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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Hacking your Brain with Smart Drugs

What if you could take a pill to enhance your cognitive abilities?  What if this pill could help you ace a test, get more work done efficiently, and truly multitask?  For entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and executives on Wall Street, the answer to these questions is a resounding “Yes!”  In these high stake environments, the use of nootropics, or “smart drugs,” by normal healthy people has become commonplace.  But what exactly are the compounds that are claimed to improve brain function?  And are they safe?Continue reading