A biological singularity?

John Clark (jonkc@worldnet.att.net)
Sun, 20 Sep 1998 23:15:30 -0400

Hash: SHA1

We all seem to agree that in a million years nearly everything would be so radically different that the world would be incomprehensible to us, the question is whether this transition could happen in a time that was short by human standards. I think a breakthrough in Nanotechnology alone could bring about such a singularity in days perhaps hours, but I know Robin disagrees with me and I'm not in the mood to rehash that argument. Eliezer has made a very strong case that an AI could also quickly change the world beyond recognition. I can't prove either of these ideas with mathematical precision but I'm pretty sure both are true. I'm a little less certain that a Quantum Computer could ever be built, but if it could the world would never be the same. Maybe biology could radically transform things too, not in days but perhaps in 20 years or less.

The genetic code was discovered 40 years ago but recently evidence has been found that a much higher genetic language must also exist. Walter Gehring of the University of Basel in Switzerland found a gene that's crucial for the development of eyes in mice, he put that mouse gene into the leg of a fly embryo. When it became an adult the fly had a normal sized perfectly formed eye on its leg. The really amazing thing is that it was a perfectly normal compound fruit fry eye, not a vastly different mouse type eye, even though it was a mouse gene. This gene must be a sentence in a language much more abstract than the genetic code and it must say "build an eye here", but it doesn't bother to say exactly how to build it. It can't deal with the billions of different reactions in protein synthesis that must occur, it can't even worry about gross anatomy, it just says "build an eye here" and leaves the details to other parts of the cell mechanism. It's amazing that organisms as different as a fly and a mouse, who's last common ancestor lived 500 million years ago, nevertheless use the same high level language. The much lower level genetic code is also universal, I guess when nature establishes a standard it finds it almost impossible to change.

I started thinking about Gehring's experiment when I read an article in the September 4 1998 issue of Science about chimpanzees, a Primate Genome project has been started and should prove interesting because genetically a chimp is closer to a human than it is to a gorilla. Only 1.5% of the human genome is different from that of a chimp, and most of that is just DNA, only about .5% of the active genes are different. This would also explain how evolution was able to evolve fully modern humans from our ape like ancestors so rapidly.

These genes are few in number but they're what makes us human, and they must be written in the same abstract high level language that Gehring found. If we understood that language then genetic engineering would be easy, if we want a bigger brain no need to painstakingly specify where every neuron should go, just write "make bigger brain" and let the skills all cells already possess handle the construction details. Ok, we might have to worry about a few details, like increasing the blood flow to the head for the larger brain, but then again maybe not, after all if the language is powerful enough to put an eye in a knee with just one command.

Of course we don't know this language, we will someday but if we only learn it a little at a time it can't produce a singularity, however I think there are reasons to suspect that once we start to learn it we'll learn all of it in a hurry. The language has not changed in half a billion years so life could have not have endlessly modified it into an ugly spaghetti code, and if all multicellular animals use it that may mean it has a unifying logic, a logic that evolution can use to get at traits and enhance the beneficial ones without causing too many side effects from interrelations that are so complex they'd seem virtually random.

Once we understand that logic we may have a eureka moment and suddenly go from total confusion to complete enlightenment, it has happened before. When people were working on the structure of DNA some worried that when it was found it would turn out to be dull, that is, it would be so complicated that it would tell us nothing about how life worked. Their fears were unfounded, the structure proved to be both simple and beautiful, and it immediately enabled everyone to understood how life encoded information on the lowest level. It's not impossible that the same thing could happen in our understanding of higher level organization, such knowledge might not be much more complex than the genetic code, but it would certainly be vastly more powerful and would change the world beyond recognition.

I admit it's a little odd that there are 4 completely different paths that might lead toward a singularity, but that's the way I see it. I'm absolutely certain everything I've said it true, perhaps I'm even correct too, time will tell.

John K Clark jonkc@att.net

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