Did amphetamines help Erdős?

During my work on the Paris talk I began to wonder whether Paul Erdős (who I used as an example of a respected academic who used cognitive enhancers) could actually have been shown to have benefited from his amphetamine use, which began in 1971 according to Hill (2004). One way of investigating is his publication record: how many papers did he produce per year before or after 1971? Here is a plot, based on Jerrold Grossman’s 2010 bibliography:

Productivity of Paul Erdos over his life. Green dashed line: amphetamine use, red dashed line: death. Crosses mark named concepts.
Productivity of Paul Erdos over his life. Green dashed line: amphetamine use, red dashed line: death. Crosses mark named concepts.

The green dashed line is the start of amphetamine use, and the red dashed life is the date of death. Yes, there is a fairly significant posthumous tail: old mathematicians never die, they just asymptote towards zero. Overall, the later part is more productive per year than the early part (before 1971 the mean and standard deviation was 14.6±7.5, after 24.4±16.1; a Kruskal-Wallis test rejects that they are the same distribution, p=2.2e-10).

This does not prove anything. After all, his academic network was growing and he moved from topic to topic, so we cannot prove any causal effect of the amphetamine: for all we know, it might have been holding him back.

One possible argument might be that he did not do his best work on amphetamine. To check this, I took the Wikipedia article that lists things named after Erdős, and tried to find years for the discovery/conjecture. These are marked with red crosses in the diagram, slightly jittered. We can see a few clusters that may correspond to creative periods: one in 35-41, one in 46-51, one in 56-60. After 1970 the distribution was more even and sparse. 76% of the most famous results were done before 1971; given that this is 60% of the entire career it does not look that unlikely to be due to chance (a binomial test gives p=0.06).

Again this does not prove anything. Maybe mathematics really is a young man’s game, and we should expect key results early. There may also have been more time to recognize and name results from the earlier career.

In the end, this is merely a statistical anecdote. It does show that one can be a productive, well-renowned (if eccentric) academic while on enhancers for a long time. But given the N=1, firm conclusions or advice are hard to draw.

Erdős’s friends worried about his drug use, and in 1979 Graham bet Erdős $500 that he couldn’t stop taking amphetamines for a month. Erdős accepted, and went cold turkey for a complete month. Erdős’s comment at the end of the month was “You’ve showed me I’m not an addict. But I didn’t get any work done. I’d get up in the morning and stare at a blank piece of paper. I’d have no ideas, just like an ordinary person. You’ve set mathematics back a month.” He then immediately started taking amphetamines again. (Hill 2004)

Fair brains?

Yesterday I gave a lecture at the London Futurists, “What is a fair distribution of brains?”:

My slides can be found here (PDF, 4.5 Mb).

My main take-home messages were:

Cognitive enhancement is potentially very valuable to individuals and society, both in pure economic terms but also for living a good life. Intelligence protects against many bad things (from ill health to being a murder victim), increases opportunity, and allows you to create more for yourself and others. Cognitive ability interacts in a virtuous cycle with education, wealth and social capital.

That said, intelligence is not everything. Non-cognitive factors like motivation are also important. And societies that leave out people – due to sexism, racism, class divisions or other factors – will lose out on brain power. Giving these groups education and opportunities is a very cheap way of getting a big cognitive capital boost for society.

I was critiqued for talking about “cognitive enhancement” when I could just have talked about “cognitive change”. Enhancement has a built in assumption of some kind of improvement. However, a talk about fairness and cognitive change becomes rather anaemic: it just becomes a talk about what opportunities we should give people, not whether these changes affect their relationship in a morally relevant way.

Distributive justice

Theories of distributive justice typically try to answer: what goods are to be distributed, among whom, and what is the proper distribution? In our case it would be cognitive enhancements, and the interested parties are at least existing people but could include future generations (especially if we use genetic means).

Egalitarian theories argue that there has to be some form of equality, either equality of opportunity (everybody gets to enhance if they want), equality of outcome (everybody equally smart). Meritocratic theories would say the enhancement should be distributed by merit, presumably mainly to those who work hard at improving themselves or have already demonstrated great potential. Conversely, need-based theories and prioritarians argue we should prioritize those who are worst off or need the enhancement the most. Utilitarian justice requires the maximization of the total or average welfare across all relevant individuals.

Most of these theories agree with Rawls that impartiality is important: it should not matter who you are. Rawls famously argued for two principles of justice: (1) “Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all.”, and (2) “Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle, and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.”

It should be noted that a random distribution is impartial: if we cannot afford to give enhancement to everybody, we could have a lottery (meritocrats, prioritarians and utilitarians might want this lottery to be biased by some merit/need weighting, or to be just between the people relevant for getting the enhancement, while egalitarians would want everybody to be in).

Why should we even care about distributive justice? One argument is that we all have individual preferences and life goals we seek to achieve; if all relevant resources are in the hands of a few, there will be less preference satisfaction than if everybody had enough. In some cases there might be satiation, where we do not need more than a certain level of stuff to be satisfied and the distribution of the rest becomes irrelevant, but given the unbounded potential ambitions and desires of people it is unlikely to apply generally.

Many unequal situations are not seen as unjust because that is just the way the world is: it is a brute biological fact that males on average live shorter than females, and that there is a random distribution of cognitive ability. But if we change the technological conditions, these facts become possible to change: now we can redistribute stuff to affect them. Ironically, transhumanism hopes/aims to change conditions so that some states, which are at present not unjust, will become unjust!

