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Bioethics Forum Essay

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. Computer programs can easily and economically substitute for humans in several tasks. The sectors of the economy where job growth has been stagnant (even as GDP was growing) were those involving the tasks that are easiest to substitute (in particular, routine duties involved in many office and administrative jobs).

Inequality grows because creative, highly specialized thinkers cannot (yet) be substituted and their productivity is greatly enhanced by IT. By contrast, middle- and low-skill workers are pressured by technological substitution to seek employment in low-wage jobs in the service sector. These jobs (in food preparation and serving, cleaning, grounds maintenance, and home health assistance) are neither threatened by technological substitution nor benefited by the productivity enhancing effects of IT.

Cognitive enhancements may reinforce these trends, even if they are cheap and accessible to all. Just like IT, cognitive enhancement enables a single, highly skilled individual to perform tasks that otherwise would require a larger number of workers. The displaced workers can find new jobs only if the boost to productivity spurs economic growth. But growth could stall if demand for goods and services falls due to a decline in good-paying jobs for people with middle to low skills. 

In conclusion, the price of cognitive enhancements is not the only, or the most important, issue for those who care about justice and equality. As the analogy with IT illustrates, even very cheap cognitive enhancements can exacerbate the growing socioeconomic gap between a minority of experts whose skills are well integrated in the “smart economy” and a growing army of workers forced to offer their nonspecialized skills in sectors where cognitive enhancement would not be truly valuable.

Michele Loi is post-doctoral researcher at the Research Centre for the Humanities of the University of Minho (CEHUM) in Braga, Portugal.

Posted by Susan Gilbert at 03/02/2015 11:45:13 AM |

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