Cognitive enhancement and a new social contract

Many serious people are projecting that within ten to fifteen years we’ll be able to start on a significant program of cognitive enhancement. To craft drugs, hormone cocktails, neurointerfaces, and neuroprotheses that will significantly make their users smarter and more capable, initially to a degree perhaps comparable to the invention of literacy or science, but soon far outstripping any previous transition in the history of the human mind.

If we grant that this is possible, the only real debate is when. 10 years? 15? 50? 100? The gears of capitalism and human nature ensure that it’ll come, sooner or later. And I think the only way this won’t end in certain disaster is to develop, formalize, and enforce a new social contract regarding human enhancement.

My suggestion? If you want to use biotechnology to make yourself smarter, you also have to use it to make yourself nicer.

If we don’t make this the accepted contract, I fear we’ll ping-pong between two unpalatable scenarios: either open things up to an enhancement free-for-all (and there’s likely a strong correlation between people who most want to be cognitively enhanced and people for whom it’s not in society’s best interests to grant a competitive advantage), or criminalize enhancement (and if we outlaw enhancement, only outlaws will be enhanced).

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4 thoughts on “Cognitive enhancement and a new social contract

  1. Three questions for you, Mike:

    * Do you dare to get explicit about what you actually fear would happen?

    * What do you mean by "nicer"?

    * Who decides whether you are "nicer," or in other words, who licenses and controls the technology to make yourself smarter?

    Aren't you basically just saying that the government had better be in control of this technology, and this should not actually be driven by the free market?

  2. Larry,

    Tough questions.
    1. I think with unregulated cognitive enhancement we get into a runaway feedback loop of smarter and more naked self-interest that increasingly frays the existing social contract. More greed, more terrorism, fewer commonalities. The existing social contract sorta hangs together now because everybody's fundamentally pretty much the same.

    2. Kinder; more altruistic; more empathetic. Less likely to be cruel.

    3. I think we need to draw from the neural correlates of 'niceness'. Oxytocin, mirror neurons, the neuroscience of empathy and tribalism, how normal people differ from psychopaths.

    4. Yes and no– I don't particularly trust the government to benevolently and competently control the application of this technology. My idea would involve some legal regulation, but it would be in service of setting up a new social norm regarding what a 'proper' enhancement procedure involves.

  3. Interesting point. One tough question to answer will be what to do with nations who don’t put controls on enhacenements – you would think people would go to those places to utilize their economy in the field and escape regulation. Perhaps tests can be devised for some enhancements like anabolic steroids are testable now, but that opens up a whole other can of worms.

    But it’s an interesting thought, yeah. Some potential enhancements are double-edged: higher testosterone, for instance, will let you build muscle and heal faster, but has a chance to increase your assertiveness and aggression levels. So there’s definitely something worth thinking about getting enhancements done right.

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