November 5, 2010

Savulescu: Bioenhancement of math skills is ethically important

Julian Savulescu makes the case that the bioenhancement of mathematical ability is ethically important:
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.

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