Augmenting Animals – a Smart Idea?

By March 15, 2017 No Comments

A lot of the talk around technological augmentation centers around us as humans. After all, it’s called transhumanism for a reason. But that doesn’t mean that human beings are the only candidates for technological modification and augmentation.

What if we could make our animals live longer or be smarter? What if we could create enhanced service animals? There are many possibilities once we accept that other animal (and plant!) species could be augmented to be more than they currently are. But how could we do it and should we do it? Let’s talk this through.

Nothing New Under the Sun

Modern humans have been around as a species for about one hundred to two hundred thousand years. We’re notable for our intelligence, tool-making ability, and social cooperation. However, compared to other animals we’re pretty poorly-specified.

We don’t have much in the way of natural weapons. Our teeth and nails don’t compare to the fangs and claws of predators. Our muscles are, pound for pound, much weaker than those of even our primate cousins.

When our species was in its infancy, humans may have made easy meals for big cats such as sabertooths.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that we soon turned toward animals as yet another tool or resource we could use to improve our chances of survival.


A Dog Eat Dog World

It’s not like humans have never messed with the animals they live alongside in order to benefit themselves. Every dog alive today, from fearsome Rottweilers to adorable pint-sized breeds, all descend from wild wolves – wolves that we as humans selectively bred to be our companions and helpers. This selective breeding started long before written history, but the point is that we modified and augmented wild animals to adopt a symbiotic relationship with us.

It’s not just dogs, either. All domesticated animals are at one or another stage of selective breeding to make them more useful to us. Plants are no different. The corn and bananas that we eat today bear little resemblance to their nearly-inedible wild ancestors.

So despite some of the moral hand-wringing about modern technologies used to modify natural life to human needs, humanity itself would probably not be nearly as successful without the aid of our animals. Before steam power and the industrial revolution, it was animal power that provided the means to kickstart agriculture and help us built settlements. It was animals that allowed us to find and hunt prey, the meat of which drove our species to where it is today. Animals are as essential to our future as they have been in our past.

Why Not Machines?

A fair question to ask is why we still need to use animals in our service when we now have machines that can do these jobs. The fact is that even our most sophisticated robot and our most advanced artificial intelligence systems pale in comparison to the abilities of a trained dog. Sure, machines can do things that no animal, humans included, can ever do, but building a machine that could equal the intelligence or versatility of an animal will be beyond us for quite some time yet. In fact, as a technological challenge, it may be much easier to raise the already smart animals we know to human-level intelligence than to build such an intelligence from scratch.

Modern Super Animals

We already have some incredible applications of animal intelligence and physical ability in the modern world. For example, military dolphins are totally a thing; not just some strange waste of government money. The military marine mammal program has yielded fantastic results and probably saved more lives than we know. These trained dolphins perform all sorts of advanced military activities. They can find underwater mines and tag enemy swimmers, among other things. The navy also uses sea lions alongside dolphins to round out their non-human soldiers.

The biological sonar that dolphins are born with is still far superior to any current, man-made system.

Gambian pouch rats are used as superior and cost-effective mine detectors. These “Hero Rats” are trained to help de-miners find and safely remove landmines. In general, the pouch rat is 20 times faster at mine detection than a human armed with a metal detector.

We’ve even taken to using the detection abilities of bees to find chemicals at a sensitivity level that our equipment simply can’t match.

The list goes on an on. Not only have animal designs from nature been an inspiration for much of our technology, animals themselves have been and continue to be a critical and valuable resource. So what can we do to augment animals, and why?

How Old Can an Old Dog Get?

One of the first areas where animals could be augmented is in terms of lifespan. Life extension is already an area of major interest in humans and, of course, almost all the current research is being done with animal models. Extending the useful life span of animals is just a sensible thing to do. Training animals is something that costs a lot of money and takes a long time. Every time a trained animal passes away, you need to go through the whole arduous process of training them again.

The same speculative therapies that humans will likely use to stay young and live longer will probably be applied to animals as well. At the very least there may be a market for dogs and cats that live longer, if only to avoid the reality of outliving beloved pets. Also, think of service animals that serve to help the disabled or in places like the military – if they were long-lived it would provide multiple benefits.

