Cognition Enhancement and Technological Unemployment

One objection to the development of cognitive enhancers is that they are likely to benefit mainly people who can afford to buy them, and that they would put everyone else at a disadvantage. Some philosophers, including Allen Buchanan, Anders Sandberg, and Julian Savulescu, have said that cognitive enhancements would not exacerbate injustice if they were cheap and accessible to all. Taking a look at how advances in information technology (IT) have affected different groups could illuminate the likely effects of cognitive enhancement on different groups.

IT has been crucial for enhancing the productivity of workers, with arguably positive implications for the economy and, indirectly, social welfare. IT provides the paradigmatic example of a “democratic” technology: the exponential improvement of hardware performance per unit cost (Moore’s law) guarantees that even the products that only few people can afford today will rapidly become accessible to all. If biomedical enhancements are like IT in this respect, they, too, should become widely accessible.

This position ignores one of the most heated controversies about the social and political implications of IT: the debate on what John Maynard Keynes labeled “technological unemployment.” Keynes worried about the possibility “that unemployment due to our discovery of the means of economizing the use of labor outruns the pace at which we can find new uses for labor.”

Most economists dismiss as a “Luddite fallacy” every forecast of technological innovation having harmful consequences on society. But some recent papers (for instance, by the MIT economists David Autor) suggest that technological advancement has played a central role in the jobless recovery and stagnant median income of recent decades in the United States and European countries.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.