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Too Smart for Our Own Good

Will cognitive enhancement destroy the human race?

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Could using technology to enhance our cognitive functions make people too smart for our own good? The problem, as Oxford University philosophers Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson see it [PDF], is that enabling people to become smarter via drugs, implants, and other biological (or genetic) interventions will speed up scientific and technological progress which in turn will increase the ability of smart evil people to make and deploy novel weapons of mass destruction.

"We may not have yet reached the state in which a single satanic character could eradicate all life on Earth," they rather dramatically write, "but with cognitive enhancement by traditional means alone, we may soon be there." The only thing we have to fear is ourselves. 

"This growth of knowledge will be instrumentally bad for us on the whole, by unacceptably increasing the risk that we shall die soon," they argue. "It will be bad for us that scientific knowledge continues to grow by traditional means, and even worse if this growth is further accelerated by biomedical or genetic enhancement of our cognitive capacities." In other words, it's already bad that our species has become so smart, but speeding up technological progress poses an even greater existential threat to humanity. Specifically, they worry that making people smarter will enable the creation of things like ever cheaper nuclear bombs or more potent weaponized pathogens.

As Harvard University philosopher Elizabeth Fenton observes, "Although Persson and Savulescu stop short of concluding that we should stop pursuing scientific progress altogether, their argument suggests that this would be the prudent step to take." We're doomed unless we return to the era of bearskins and stone axes.

Savulescu and Persson however acknowledge, "Some may want to object that sufficient cognitive enhancement by itself will produce the moral enhancement required to avoid the misuses of science and technology we have indicated." They accept that traditional means, chiefly the formalization of science and education, have already cognitively enhanced humanity. They then make the claim, "It is obvious that moral enhancement by traditional, cultural means—i.e. by the transmission of moral instruction and knowledge from earlier to subsequent generations—has not been anything like as effective and quick as cognitive enhancement by these means." There is some good evidence for us to doubt their factual claim.

Let's take the long-term increase in income per capita in some areas of the world as a proxy for scientific and technological progress. Economist Angus Maddison has calculated [PDF] that in Western countries since the year 1,000 that incomes increased from $426 per capita to $25,399 in 2006, nearly a 60-fold increase. What happened to the rate of violence measured as homicides? According to British criminologist Manuel Eisner, murder rates have also steeply declined [PDF] since the Middle Ages. For example, murders fell from annual rate of 24 per 100,000 in England in 1300 to 0.6 per 100,000 today, a 40-fold decline.

Consider also that there is evidence that average human intelligence has been significantly enhanced in recent years. Specifically, University of Otago (New Zealand) political scientist James Flynn discovered that average IQs in 30 countries have been steeply rising in the 20th century. How steeply? Americans gained about 22 IQ points over the 70 years between 1932 and 2002. At about the same time, deaths from warfare around the world have been declining. The 2009-2010 Human Security Report notes that in the 1950s there was an average of six international conflicts being fought around the world each year; in the new millennium the average was less than one. Even more happily, the number of civilians killed by organized violence in 2008 was the lowest since data started being collected in 1989. At least so far, the evidence does not suggest that a general increase in overall intelligence (cognitive enhancement) leads ineluctably to greater violence.

In any case, Savulescu and Persson see one possible way out: moral enhancement. More research, they argue, should be directed toward to figuring out how to make people more altruistic and less aggressive. As examples of how research might enhance morality, they point to neurological findings that suggest that tweaking some brain chemicals like oxytocin and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors already promote trust and increase cooperation. Once developed, they argue that "safe, effective moral enhancement would be compulsory."

In the end, Savulesu and Persson impale themselves on the horns of a dilemma when they acknowledge that "we are in need of a rapid moral enhancement, but such an enhancement could only be effected if significant scientific advances be made." Rapid moral enhancement requires the exact same scientific progress that is allegedly leading us toward the possibility of ultimate destruction. That seems to me to be an argument for going full steam ahead.

Ronald Bailey is Reason magazine's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.