Society / Technology

Creating a Smarter Human

People playing chess

courtesy flickr/dbking

We’ve all wished for a little more brain power at some point.  Maybe it was while trying to make sense of credit default swaps, or wrestling with an especially intractable Sudoku puzzle.  Well, what if someone offered you a machine that could boost your cognitive capacity without effort?  Would you use it?  Would you want others to be able to use it, too?

Thinking Caps A Reality?

These questions are not purely hypothetical.  Scientific American reported on an electrical “thinking cap” last year.  The idea is laughably simple.  Pilots tried to learn a complex task, while electrodes on their scalps provided a mild electric current to their brains.  The results, however, were no laughing matter: average training time was cut in half, brain waves were stronger, and nerve bundles in the brain were more robust and organized 5 days after the experiment.

A few caveats, as usual: These studies are new, so confirmatory evidence is thin.  And it’s not clear yet if there are any side effects, harmful or otherwise.  Finally, I use words like “intelligence” and “smart” at my own peril, because these terms mean different things in different contexts.

Even so, there’s more than one way to enhance your brain.

Fluid Intelligence Can (and Does) Improve

Some measures of intelligence in the general population have been steadily rising for 100 years, a phenomenon called the Flynn effect.  It’s mostly seen in an area they call fluid intelligence, the ability to solve problems, be creative and so on.  It’s thought to be caused by a variety of factors including the removal of lead from our environment, better access to nutrition, and educational improvements.  So one way to be “smarter” is to be born into a later generation.

But it’s even been shown that certain cognitive training exercises can improve fluid intelligence in an individual.  Maybe I should retract my mockery of that Nintendo game!  Here’s the National Academy of Sciences write-up with a summary of the research.

So, thinking cap or no, it’s clear that intelligence is not a strictly fixed quantity, neither in our species as a whole nor in each of us as individuals.

Rodin's The Thinker

courtesy flickr/BHillegas

Super Intelligent Humans

Suppose the thinking cap does work, or that we can give ourselves a meaningful cognitive boost in some other way.  If it were up to you, would you unleash this technology upon the world?

Let me suggest 3 lenses by which to view it.

1. Will it be worth anything?  You could argue that using shortcuts to learn something actually makes the learning less valuable.  I’d even go so far as to say that the value of any success is directly proportional to the amount of effort put into it.  It’s the same reason we scoff at Olympic athletes who use steroids.

Then again, we’re not talking about zero-sum competitions here.  Improving someone’s learning power would vastly increase their potential, without harming anyone else.  Why hold them back?

2. Is it moral?  Some might argue that any artificial enhancements to our mental powers are deviations from what is natural, and therefore bad.  My response to such worries is usually that humans, and our intellects, are as much a part of the world as anything else, so the distinction between “natural” and “unnatural” is arbitrary.

I’m more troubled by a different moral question, which is whether everyone will have access to this technology.  If it were only accessible to certain people – say, wealthy people, or industrialized nations – it would create a stark inequality.  It’s bad enough that we have such a disparity of incomes, health care, nutrition and educational opportunities in the US and around the world.  But intelligence is such a foundational trait!  It’s part of what makes us human, and has cascading effects on our ability to succeed at just about everything.  An “intelligence gap,” if it comes to that, could engender lots of other inequalities, creating a vicious, self-reinforcing cycle.

A brain

courtesy wikipedia

3. What are the long-term effects?  This may be the hardest one to answer.  I’m inclined to be cynical: people are likely to use their newfound mental powers to despoil the planet faster and kill one another.  Then again, maybe we’d be smart enough to find better solutions to our problems.

But the extreme optimist will point out that a widespread, significant intelligence boost could provide civilizational lift.  If we use our improved intelligence to improve our own intelligence even further… well, the sky’s the limit to what we could accomplish, or the problems we could solve.  It would be a singularity, not a technological one but a human one.  Hard to imagine, but powerful and transformational.

Beyond Intelligence

That last idea does sound appealing, I admit.  But when it comes down to it, it seems like what we really need is not so much an intelligence boost as a wisdom boost.  I’m sorry to say I haven’t seen anyone working on such a technology – but you can bet you’ll hear about it here first.

What do you think?  Are super-smart humans in our future?  If you could double your brainpower, would the world be a better place?

Further reading
Jason Carr wrestling with the superintelligence problem
A short essay on human intelligence and Vernor Vinge

Speak your mind in the box below.  And get your friends to join the conversation using the handy sharing buttons.


5 thoughts on “Creating a Smarter Human

  1. This brings up a number of questions (most of which are at this point unanswerable). For example would this increase gaps between social classes or decrease them in society with a capaitalist economy. In one embodiment, those already better off might better afford a “brain boost”, giving them greater advantage still. In another scenario, those in a less privilaged circumstance might use such technology to help mitigate having fewer resources and less advantageous positioning.

    • Great point Brad. I’ve often wondered this myself..if the privileged will get first shot at all of these wonderful advances while the less fortunate will be used as “guinea pigs” as bugs are worked out. To get our answer we don’t have to look very far. Consider the upcoming suborbital spaceflights aboard Virgin Galactic. Those seats are going at something like $200k each. I realize it’s not quite the same but the reality is that you’re most likely correct. The societal gaps will likely widen as we become an increasingly advanced species.

    • Good thoughts. I’m inclined to agree with Jason… based on past experience, I assume wealthy people will have first (and possibly the only) access to such advances.

      However, I’m very intrigued by Brad’s suggestion that we could use technology the other way ’round, to level the playing field for everyone. I wonder how that might work…

  2. This is the new form evolution will be taking. I was just watching a NOVA special “Becoming Human” the other night, and one expert explained how human evolution is becoming less and less physical, and more and more mental. We’re more and more likely to respond to an environmental crisis with technology and ideas than by dying off until someone is born with a mutation that can withstand it. So that’s exciting.

    But, yeah, I’m with Scott and Brad in worry about the effect this will have on opportunity disparity. Along with gene therapy, these thinking caps could drive a huge wedge in the already huge equity gap around the world. This is stuff that social justice advocates have never had to grapple with before.

    • I like that concept, that we’re moving on from cold, efficient natural selection to an evolution that’s within our own control. Of course, as you rightly note, this power comes with an enormous responsibility. Namely, to ensure that it’s used wisely, and not at the expense of other people (or species). I think social justice advocates will be more necessary than ever in this new era!

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