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Public Statements

Engineered Intelligence

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

Mr. SHERMAN. Thank you.

Mr. Speaker, I come to the floor to focus on an issue that I have been discussing with my colleagues for almost a decade and that I have brought to this floor several times since the year 2000. That is an issue I call ``engineered intelligence.'' By that, I mean the efforts of computer engineers to develop computers with intelligence that far exceeds that of the normal human being and, likewise, the efforts of biological engineers to create either intelligence enhanced forms of human beings, or new life forms that have intelligence far beyond that of the average human.

Mr. Speaker, I believe that science will have a greater impact on the coming century than it has had in the last several centuries, knowing full well of the enormous impact that science has had in the last 100 and 200 years.

As one futurist points out, if someone describes the future 40 years from now and paints a picture that looks like a science fiction movie, that picture may be wrong, but if someone is discussing the future 40 years from now and paints a picture that does not look like a science fiction movie, then you know they are wrong. We will be living in a science fiction movie. We just don't know which one.

I believe that the issue of engineered intelligence is one that will have a greater impact on humankind than even the development of nuclear weapons. Just a few years before nuclear weapons were first exploded, Albert Einstein wrote to Roosevelt, and explained that it was possible to create such a nuclear bomb. In fact, just a few years went by before it was a reality.

Now we have not a few years, but a few decades, to wrestle with the enormous ethical, theological and sociological impacts of the technologies that are out there--just 10, 20, 30 years away. My fear is that we will over the next 10 years do what we have done over the last 10 years: Basically, waste the time that we so urgently need to deal with issues that we have just begun, that we really have not begun, to think through.

Now, as we develop more intelligent computers, we will find them useful tools in creating even more intelligent computers, a positive feedback loop. I don't know whether we will create the maniacal Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey or the earnest Data from Star Trek. My guess is that we will create them both. There are those who say don't worry because even the most intelligent or malevolent computer is in a box, and cannot affect the outside world. But I believe there are those of the human species who would give hands to the devil, in return for a good stock tip.

I do draw solace from the fact that because a computer is intelligent or even self-aware, that this does not mean that it is ambitious. That is, will it try to affect the outside world? Will it have a survival instinct?

My washing machine does not seem to care whether I turn it off or not. In contrast, my pet mouse does seem to care. We should be working on elements to implant in computers to prevent self-awareness, survival instinct and ambition. But I know no politician is supposed to say that, because it sounds wacky; it sounds like science fiction. But if we are not talking about things that sound like science fiction, then we are not talking about the real issues that will confront us in the generation to come.

We also should focus not only on computer engineering but on the engineering of DNA. Biological engineering starts with an inherently ambitious raw material. Virtually all life forms seem to seek to survive, seem to try to affect their environment to achieve that purpose. Most of them seem to care whether their progeny survive. Now, bioengineers could create a 1,000-pound mammal with a 100-pound brain that will beat your kids on the LSAT.

These are issues that deserve the attention of all of us in the public sphere but particularly those who are our best philosophers, theologians and sociologists.

I thank the Chair for giving me the time to, once again, bring these issues before the House, and I look forward to working with my colleagues to see that these issues are confronted long before science confronts us with new reality.

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I believe that the impact of science on this century will be far greater than the enormous impact science had on the last century. As futurist Christine Peterson notes: If someone is describing the future 30 years from now and they paint a picture that seems like it is from a science fiction movie, then they might be wrong. But, if someone is describing the future a generation from now and they paint a picture that doesn't look like a science fiction movie, then you know they are wrong.

We are going to live in a science fiction movie, we just don't know which one.

There is one issue that I think is more explosive than even the spread of nuclear weapons: engineered intelligence. I have spent nine years focused on this issue \1\ By ``engineered intelligence'' I mean the efforts of computer engineers and bio-engineers who may create intelligence beyond that of a human being. In testimony at the House Science Committee,\2\ the consensus of experts testifying was that in roughly 25 years we would have a computer that passed the Turing Test,\3\ and more importantly exceeded human intelligence.

As we develop more intelligent computers, we will find them useful tools in creating ever more intelligent computers, a positive feedback loop. I don't know whether we will be creating the maniacal Hal from 2001, or the earnest Data from Star Trek--or perhaps both.

