Search for human essence 'a 2,000-year myth'


ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE:WE ALL cling to the notion we possess a unique “self”, but new technologies including gene analysis and artificial intelligence are slowly chipping away at our uniqueness.

The differences between humans and our nearest relatives, the great apes, may be no more than a small collection of genes. And increasingly we are measuring our supposedly human mental capabilities against those running on the nearest computer, a session at the EuroScience Open Forum in Dublin heard yesterday titled: “I human: are new scientific discoveries challenging our identity as a species?”

“We are actually beginning to identify the genes that make a human,” said Dr Armand Leroi of Imperial College London. “This was the final demolition,” as genomic research revealed the genetic similarities and differences. “ The search for an essence is a 2,000-year-old myth. What we are left with is a sense of capacity and the role of genes in the way they give us these things,” he said.

This analysis will change the boundaries of what it is to be human. The technology will also allow us to approach a form of eugenics based on what is found in any DNA analysis. The cost of doing a complete genetic map of a person has fallen from $1 billion 12 years ago to about $4,000, Dr Leroi said.

While a person might not benefit from looking at their own DNA if they are well, it becomes a different matter if the person decides to find a partner and have children. The goal would be to avoid passing on recessive genes, for example for cystic fibrosis, and embryo pre-selection would help accomplish this, he said.

“I am certain genome sequencing will be available on the NHS [UK health service] within our lifetimes. It is going to be very, very accessible very, very soon,” he said.

Panellist Brian Christian from the US described how since the time of the Greek philosophers humans have drawn comparisons of our capabilities against those of animals, but this changed from the advent of computers.

Now we are much more likely to measure ourselves against machines.