at least more than one super-genius per global catastrophe? I’d like to think so. And where might we get some more geniuses? you may ask. We make them.
In his essay, “The Singularity: A Philosophical Analysis”, philosopher David Chalmers notes that there is a very real chance that if machines become self-aware and start improving themselves, we’re going to have a problem (*cough* Skynet *cough* Liquid T-1000 *cough, cough*). One of his potential solutions is to enhance ourselves to keep up:
This might be done genetically, pharmacologically, surgically, or even educationally. It might be done through implantation of new computational mechanisms in the brain, either replacing or extending existing brain mechanisms. Or it might be done simply by embedding the brain in an ever more sophisticated environment, producing an “extended mind” whose capacities far exceed that of an unextended brain.
Does any of that sound familiar? Perhaps a little film called Gattaca may ring some bells? Chalmers is arguing enhancement may be necessary to prevent extinction. Why not extrapolate that logic to other existential risks. Alien invasion? Superhumans would probably put up a better fight. Skynet goes live? An army of hackers with a collective IQ of 200+ and neuro-integrated interfaces would clean that up in a jiffy. But what about our current problems? Although heavy-handed, the message in both versions of The Day the Earth Stood Still is that humanity’s greatest existential threat is itself. War, suffering, poverty, and environmental destruction all seem like problems that would merit allowing our best and brightest to become even better and brighter for the sake of everyone.
A common fear is that the super-intelligent would just step on us normals, creating second-class citizens. Enhancement doesn’t just mean the ability to do complex equations and create new molecular compounds; raw intellectual horsepower is just one among many possibilities. We know that some people have moral problems caused by damage to specific parts of their brain. As neuroscience progresses, there is a very real possibility we’ll be able to improve those specific parts of the moral brain. I don’t mean we’d have a society of lock-step rule followers, but instead people who were genuinely better at being moral than most of us. Can you imagine a world where politicians had improved ethical scruples? Or, to put it simply, where the most brilliant minds were also the most caring?
Which brings me back to Jeff Goldblum in Independence Day. Not only does he come up with the solution, but he selflessly gets in the nuke-strapped UFO with Will Smith to fly into the middle of the enemy mothership. Same for professor Barnhardt, who is as good at moral philosophy as it seems he is math, attempting to show Klaatu the best of our species.
In science fiction, when humanity is faced with existential crises, we turn to great minds attached to great hearts. While we aren’t under alien attack or facing sentient machines, our world has its own share of problems. Human cognitive enhancement might just be the solution from which all other solutions are born; or maybe it brings too many risks of its own.
ID4 Promotional Image via Wikipedia under fair use