Boosting brainpower

Thursday, 14 May, 2009

The practical and ethical issues with intelligence enhancement are receiving more attention, with a recent article in New Scientist titled “Will designer brains divide humanity“.

For the most part, the article is quite basic, but I have an issue with one part in particular:

The next stage of brainpower enhancement could be technological – through genetic engineering or brain prostheses. Because the gene variants pivotal to intellectual brilliance have yet to be discovered, boosting brainpower by altering genes may still be some way off, or even impossible. Prostheses are much closer, especially as the technology for wiring brains into computers is already being tested.

This is none other than cybernetic favoritism! I mean sure, genes effecting intelligence aren’t obvious, but it’s also not obvious how and where to interface a brain chip to increase intelligence. And though neural prostheses are being tested, no neural prosthesis has increased any aspect of intelligence in any brain, whereas there have been 33 genetic alterations that increase the learning and memory of mice (not to mention that all the differences in intelligence between animals are genetic in origin). Considering the annoyance of having surgery for neural implants compared to the ease of a simple injection for genetic modification, I would personally put my money on the genetic enhancement of intelligence. Nonetheless, both avenues should be pursued, and might eventually complement one another.

Onto the ethical issues discussed in the article, most are fairly basic. Starting with human dignity, referring to comments made by Dietrich Birnbacher, a philosopher at the University of Düsseldorf in Germany:

One potential problem arises from altering what we consider to be “normal”: the dangers are similar to the social pressure to conform to idealised forms of beauty, physique or sporting ability that we see today. People without enhancement could come to see themselves as failures, have lower self-esteem or even be discriminated against by those whose brains have been enhanced, Birnbacher says.

These concerns are all quite valid, but aren’t necessarily impossible barriers. If enhancement technology was supported by the government, then no people wanting such technology would be left without it. And the discrimination I will deal with in a minute, after looking at the next section:

The perception that some people are giving themselves an unfair advantage over everyone else by “enhancing” their brains would be socially divisive, says John Dupré at the University of Exeter, UK. “Anyone can read to their kids or play them music, but put a piece of software in their heads, and that’s seen as unfair,” he says. As Dupré sees it, the possibility of two completely different human species eventually developing is “a legitimate worry”.

I do actually worry about enhancement being socially divisive, but I am not sure this would occur only by discrimination of the enhanced towards the un-enhanced. As I have argued previously, it’s entirely possible that the enhanced will be viewed as unnatural disgraces to humanity, and the pure, natural humans would discriminate against them because of it.

The rest of the article deals with issues such as brain plasticity, evolution and epigenetics. These are not particularly relevant to any ethical concerns and neither will they significantly enhance the intelligence of the average reader of this blog, so I’m not going to address them here.



  1. I think the other sort of discrimination you worry about is not so much of a concern, as we will crush them under our steely robotic boots.

    • I think the other sort of discrimination you worry about is not so much of a concern, as we will crush them under our steely robotic boots.

      You have a bit of a point, but I think that there will be a significant period of time between when enhancement technologies become available and when those enhancement technologies render the user nearly invulnerable. I figure angry ‘normal’ humans with guns will still be a danger during that period.

  2. I have a hard time buying the unfair advantage arguments seeing as how we already have that. People today who were lucky enough to be born with the right genes (or rich) have an advantage over the rest of us. If anything intelligence enhancements will help to level the playing field.

    P.S. Cybernetic favoritism might be a little unfair. Besides, don’t be mad just because your squishy animal cells can’t compete with glorious technology. ;)

  3. Keep the posts on brain power continuing. I found it real beneficial, especially when I think about the mind power that can be generated through mere thoughts. This sounds very much like the secret.

  4. If intelligence or cell-type (human-engineered & possibly nano-technological v. naturally occurring through the usual processes of breeding) were in some combination the whole story, greater concern about fairness in re: advantage would be more reasonable. Other factors are the emotions and beliefs of the enhanced, as well as intangibles such as soul and/or religious conviction. Furthermore, the manufacturers of enhancements may build in “governors” reducing the degree of freedom the enhanced may experience in the use of their human-engineered abilities or parts. It strikes one as clear that multiple factors require attention for arguments to have essentiality beyond real-world pragmatic value. $.02

    Soyez sage,


  5. All along reading it I though unenhanced people will discriminate de stupid fool that got intelligence surgery, like you say in the end. We’ll keep it pure natural dumb real!!

    And more…I think those so clever human are going to be really really annoying! And so depressed also….figuring out how much crap they are in real, you must be dumb to make brain enhancement, sorry I’m a bit discriminative here :)

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