Animals Can Also be People

Intelligence is another key area where the animal augmentation debate is focused. It has a lot of the same moral and ethical issues as the AI debate, with the difference being in how immediate the problem is. Even without the potential to augment the brains of non-human creatures, we already have a problem with animals who are naturally close to human intelligence.

Futurist and transhumanist George Dvorsky heads up the IEET or Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.

That organization is a key driver in the argument that several animals should qualify for the status of personhood and enjoy all the rights that are conferred by that status. The animals in question include many species of cetaceans; that would be whales and dolphins. The conferred status could apply to elephants and, of course, some of our close primate cousins such as the chimpanzee. The philosophical wrangling around this can be mind-bending and it leads to all sorts of dilemmas as to how we treat or use certain animals.

The details of these arguments are fascinating, but there’s no space to go into them here. The point is that even the near-human intelligence level of animals is giving us all sorts of headaches, so the idea of creating more animals that fall in this category has a lot of pitfalls. Not to mention the idea of giving animals intelligence superior to current human intelligence!

Real World Augmentation

While most of what I’ve said so far may seem terribly speculative, there’s been at least one significant breakthrough with with intelligence improvements in animals. Obviously, since we are researching how to augment our own brains, there will inevitably be testing on animal models. Brain implants, which I discuss in another article on this site have been tested in animals from the start. For example, before trying to allow a paralyzed human to control a robot arm with her brain, we first tried it with a monkey, which was then able to feed itself by direct mind-control on a robotic system.

Robert Hampson and his team succeeded in both restoring and then improving the cognitive functions of monkeys with experimental neuro-prostheses. The system stimulated certain clusters of neurons associated with problem solving at the right time, and the results clearly show the animals performing better with the implant than without it.

Lab Rat

Building Better Brains

While I go into more detail in my brain augmentation article, I think it’s worth mentioning here some of the ways in which animals will be augmented. Obviously, what counts for humans will also count for animals, but the degree of complexity in animal augmentation may in fact be even more challenging. Part of the problem is that although all mammals share the same basic brain plan, there are still significant and unique differences in each species. When we get to non-mammalian animals such as the highly-intelligent corvids (e.g. crows), we’re really in less-charted waters.

In other words, although the same general technologies will play a part in animal augmentation, they may play out very differently. So let’s look at how augmentation is, and one day may be, used with animals.

Prosthetic Limbs

Not many animal owners will go to the expense of fitting an animal with prosthetic limbs, but the rise of cheap custom manufacturing through technologies such as 3D printing means we are now seeing more pets with custom limbs.

Powered prostheses are another thing entirely and, as far as I can tell, are not yet a thing when it comes to animals. However, we’ve already seen animals use powered limbs through brain interfaces.

If we’re going to make animals as smart as we are, it also makes sense to give them access to limbs that can do the sort of dexterous work a human can do; not necessarily as permanent attachments, but perhaps as controllable robot platforms.

Chimera of Old

There’s also the possibility of making new animals out of the ones we already know. Gene editing and splicing will be a key component in the quest to augment our animal roommates here on earth. One of the most controversial ideas is to take genes from humans and splice them into animals. For example, growing pigs that have human organs for transplantation is a very desirable achievement. People are living longer and longer, which means that the supply of organs is drying up.

Scientist have pushed the envelope in the face of harsh resistance from a squeamish public and recently have managed to incubate human-pig hybrid embryos up to four weeks before termination.

Part of making animals more intelligent than they are could involve splicing brain development genes from other species, even us, into their genome.

AI Animals

Just as with humans, we could be augmenting animal brains with computer implants called “exobrains” (LINK) or external brains. This means the animal will be a hybrid of a biological animal and an AI. The machine intelligence could live inside the body of the animal or be partly in the cloud, connected to the animal’s biological brain through a wireless brain-computer interface.

Friends of Humanity

There’s a pretty interesting moral argument that if we have the ability to uplift animal intelligence then we should do it. Of course, there are people who subscribe to the idea that natural equals good, or to specific religious ideas that prohibit this sort of experimentation. But the sheer usefulness of highly intelligent animals will likely win over in the end.

More importantly, we humans have, so far as we know, the only advanced intelligence around. The chances that we’ll meet other intelligent species is pretty small, given the size of the universe and the known limitations on travel speeds. Imagine a world with non-human intelligence contributing to art, science, and society. This diversity could be one of the key factors that pushes life on Earth into the universe as an intelligent force to be reckoned with.