The perfect cognition enhancer

Nicholas D. Kristof reveals a plan to massively boost intelligence worldwide using a chemical additive.The additive is iodized salt. About 2 billion people worldwide suffer insufficient iodine intake, making it the most common cause of preventable mental impairment worldwide. About 18 million people are mentally impaired each year due to deficiency. Iodized salt is a very cheap way to improve their condition, and the micronutrient initiative is now sponsoring iodization together with partners like UNICEF and the World Food Programme. Is this just restoring people to health, or are we enhancing them?

This is the kind of cognition enhancement nobody objects to. Most people would argue that it merely prevents an aberration of normal development, making people healthier than better. Yet it seems likely that in our historical past iodine deficiency has always been with us. People in inland areas would have suffered, and even when overt problems like goitre or retardation did not occur it is likely that deficiency prevented much of the population from reaching their full potential, generation after generation.

This is very similar to the "double reversal test" thought experiment in Nick Bostrom and Toby Ord’s paper "The Reversal Test: Eliminating Status Quo Bias in Applied Ethics". Imagine that a disaster has occurred and a pollutant has contaminated the drinking water; it will reduce the intelligence of everybody by 5 points. Fortunately there is a gene therapy that increases it by 5 points. Should people be given the therapy to counteract the disaster? Very few would say no to that, and even to people negative to enhancement the therapy seems to fit into the idea of a normalizing treatment. A few years later the contamination has been removed. Since people will now become smarter than they were before the disaster, should we put more pollutant into the water to keep the status quo? It seems unlikely that even ardent anti-enhancement people would prefer to pollute. But if it was a good or acceptable thing ending up with 5 points more intelligence this way, it seems that ending up smarter without the disaster would also be equally good.

Similarly iodine appears to be a de facto cognitive enhancer with big social impact: the total economic impact of reduced iodine deficiency can be enormous. Iodine deficient populations had 12.5-13.5 IQ points less than normal populations. In areas of severe iodine deficiency cretinism can affect 5-10%, straining the resources of the community to support them beside the direct loss to the sufferers. Since cognition is important for personal success, for example by affecting how much can be learned in school, work productivity and health behaviors, deficiency likely has large detrimental effects on the community.

Using the assumption that 1 IQ point is worth about 1% increased income (a low estimate; when comparing IQs and GDP across countries the relation seems even stronger) this would mean an increase in average income by at least 10% – definitely nothing to sneeze at. Better, there seem to be strong network effects of cognition in a society: if more people are smart, educatable and healthy they will produce wealth more efficiently. Note that this calculation has not taken into account the effects of apathy and illness due to iodine deficiency, just the cognitive impairment – fixing those will probably have at least a comparable effect on their own.

Iodine supplementation can help people rise not just in living standard but health and mental ability, it is cheap and it is safe. It is very hard to argue against it (the only issue might be involuntary medication, but since education campaigns are part of the effort and people presumably can choose traditional, non-supplemented salt this would at most be an informed consent form of soft paternalism). It would seem that if we could find an enhancer that improved normal people beyond their historic level to this degree we would have an equally strong imperative to make it widely available if only due to the overall beneficial effects. It might turn out that this kind of great enhancement is hard to achieve, since it is easier to fix a deficiency than improve something evolved (but see also Nick’s and my paper about evolution heuristics on why we think it is doable). But looking at the gains occuring when people break free of deficiencies that have been the rule historically should be a good way of estimating the practical and moral benefits of cognition enhancement. That can be helpful when we need to consider the costs and benefits of less perfect enhancers, and whether they are so good we ought to spread them far and wide.

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