Potentially horrific effects of drugs and machines making people smarter & stronger

Summary:  The next industrial revolution has begun, but this one will improve not just our machines but ourselves. How we use these powerful innovations will help shape our society into utopia or dystopia, dream or nightmare.  First of 2 posts today.

Human enhancement

Two recent posts illustrate the difficulty of seeing the next phases of the industrial revolution. Economist Noah Smith discusses “Rise of the cyborgs“, about the powerful human-machine combinations that will reshape our society, especially those using direct mental links. Brief, well-written, nothing new. Chris Bertram wrote in reply at Crooked Timber. I do not understand his general objections (he explained them in the comments & I still don’t), except for one powerful point:

“Indeed, employers could make it a condition of employment that workers undergo the necessary cyber-modifications! Actually, I think Smith missed a trick there, by failing to imagine how this might affect workplace dynamics. Oh well, I expect someone will be along to explain how such contracts would be win-win…”

As usual, the comment thread quickly went off the rails (albeit with some fascinating insights), ignoring the magnitude of issue. Some background might help. There are two overlapping means for large-scale human enhancement (physical and mental) in the near future: drugs and surgery (e.g., alterations, addition of machine parts, replacement or our original equipment with machines).  These do not include most existing mechanical enhancements (e.g., glasses, helmets, waldos), but do include existing performance enhancing surgery (e.g., cochlear implants) and drugs (e.g., caffeine, amphetamines, steroids).

These all have similar implications. I find it is easier to look at the social dynamics created by performance-enhancing drugs. These have already caused problems. In some fields pressure from businesses has made their use widespread by workers (employees and almost equally-dependent independent contractors) — such as truck drivers (to stay alert on long hauls, breaking the safety regulations).

Even more powerful are steroids, which make people stronger — at a severe cost in long-term health. Employers have not required them for employees doing physical labor, but competition for the small number of remunerative jobs in sports (professional or career-enhancing amateur competitions) has made their use almost ubiquitous — starting an arms race with regulators seeking to detect and so ban their use.


I suspect this is just the first wave of the new era, where use of drugs will become increasingly necessary to reach the top ranks of many fields — where the star system often means that the income differential between the top and middle ranks is huge.  How many people would trade away some of their future health for an extra 20 or 30 IQ points (the kind of trade football players routinely do)? These would make the difference between journeyman labor and stardom — middle income and wealth.

As with truckers and football coaches today, employers need not formally mandate drug use. They can merely choose the best performing players — who happen to be those on drugs. Those choosing not to do so can choose other lines of work — which pay far less.

The introduction of new technology has made the West rich beyond the imagination of people in 1700, but the cost paid by the workers affected has often been high — as this powerful comment by dSquared reminds us.

Science fiction plays these ideas out today so we can prepare for the future. Orson Scott Card wrote a short story about surgery that repurposes the parts of your brain responsible for processing vision: you become smarter — and blind. How many people would choose this?

It will be for the best in this, the best of all worlds

We have economists, our society’s sophists, to explain that this will all be for the best. Such as Brad Delong, saying “Is there any reason that Bertram’s argument does not apply to literacy, stone tools, or clothing?” My favorite comment on the CT thread is amateur economist Matthew Yglesias’s rebuttal to Chris Bertram…

Mathew Yglesias on performance

Actual economist Noah Smith wrote a post explaining that “Basic Econ 101 does not imply that voluntary contracts are mutually beneficial to the people who enter into them.” It’s a minimalistic (i.e., absurdly narrow) analysis, but shows some of the problems with this typically mad Libertarian opinion.

But in the real world the opinions of employers (whom Yglesias so eloquently supports) carry more weight than Econ 101 texts, so we have labor laws being ignored by corporations employing unpaid interns, classifying workers as managers (to avoid overtime) and independent contractors (to avoid most employee protections), or just ignoring laws entirely (as Don Blankenship did as CEO of Massey Energy, resulting in the death of 38 miners).

New means of enhancing workers’ performance offers new horizons for offering employees ugly choices. This is one facet of the big choice we face in the 21st century: Will our future be like Star Trek or Jupiter Ascending? Prosperity for all, or a world where the rich own almost everything?

Welcome to life

Well worth watching. It says “ruined by lawyers”, showing that the producers are creative but lack understanding of how corporation’s extract profits from intellectual property. Lawyers are their servants in this process. The 21st century will offer many opportunities for the rich to monetize more aspects of life — and perhaps life itself.

For More Information

Can a Pill Make You Smarter? The Brave New World of Smart Drugs” by Larry Schwartz, AlterNet, 25 January 2016 — “Can we turn Homer Simpson into Einstein? Not so fast.”

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all articles about the 3rd Industrial Revolution, especially these…

  1. Will our future be like Star Trek or Jupiter Ascending?
  2. Three visions of our future after the robot revolution.
  3. Automation hits the professions. Most remain delusionally confident, so far.
  4. Education, the glittering but fake solution
  5. Steps to make the tech revolution boost America, not just the 1%.

For more about this see Truly Human Enhancement: A Philosophical Defense of Limits (2013). From the Publisher…

Truly Human Enhancement
Available at Amazon.

“The transformative potential of genetic and cybernetic technologies to enhance human capabilities is most often either rejected on moral and prudential grounds or hailed as the future salvation of humanity. In this book, Nicholas Agar offers a more nuanced view, making a case for moderate human enhancement—improvements to attributes and abilities that do not significantly exceed what is currently possible for human beings. He argues against radical human enhancement, or improvements that greatly exceed current human capabilities.

“Agar explores notions of transformative change and motives for human enhancement; distinguishes between the instrumental and intrinsic value of enhancements; argues that too much enhancement undermines human identity; considers the possibility of cognitively enhanced scientists; and argues against radical life extension.

