Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Increasing Your Stats

In my last post, I mentioned show how when creating a Dungeons and Dragons character, you have the ability to choose your character's strength, intelligence, dexterity, and so on. Unfortunately, it isn't that easy in real life - but that might be changing thanks to new technology. In a series of articles in Slate magazine (,
The author discusses how new technologies and medical developments are enabling people to improve
human performance in a variety of areas. If you are interested, you should read the articles, I don't want to just repeat
them here. The article that was my favorite was "Spark of Genius", especially the link to the YouTube video and
the thing about the effect being reversed if you switch the positions of the electrodes. My general comments about
all of these ideas for human enhancement are as follows:

- Just to get this out of the way, I don't have any plans to try any of these on myself, so don't worry.
- Yes, some of these procedures may have long-term negative health effects. But there's lots of stuff we do that we
KNOW has long-term negative health effects (junk food, cigarettes) and there are no calls to outlaw those. So why
are there calls to outlaw human enhancement on that basis?
- A common argument against human enhancement compares it to the use of steroids in sports. But there is a very
important difference. Let's take, say, sprinting as an example. If by taking steroids I can run 5 percent faster, then
that is a huge advantage. If everyone takes steroids our relative ranking is the same, and it's not really significantly
more exciting to viewers, so nobody really benefits. If, in contrast, I can take some sort of cognitive enhancement drug to make myself do 
5 percent better in a test, and everyone does that, then yes, it's true that relative ranking doesn't change, BUT
now everyone learns 5 percent more, which is good. And considering the hundreds of billions of dollars we spend
each year in education, anything that improves learning even by a few percent could have huge economic benefits.
And, if the problem is that the drug makes you do better on the tests but doesn't improve actual learning, then that
is evidence that the tests don't measure actual learning, so a better approach would be to improve the tests rather
than blame the cognitive enhancement drug.)
- Another common argument against human enhancement is that it will increase inequality, because the poor won't
be able to afford it. However this argument seems seriously flawed to me:

--- 1. It is easy to come up with scenarios where enhancement helps the poor, rather than hurts it, even if only
the rich have access. For instance, let's say there are two classes of jobs, skilled and unskilled, and enhancement
moves some people from the unskilled to the skilled labor category. That increases the supply of skilled labor
relative to unskilled labor, and thus reduces the wage premium for skilled labor. Thus this could increase wages
even in the unskilled labor sector. Or let's say that scientists use cognitive enhancement on themselves, and that
makes them smart enough to invent a cure for cancer, then that will obviously benefit everyone, both rich and poor.

--- 2. There are lots of things that improve life outcomes that are more accessible to the rich than the poor
(good schools, access to educational resources, good role models, etc.). It would be silly to say that those should
be banned in the name of equality; rather, it makes sense to try to improve access so that the poor can have them too.
The same thing could be done with cognitive enhancement, if it works. And the problem of cheaply manufacturing
and distributing small electronic devices or synthesized chemical compounds (whichever enhancement method we
would want to use) is MUCH better understood than the other educational and social problems I mentioned.

(Of course, all of the above analysis assumes that the enhancement methods work long-term. That is still somewhat
speculative at this point, and if it doesn't work, then, well, it doesn't work, so no reason to use them.)


Dan Mont said...

I think that if enhancements were costly it would only lead to more inequality and potential social tensions

Nanette Goodman said...

This is a really interesting issue. Is it "cheating" to take adderall? What's the real difference between "restoring function" and "enhancing function." Hmmm. I'm conflicted about how we as a nation should progress but I agree with the conclusion "Don't try this at home."