Intelligence Augmentation

The Atlantic has a very interesting article, Get Smarter, in their July/August 2009 Edition.

The premise of the article is that services such as Google are not, as some have argued, making us dumber or lazier, but in fact are making us smarter because they serve as knowledge repositories above and beyond those that we can naturally contain in our brains.

The nascent jargon of the field describes this as “ intelligence augmentation.” I prefer to think of it as “You+.”

The incredible rate of information increase and availability has set us down a road which, for better or for worse, we must continue.

In any case, there’s no going back. The information sea isn’t going to dry up, and relying on cognitive habits evolved and perfected in an era of limited information flow—and limited information access—is futile. Strengthening our fluid intelligence is the only viable approach to navigating the age of constant connectivity.

Among the difficult questions the author poses, perhaps the most difficult involves the use of cognition enhancing drugs, in particular, modafinil.  This drug is typically used to treat jet lag, but has been proven to provide “a measurable cognitive-enhancement effect across a variety of mental tasks, including pattern recognition and spatial planning, and sharpens focus and alertness.”  In essence, this pill will make you smarter.

It’s available from a prescription from a doctor, which is probably trivially to procure these days.  So, this begs the question:

Would you take a pill to make you smarter?

In essence, this is much like the steroids debate – these are pharmaceuticals that enhance human potential beyond what it is, and perhaps what it naturally could be.  While there may be drawbacks or side effects, there are also benefits, regardless of what your decision would be.  If others (particularly those you are competing against, either for jobs or in a physical or athletic competition) are taking these substances, should you?  Would you?  Or would you try to compensate by working harder, smarter or better?  What happens when these pills increase abilities beyond what hard work can make up?  Do you take it?

As far as modnafinil is concerned,

The Silicon Valley insider webzine Tech Crunch reported in July 2008 that some entrepreneurs now see modafinil as an important competitive tool. The tone of the piece was judgmental, but the implication was clear: everybody’s doing it, and if you’re not, you’re probably falling behind.

What will you do?


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