“Making the case for moderate enhancement, Agar argues that many objections to enhancement are better understood as directed at the degree of enhancement rather than enhancement itself. Moderate human enhancement meets the requirement of truly human enhancement. By radically enhancing human cognitive capabilities, by contrast, we may inadvertently create beings (“post-persons”) with moral status higher than that of persons. If we create beings more entitled to benefits and protections against harms than persons, Agar writes, this will be bad news for the unenhanced. Moderate human enhancement offers a more appealing vision of the future and of our relationship to technology.”

10 thoughts on “Potentially horrific effects of drugs and machines making people smarter & stronger”

  1. It’s my duty to fear and contempt in the beautiful, baffling future, as it was my father and grandfather before me.I jest, but only slightly. What does man do when his machines assume his work–oh, the upper and creative classes may still thrive, but what of the masses. In Star Trek’s mythical future, man has grown beyond the need for currency, and with it, it is implied, hunger and deprivation. I don’t need to reach far into my store of cynicism to suspect we won’t be so kind to our roiling hordes of outmoded humanity–at best, their needs counter the gains wrought by technology. At worst, they rise from beneath our boot heels and destroy us all.

    1. Chuck,

      Unfortunately, Western history gives many good reasons for your fears. As a comment by dSquared explains:

      the steam-powered weaving frame {was} a total disaster for the British working class when it was brought in with no regulation or legal safeguards, on the easy free-market assumption that everything would be all right and that nobody would sign up to any contracts that weren’t advantageous to themselves. Eric Hobsbawm’s famous essay on the Luddites makes it pretty clear that they were objecting to the easily-forseeable political and economic consequences of the steam-frames being introduced into the (already hardly utopian) English factory system, rather than to technology itself. Within fifty years, the failure of the Luddites had resulted in making places like Salford as close as you like to hell on earth.

      Or to put it in a “shorter” form, the neoliberals and any other lovers of capitalism present might want to consider before they get too starry-eyed about cyborgs, that the last big step forward in man-machine interaction brought us right to the brink of Communist revolution in Europe.

  2. Another example of western culture’s inability to deal wisely with natural limits. If this trend extends at all, it will be very limited, and utilized to the detriment of the overall good by those with power and wealth. One more tool by which the already powerful continue to increase inequality. Sadly, nothing new here.

    1. Steve,

      “if this trend extends at all, it will be very limited”

      Why? Modern history shows that tools that increase productivity are embraced quickly and used intensively. Even those with ill effects on health, such as steroids. Why a change in this pattern?

      “and utilized to the detriment of the overall good by those with power and wealth.”

      I agree. In the past that results not from the tools, but from the fruits of their gains being horded. As for the future, we will make tools that are themselves problematic. Steroids are the paradigm. People will use them despite their side-effects, without being forced to do so by employers. That is, encouraged to do so by the workings of our market-based system. This will be a new and severe challenge.

      Are there precedents in history?

  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Productivity_paradox
    This is one example of my point that new technology or human enhancement might not give the jump in “productivity” (however we define that) that our current understanding might expect. Some argue that we are at a point where past trends in this area are not longer predictive. If the profit motive is not pushing the deployment, it is unlikely to be broadly deployed, only in specialized or ego driven cases. In my opinion, human enhancement will not have the payoff that is being touted.

    1. Steve,

      The productivity paradox is remarkable! We see it in miniature in comment threads. A small fraction are like yours, highlighting knowledge & using links for documentation.

      But for the vast majority of commenters the info superhighway carries mostly myths and lies. I am 60 years old, and no signs the vast resources of the Internet have made us better informed.

      But the tools of the coming industrial revolution seem certain to boost productivity. The small innovations – like driverless cars (small b/ it is engineering, not new science) will have large impacts. The possible big ones: new energy sources, AI, nanotechnology, and genetic engineering — would have unimaginable effects.

      Enhancements to human performance probably ranks in the middle. I don’t see how stronger and smarter people cannot boost productivity. Boost IQ enough and it becomes a new world, although that seems unlikely in any visible time frame.

  4. “Steam frames”, Crooked Timber et al. ….no sign the info superhighway/ Internet have made us better informed.
    Except every now and then we get some gems.
    Smiling. All is not lost yet.


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  6. Genetic engineering or synthetic biology may cause orders of magnitude amplification of the differences between social classes. The SJW/race/feminism problems we have today are going to seem very tame compared to whats coming. Look how people get bent out of shape over the Jews and they have IQ’s that are on average a little under a standard deviation over the mean. This is no longer science fiction. People have already clandestinely started. I think a standard deviation IQ bump is very conservative. A couple hundred of base-pairs tweaked, this is already well within natural variation so it is the low hanging fruit and likely very easy to do.

    So far as I can tell political correctness will be strongly against this, envy and hatred of the successful or anything different the social justice cabal cant extract wealth from. The moralizing about this seems to be based in a nebulous fear people will get a cognitive advantage not that people will become a half frog circus freak. And yes no doubt there are risk. And there will be charlatans. But we are in a generational shift so attitudes on this could easily change in a decade or so. Besides who doesn’t what to have kids that are smarter and healthier.

    Women in India and China prefer to birth sons because sons produce much more wealth than girls. With the simple tool of ultra sound women have in mass caused a dramatic sex ratio imbalance. This does not happen in the west because of the welfare state and mass media propaganda about women. Women will have a new choice, a way to climb the social ladder. Of coarse I’m just speculating here

    Direct DNA editing and repair, designer babies are here. Ok to business, how? Crispr (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) Cas9 and there are better tools out there too.

    How to bio-engineering a human in your garage, think of this like the home PC in the mid 1970’s, that’s about were we are now,

    Links to tools:


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