The Ultimate Thought Experiment Part III: Flowers for Algernon

In Part II of this series, we considered artificial intelligent in the context of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel and Stanley Kubrik’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. In Space Odyssey, intelligence is arguably seen as an end in-and-of itself, rather than a means to an end. Flowers for Algernon, a short story later turned into a novel by author Daniel Keyes, questions that assumption while considering the ethical implications of artificially manipulating a person’s intelligence.

The protagonist of Flowers for Algernon is Charlie Gordon, a janitor who begins the story with intellectual disability, or mental retardation as it was referred to at the time when Keyes wrote the story. Gordon’s intellectual disability is a result of phenylketonuria, a real life metabolic disorder resulting from mutations of the gene encoding phenylalanine hydroxylase, an enzyme that breaks down the amino acid phenylalanine. An inability to metabolize this amino acid causes its toxic build up in the brain, often resulting in a low IQ and other problems, such as mental disorders.

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The Slippery Slope of Dishonesty

A kid stealing candy in a convenience store grows up to be a convicted criminal. A husband who flirts with a coworker ends up as a serial cheater. A politician telling a few “white lies” to his or her constituents is eventually convicted of fraud. These are all extreme — but plausible — scenarios where dishonesty might escalate over time, resulting in dramatic and life-changing consequences. But how far does this slippery slope actually go? How can science help us answer this question?Continue reading