Some enhancements are absolute: they help you or society no matter what others do, others are merely positional. Positional enhancements are a zero-sum game. However, doing the reversal test demonstrates that cognitive ability has absolute components: a world where everybody got a bit more stupid is not a better world, despite the unchanged relative rankings. There is more accidents and mistakes, more risk that some joint threat cannot be handled, and many life projects become harder and impossible to achieve. And the Flynn effect demonstrates that we are unlikely to be at some particular optimum right now.

The Rawlsian principles are OK with enhancement of the best-off if that helps the worst-off. This is not unreasonable for cognitive enhancement: the extreme high performers have a disproportionate output (patents, books, lectures) that benefit the rest of society, and the network effects of a generally smarter society might benefit everyone living in it. However, less cognitively able people are also less able to make use of opportunities created by this: intelligence is fundamentally a limit to equality of opportunity, and the more you have, the more you are able to select what opportunities and projects to aim for. So a Rawlsian would likely be fairly keen on giving more enhancement to the worst off.

Would a world where everybody had same intelligence be better than the current one? Intuitively it seems emotionally neutral. The reason is that we have conveniently and falsely talked about intelligence as one thing. As several audience members argued, there are many parts of intelligence. Even if one does not buy Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory, it is clear that there are different styles of problem-solving and problem-posing. This is true even if measurements of the magnitude of mental abilities are fairly correlated. A world where everybody thought in the same way would be a bad place. We might not want bad thinking, but there are many forms of good thinking. And we benefit from diversity of thinking styles. Different styles of cognition can make the world more unequal but not more unjust.

Inequality over time

As I have argued before, enhancements in the forms of gadgets and pills are likely to come down in price and become easy to distribute, while service-based enhancements are more problematic since they will tend to remain expensive. Modelling the spread of enhancement suggests that enhancements that start out expensive but then become cheaper first leads to a growth of inequality and then a decrease. If there is a levelling off effect where it becomes harder to enhance beyond a certain point this eventually leads to a more cognitively equal society as everybody catches up and ends up close to the efficiency boundary.

When considering inequality across time we should likely accept early inequality if it leads to later equality. After all, we should not treat spatially remote people differently from nearby people, and the same is true across time. As Claudio Tamburrini said, “Do not sacrifice poor of the future for the poor of the present.”

The risk is if there is compounding: enhanced people can make more money, and use that to enhance themselves or their offspring more. I seriously doubt this works for biomedical enhancement since there are limits to what biological brains can do (and human generation times are long compared to technology change), but it may be risky in regards to outsourcing cognition to machines. If you can convert capital into cognitive ability by just buying more software, then things could become explosive if the payoffs from being smart in this way are large. However, then we are likely to have an intelligence explosion anyway, and the issue of social justice takes back seat compared to the risks of a singularity. Another reason to think it is not strongly compounding is that geniuses are not all billionaires, and billionaires – while smart – are typically not the very most intelligent people. Pickety’s argument actually suggests that it is better to have a lot of money than a lot of brains since you can always hire smart consultants.

Francis Fukuyama famously argued that enhancement was bad for society because it risks making people fundamentally unequal. However, liberal democracy is already based on idea of common society of unequal individuals – they are different in ability, knowledge and power, yet treated fairly and impartially as “one man, one vote”. There is a difference between moral equality and equality measured in wealth, IQ or anything else. We might be concerned about extreme inequalities in some of the latter factors leading to a shift in moral equality, or more realistically, that those factors allow manipulation of the system to the benefit of the best off. This is why strengthening the “dominant cooperative framework” (to use Allen Buchanan’s term) is important: social systems are resilient, and we can make them more resilient to known or expected future challenges.


My main conclusions were:

  • Enhancing cognition can make society more or less unequal. Whether this is unjust depends both on the technology, one’s theory of justice, and what policies are instituted.
  • Some technologies just affect positional goods, and they make everybody worse off. Some are win-win situations, and I think much of intelligence enhancement is in this category.
  • Cognitive enhancement is likely to individually help the worst off, but make the best off compete harder.
  • Controlling mature technologies is hard, since there are both vested interests and social practices around them. We have an opportunity to affect the development of cognitive enhancement now, before it becomes very mainstream and hard to change.
  • Strengthening the “dominant cooperative framework” of society is a good idea in any case.
  • Individual morphological freedom must be safeguarded.
  • Speeding up progress and diffusion is likely to reduce inequality over time – and promote diversity.
  • Different parts of the world likely to approach CE differently and at different speeds.

As transhumanists, what do we want?

The transhumanist declaration makes wide access a point, not just on fairness or utilitarian grounds, but also for learning more. We have a limited perspective and cannot know well beforehand were the best paths are, so it is better to let people pursue their own inquiry. There may also be intrinsic values in freedom, autonomy and open-ended life projects: not giving many people the chance to this may lose much value.

Existential risk overshadows inequality: achieving equality by dying out is not a good deal. So if some enhancements increases existential risk we should avoid them. Conversely, if enhancements look like they reduce existential risk (maybe some moral or cognitive enhancements) they may be worth pursuing even if they are bad for (current) inequality.

We will likely end up with a diverse world that will contain different approaches, none universal. Some areas will prohibit enhancement, others allow it. No view is likely to become dominant quickly (without rather nasty means or some very surprising philosophical developments). That strongly speaks for the need to construct a tolerant world system.

If we have morphological freedom, then preventing cognitive enhancement needs to point at a very clear social harm. If the social harm is less than existing practices like schooling, then there is no legitimate reason to limit enhancement.  There are also costs of restrictions: opportunity costs, international competition, black markets, inequality, losses in redistribution and public choice issues where regulators become self-serving. Controlling technology is like controlling art: it is an attempt to control human creativity and exploration, and should be done very cautiously.