There are those who say don't worry, even if a computer is intelligent and malevolent--it is in a box and it cannot affect the world. But I believe that there are those of our species who would give hands to the devil, in return for a good stock tip.

I do draw solace from the fact that just because a computer is intelligent, or even self-aware, this does not mean that it is ambitious. By ambitious, I mean possessing a survival instinct together with a desire to affect the environment so as to ensure survival, and usually a desire to propagate or expand.

My washing machine does not seem to care whether I turn it off or not. My pet mouse does seem to care. So even a computer possessing great intelligence may simply have no ambition, survival instinct, or interest in affecting the world.

DARPA \4\ is the government agency on the cutting edge of supercomputer research. I have urged DARPA to develop computer systems designed to maximize the computer's utility, while avoiding self-awareness, or at least ambition.

I have spoken about computer engineering. But there is a whole different area of engineering: bio-engineering. Roughly 30 or 40 years from now bio-engineers should be able to start with human DNA and create a 2,000 pound mammal with a 300 pound brain designed to beat your grandkids on the LSAT. No less troubling, they might start with canine DNA and create a mammal with near-human intelligence, and no civil rights.

DNA is inherently ambitious. Those microbes which didn't seek to survive or replicate, didn't. Even birds seem to care whether they or their progeny survive, and they seek to affect their environment to achieve that survival.

In any case, you have the bio-engineers and the computer engineers both working toward new levels of intelligence. I believe in our lifetime we will see new species possessing intelligence which surpasses our own.

The last time a new higher level of intelligence arose on this planet was roughly 50,000 years ago. It was our own ancestors, who then said hello to the previously most intelligent species, Neanderthals. It did not work out so well for the Neanderthals.

I used to view this as a contest between the bio-engineers and the computer engineers (or if you use the cool new lingo, wet nanotechnology and dry nanotechnology), in an effort to develop a new species of superior intelligence. I felt that the last decision that humans would make is whether our successors are carbon-based or silicon- based: \5\ the product of bio-engineering or of computer engineering.

Now I believe we are most likely to see combinations that will involve nature, computer engineering, and bio-engineering: humans with pharmaceutical intelligence boosters; DNA enhancements; computer-chip implants; or all three. First, this will be used to cure disease, then to enhance human capacity. The partially-human will precede the trans-human.

Now how should we react to all of this? It is important that we benefit from science even as we consider its more troubling implications. I chair the House Subcommittee on Nonproliferation which deals with the only other technologies that pose an existential threat to humankind, namely the proliferation of nuclear and biological weapons.

The history of nuclear technology is instructive. On August 2, 1939, Einstein sent Roosevelt a letter saying a nuclear weapon was possible; six years later, nuclear technology literally exploded onto the world scene. Only after society saw the negative effects of nuclear technology, did we see the prospects for nuclear power and nuclear medicine.

The future of engineered intelligence will be different. The undeniable benefits of computer and DNA research will arrive long before the problematic possibilities. Their introduction will be gradual, not explosive. And fortunately, we will have far more than six years to consider the implications--unless we choose to squander the next few decades. My fear is that our philosophers, ethicists and society at large, will ignore the issues that will inevitably present themselves until ..... they actually present themselves. And these issues require more than a few years of thought.\6\

I have been urged not to make this issue the centerpiece of my reelection campaign. One journalist has told me that he can guarantee that computers will not be self-aware or overly intelligent: ``All we have to do is get them elected to Congress.''

I am confident that if we plan ahead we can obtain the utility of supercomputers, and the medical treatments available from bio-engineering, without creating new levels of intelligence. We can then pause and decide whether we in fact wish to create a new intelligent species or two.

Finally, I would quote Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1913 when he said, ``I think it not improbable that man, like the grub that prepares a chamber for the winged thing it never has seen but is to be--that man may have cosmic destinies that he does not understand.'' \7\

Likewise, it is possible that within the next 30 or 40 years, our children--or should I say ``our successors''--will have less resemblance to us than a butterfly has to a caterpillar. I don't know whether to cry or rejoice, but I do know that our best minds in philosophy, science, ethics and even theology ought to be focused on this issue.


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