TCS Daily

The Age of Radical Enhancement

By Arnold Kling - October 20, 2005 12:00 AM

Editors note: This article is the second in a series. To see the Part 1 click here.


"In 1979, a friend offered [mathematician Paul] Erds $500 if he could kick his Benzedrine habit for just a month. Erds met the challenge, but his productivity plummeted so drastically that he decided to go back on the drug. After a 1987 Atlantic Monthly profile discussed his love affair with psychostimulants, the mathematician wrote the author a rueful note. 'You shouldn't have mentioned the stuff about Benzedrine,' he said. 'It's not that you got it wrong. It's just that I don't want kids who are thinking about going into mathematics to think that they have to take drugs to succeed.'"
--Joshua Foer, Slate magazine


Perhaps the last unenhanced human to make a significant contribution in the field of mathematics has already been born. In twenty years, the tenure track at top university mathematics departments may consist entirely of people who depend on drugs, direct neural-computer connections, genetic modification, or a combination of all three in order to achieve high-level performance.


Some people would argue that the leading edge of this phenomenon is athletes' use of steroids. I would caution, however, that athletics is atypical in that it is a zero-sum game, and we should not automatically adopt zero-sum bioethics.


Perhaps a better leading indicator is the use by students of Adderall, which is the topic of Foer's article, and which I had not heard of until recently. While it is prescribed only for students diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder, there are students who have never been diagnosed as having attention deficit who nonetheless claims that the drug improves their concentration. When I asked my college-age daughters if they knew many students who take the drug, they each responded, "Of course." One of them described a friend who used it during a 30-hour cram session for a test in organic chemistry. The friend did well on the test.


Kurzweil Would Disagree


This is the second in a series of essays influenced by Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity is Near. However, I suspect that Kurzweil would disagree with my forecast.


Kurzweil is optimistic about the prospects for strong artificial intelligence, meaning the ability of computers to match or exceed the capabilities of humans. Kurzweil would agree that humans will need help in order to remain state-of-the-art in fields like mathematics as we approach the middle of this century. However, he expects that intellectual leadership by then will be coming primarily from machines.


I remain somewhat skeptical about the prospects for strong artificial intelligence. On that topic, I think that one may still bet against Kurzweil, although not necessarily with confidence.


My sense is that Kurzweil basically thinks of the brain as disembodied. Although he frequently refers to our bodies, it is almost as an afterthought. In terms of an old mainframe computer, Kurzweil treats the body is if it were the punch-card reader, i.e., a rather quaint device for receiving input, but not nearly as significant as the Central Processing Unit.


Instead, after I read Jeff Hawkins (inventor of the Palm Pilot and author of On Intelligence), I became convinced that our bodies and our sensory experiences are an integral part of our intelligence. Kurzweil thinks of your brain as a computer programmed with a fancy pattern-recognition algorithm. Eventually, he predicts, scientists and engineers will "reverse engineer" this wonderful algorithm. On the other hand, I think that you have been exploring patterns ever since you played with your toes in the crib. It is this cumulative experience, rather than an algorithm, that constitutes your intelligence. The phrase "reverse engineer the brain" may sound plausible if one thinks of the brain as hardware plus software. But the phrase "reverse engineer your cumulative lifetime experience" may be more apt, and such wording carries with it no hint of plausibility.


Many Paths to Enhancement


I may be skeptical that computers can be enhanced to think like humans. But there are many paths by which humans can be enhanced in order to increase their cognitive powers.


Neural implants may be one path. Computers are getting smaller, and scientists are getting better at making direct connections between the human brain and inanimate devices. Cochlear implants are often cited as an example of the latter.


Today, if I want to look up information, I have to get to a computer, connect it to a web site, and type in a search phrase. In the future, perhaps I will have an implant in my ear that can handle communication between my brain and the Internet, so I will not need the computer or its keyboard. Alternatively, my implant will communicate with a sort of mega-iPod, small in size but large in storage capacity, that can access and process all sorts of data.


Genetic modification may be another path. Perhaps scientists can find a way to modify genes in enough of my brain cells to improve my memory or other cognitive skills. If not, then they are likely to develop the ability to enable parents to determine genetic characteristics of children. If nothing else, they will be able to give parents of babies fertilized in vitro the ability to select based on genetic characteristics. Already, the combination of fetal diagnostic technology and abortion poses, as a recent Washington Post op-ed pointed out, ethical issues concerning the decision of parents to terminate pregnancies on the basis of prospective birth defects.


This raises the issue of eugenics. Ron Bailey, author of Liberation Biology, suggests that while a government program to stamp out certain types of babies would be immoral, a personal decision to have only a certain type of baby is not a problem. The op-ed to which I referred in the preceding paragraph discusses an intermediate case, in which the individual is technically free to choose but faces strong social pressure to abort a baby known to have severe disabilities. I admit that I find this example quite disturbing.


Finally, medical technology companies will develop conventional drugs and nanomedicines that will enhance brain function. The initial driving factor will be the desire to cure Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and other brain diseases, but many therapies that prove effective in those contexts may also prove beneficial to people in good health.


I feel fortunate that my daughters did not say that they themselves use drugs to enhance concentration. I cannot articulate what makes me feel this way. Intellectually, I know that we are bound to see the day -- perhaps we are already there -- where a laboratory-developed stimulant is safer and more effective than caffeine. In that case, my prudishness will be hard to justify.


The Risk-Takers


Over the next twenty to forty years, these enhancement technologies are going to make their appearance. Early adopters of these inventions may achieve dramatic benefits while incurring significant risks. The long-term side-effects and unintended consequences will be necessarily uncertain.


I foresee two groups of risk-takers. One group will be people with "nothing to lose." Someone with rapidly-worsening Parkinson's or Alzheimer's will be willing to incur considerable risk to try a neural implant or nanomedicine that has chances of stemming or reversing the decline.


The other group will be people who are particularly adventurous or ambitious. They will embrace enhancements in the hope of enjoying greater pleasure or accomplishing remarkable achievements. Some of these bio-pioneers will experience suffering as a result of trying unproven technologies. The luckier ones will demonstrate the safety and efficacy of enhancements that the rest of us will adopt soon afterward.


My guess would be that eventually this turmoil will "settle down" in the sense that we will obtain enough knowledge to manage the enhancement process without having individuals incur large risks. The era of trial-and-error will give way to an era where the consequences of bio-engineering become more predictable. At that point, what I am calling the Age of Radical Enhancement will be over.


Arnold Kling is author of Learning Economics.


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