Re: Risk, Reward, and Human Enhancement

From: Daniel Burfoot (
Date: Wed Jan 02 2008 - 21:37:57 MST

On Dec 6, 2007 1:54 AM, Byrne Hobart <>

> Consider a new intelligence enhancement drug that, in clinical trials, has
> been shown to reduce IQ by 5 points 90% of the time, and raise it by 10
> points 10% of the time (and can be repeated indefinitely). For an
> individual, this is a pretty bad deal -- but get a group of 10,000 devoted
> singularitarians, have each one take the treatment, and then repeat it for
> the ones who get enhanced, and you'll end up with one person with an IQ 50
> points higher. And one ridiculously smart individual may make enough of a
> contribution to outweigh making 9,000 willing volunteers marginally dumber.

I think this is an interesting line of thinking, but I'm not sure this
thought experiment is the best way to formulate the scenario. As others
pointed out, it's not clear if boosting one single person's IQ while
lowering everyone else's is a worthwhile trade. Here's a different way of
asking the question:

Suppose the Pharma companies come up with a bunch of new supposedly
mind-enhancing drugs. In clinical trials, the drugs *seem* to boost IQ (or
other measures of mental performance such as attention) significantly in
test subjects. But the trials only last a year, and only include a couple
thousand people, and there are some weird statistically insignificant
reports of side effects such as bad dreams, hallucinations, etc.

So clearly there are some risks involved. Maybe you will get smart for a
couple months, only to go insane afterwards. Maybe you will really get
smart, but will totally lose your motivation to do anything productive.
Maybe the drugs only work to cure deficiencies, and so can only help people
who have those deficiencies to begin with.

While any *single* drug seems too risky to be worth it, I'm strongly
inclined to believe that *some* drug in the huge drug-design space would
improve IQ (or some general mental performance measure). Evolution probably
gave us a good neurochemical stew to soak our brains in, but it seems
unlikely that it gave us the best possible stew, especially considering that
the mental tasks we're interested in doing in the modern world are very
different from the tasks we had to do in the stone age.

The question for transhumanists then is: do we start taking the drugs?
Ultimately the only way to discover if the drugs work for real people in the
real world is for lots of people to use them. It seems likely that many of
the early adopters of most of the drugs will hit some nasty side effects.
But reporting and documenting those side effects will make it possible for
everyone else to avoid them. And, maybe, after lots of trial and error we'll
find the Right Stuff Drugs (tm) that really, really make humans smarter with
negligible side effects. That's a big prize, if we can grab it.

This question is becoming quite relevant and widely discussed. People are
starting to take these mind enhancement drugs, though usually in secret. See
the comments by Philip Campbell, editor-in-chief of Nature, here:


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