Cognitive Enhancements



  • Therapy vs. enhancement - therapy is remedial, enhancement is for improvement
    • definition of "enhancement" - "amplification or extension of core capacities of the mind through improvement or augmentation of internal or external information processing systems."
    • What count as core or normal?
  • Conventional vs. unconventional means
    • Education, training, diet
    • Common chemicals, e.g. coffee
  • why think about unconventional means?
    • Regulatory and policy issues
    • Be prepared for risks and potential benefits
    • Important long-term consequences for society and culture


Near-term targets - memory, attention

  • Drugs
  • Devices - invasive, non-invasive
  • Application - military, professional (eg. surgeons, drivers)


  • Popular: omega-3 supplement, caffeine, ginkgo, oxygen
  • Nature 2008 survey - 1 in 5 (1,400 respondents) said they had taken Ritalin, Provigil or beta blockers (drugs that can have an anti-anxiety effect) for non-medical reasons.
  • McCabe et al (2005) 4-25% US college students use prescription stimulants for non-medical purposes doi:10.1111/j.1360-0443.2005.00944.x
  • Pills supposed to improve memory in the pipeline.


  • Head-mounted displays, retinal projections
  • Augmented realty


  • TMS - memory consolidation enhancement


  • cochlear implant
  • controlling prosthetics
  • deep brain stimulation for Parkinsons
  • access to external database
  • offline computation

Other invasive techniques


  • Memory / computation implants
  • Connection to external database / servers
  • Super-sense
  • AI hybrids
  • Virtual / cybersex
  • Virtual reality
  • Body re-design, immortality

Ethical issues


  • Side-effects of drugs - brain damage, addiction (300 espresso in a day will kill you)
  • Unknown long-term effects, risks of operations
  • But nothing is risk free

Medicine as remedy and therapy

  • What is the purpose of medicine?

Enhancements for minors and incompetent individuals

  • What count as "normal"? The debate about hearing implants for deaf children.

Procreative choice and eugenics


  • The value of accomplishments - process and product. Nozick's experience and result machines.

Hyper-agency, playing God, transhumanism

  • Francis Fukuyama: "The original purpose of medicine is to heal the sick, not turn healthy people into gods." Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution
  • Technology allows us to do whatever we want to ourselves. Is there anything that is not allowed?

Issues of fairness

  • Is enhancement "cheating"? Compare the case with sports.
  • Competition among individuals - what count as "good enough"?
  • What would happen to socioeconomic gaps?
  • Access opportunities to technologies (individual / countries)
  • Employment requirements

Social policies

Government takes on different roles. Adapted from the Arizona State U report.

  1. Laissez-faire free-market
    • Individual freedom and choice most important
    • Minimal government intervention in the market
    • Would individuals, companies and the market make the right choices?
  2. Managed technological optimism
    • Technology is liberating and brings positive benefits
    • The role of the government is to promote innovation, ensure efficient and fair distribution of resources, and manage risks
    • The government does not restrict technology other than due to harm or risks.
  3. Non-coercive perfectionism
    • Technology is not developed for its own sake. Market is not always infallible and in the public interest.
    • The government should actively encourage and help people lead a good and valuable life.
    • Technology enhancing the good life will be promoted and those that do not will be discouraged or prohibited.
  4. Human essentialism
    • Starts with a conception of human essence that should not be modified.
    • The government regulates technology in accordance with such a conception.


  1. "There is no sharp division between mild forms of cognitive enhancement such as education and caffeine and other kinds of technologies. So there is no reason to allow some and not allow the others."
  2. "If we allow people to have operations to make themselves more beautiful, there is no reason why they cannot have operations to make themselves more clever." Discuss this argument.
  3. One version of the harm principle is the following: An action should be prohibited only if it is likely to cause harm to innocent third-parties. Should cognitive enhancements be allowed as long as the harm principle is not violated? Think about the arguments for and against this position.
  4. Do you think cognitive enhancements are likely to decrease or increase inequality in society?
  5. Employers in the future might want to employ only cognitively enhanced individuals which would do their jobs better. Should this be allowed or is this a form of discrimination?