Why Bioenhancement of Mathematical Ability Is Ethically Important

by Julian Savulescu

In a paper just released today, Cohen Kadosh and colleagues (Cohen Kadosh et al., Modulating Neuronal Activity Produces Specific and Long-Lasting Changes in Numerical Competence, Current Biology (2010), doi:10.1016/j.cub.2010.10.007) described how they increased the numerical ability of normal people by applying an electrical current to a part of the skull. So what? Most of us don’t do that much maths after leaving school and manage just fine.

Kadosh and colleagues highlight the importance of enhancing ability with numbers. Around 20% of normal people have trouble with numbers. They write, “The negative impact of numerical difficulties on everyday life is manifested in the lack of progress in education, increased unemployment, reduced salary and job opportunities, and additional costs in mental and physical health.”

Such research is obviously important for the prospect of such people with poor numeracy. It shows the importance of advances in the biosciences and neurosciences for increasing the opportunities and well-being of normal people who fall at the lower end of the normal distribution curve of abilities.

But such research is important for at least two other reasons. Anders Sandberg has argued that having a sense of proportion and numeracy are more important to energy savings than having espoused green ethical commitments. Mathematical ability can have important general social effects.

Secondly, even those at the top end of mathematical ability might benefit from enhancement. If one takes those people in the top 1% of the population of IQ, the top quarter of that top 1% produce more than twice as many patents as the bottom quarter. So even if you are in the top 1%, enhancing your IQ might enhance your creativity and inventiveness. Kadosh and colleagues begin their article, “Dalton, Keynes, Gauss, Newton, Einstein, and Turing are only a few examples of people who have advanced the quality of human life and knowledge through their exceptional numerical abilities.” But if we were to enhance the ability of such geniuses by even a tiny per cent, problems would be solved that would otherwise be unlikely to be solved. Tiny improvements have great effect over large numbers of people over significant periods of time. An important problem that has remained unsolved or unrecognized could be solved. It is important to recognize that cognitive enhancement is an important social and economic issue.

All powerful technology is liable to the dual-use problem. Already we can enhance both memory and forgetting. The US military is looking into preventing the laying down of memories by using beta-blockers to prevent post-traumatic stress disorder in its soldiers. In this experiment, it was also possible to make normal people worse at numbers. What is the possible application of de-enhancing numeracy? It is hard to see one. But it is a potential problem and one which is shared with all other technology. As I have argued in connection with this dual-use problem and synthetic biology (with Tom Douglas), the solution is not to ban or retard the acquisition of knowledge or the development of potentially hugely beneficial technology, but to regulate its development to prevent abuse.

Mathematics is not merely for boffins. It affects all of our lives, every day. Enhancing everyone’s mathematical abilities, even those of geniuses, is in everyone’s interests.

How zap of electricity could make you smarter at sums… or give you maths ability of a six-year-old | Mail Online

Electrical brain stimulation improves math skills – life – 04 November 2010 – New Scientist

Current Biology – Modulating Neuronal Activity Produces Specific and Long-Lasting Changes in Numerical Competence

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5 Responses to Why Bioenhancement of Mathematical Ability Is Ethically Important

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    Interesting that there are no comments to this excellent post. Is it because the Blog readers are not interested ? Or that everyone agrees ? Is it that the topic is so large that we feel that we don’t know where to begin ?

    The dual-use problem you evoke is clearly real, and presents evident dangers : the possibility of “preventing the laying down of memories” is positively Orwellian, and in my view poses a much more pernicious threat than the possible use of Smallpox viruses (or other synthetic biology “weapons”) by terrorist groups.

    Is the lack of response finally then a pessimistic acceptance that the type of regulation that you and Tom Douglas write about is very unlikely to be agreed or, even if agreed, likely to be unenforceable ?

  • “What is the possible application of de-enhancing numeracy?”

    Perhaps for individuals with obsessive compulsive disorder who have counting compulsions?

  • Danielle Demos says:

    I’d like to add that emotional intelligence (ie; empathy, don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to yourself knowledge) is essential for a truly integrated comprehension of reality. It is an important ‘tool’ for those utilizing math for future inventions/philosophies and with out it the use of science and math can have catastrophic results. IE, the atom bomb and various ever expanding military technologies. Mass murder contraptions. So called,
    progress? Or are we losing touch with reality and being ignorant and dumb as well as passive for going along with it? This needs to be challenged more in the scientific and singulatarian community.

  • David Shipley says:

    Looking at the state of our public finances we could certainly do with zapping a few politicians. Does anyone know if the effects go beyond simple numeracy into understanding of cause and effect?
    More seriously, there is nothing in the paper about the “informed consent” process (a thorny issue given that the subjects were all numerically challenged so might be expected to have difficulty understanding concepts of risk) nor about any potential adverse effects. I am surprised that an experiment like this could take place in the US given the history of paternalistic scientists experimenting on prisoners, ethnic minorities and military personnel without proper consent.

  • Matt says:

    This seems to be making the assumption (I haven’t read the original articles so may be wrong) that most people’s current difficulties with maths lie in an inherent inability to do maths. Maybe this is the case with some people. But to me it seems like genetics of these sorts of characteristics only gives someone the potential to achieve something; whether the potential is actually achieved will depend on upbringing.

    So it could well be that enhancing the potential to do better at maths is pointless without the necessary social support to fulfill this potential. But then couldn’t we simply say that *current* genetic potential also not being fulfilled? Perhaps it would be more worthwhile investing in social programs to help people achieve their potential, rather than giving them a potential that can never be fulfilled.

    Additionally, one general problem with genetic enhancement is that, unless it is state funded, then it seems that rich people are more likely to benefit from it, thus enabling them to get richer, at the expense of the poor….


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