Limitless — Would You Take the Pill?

By | February 6, 2011

Saw a shorter version of this a couple of times during the Superbowl:

Limitless: Trailer – Watch more Movie Trailers

Intriguing premise — a guy takes a pill that turbo-charges his brain. It doesn’t look terribly realistic, but the appearance of a major transhumanist theme in popular culture is always an interesting thing to see.

The specific theme I’m thinking about is cognitive enhancement — smarter living through pharmacology, in this instance. However,  the capabilities that Bradley Copper displays in the trailer bring us fairly close to another major theme: the emergence of greater-than-human-intelligence. When Cooper tells Deniro that he sees every scenario and that he will always be 50 steps ahead…

Could the Singularity arrive in the form of a pill?

Maybe so.

Now of course we can expect some highly predictable Hollywood stuff in Limitless.

  1. There will be terrible side-effects. That much is clear from the trailer.
  2. In the end, using the drug will not have been worth it.
  3. The whole thing will probably be a parable about Hubris. (Why? Because everything always has to be a freaking parable about Hubris.) Deniro even says something about the abilities the pill provides being “unearned.” As if any of us ever “earned” our innate cognitive capabilities!

That’s all to be expected. At least they’re making a movie about cognitive enhancement. A movie that comes out in favor of cognitive enhancement? We’ll probably have to wait for that. 

I happened to watch Good Will Hunting a few weeks ago, which stars Matt Damon in his break-out role as a working-class super-genius with a troubled past. A good movie, overall — I’d say it holds up. On the issue of whether  intelligence is ”earned,” it agrees with me. At one point, Damon tells Minnie Driver that he doesn’t know why, but things that are very difficult for other people are ridiculously easy for him.

 I remember thinking as I watched the movie how much I would like to be able to do what he does. To read tirelessly and effortlessly, and remember flawlessly, would be a great start — but to look at a problem and simply understand the solution. Or to be able to do this:

What I love most about that speech is that he tells the jerk what page he got his keen insight from. PWNED!

I would totally take the pill. Would you?   


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  • stephentg

    I’m in!

    Given that there are no physical or mental side-effects, I wonder about the social side-effects.

    If, suddenly, you were the smartest person in the world by a large margin, how would the company of other people be of any value to you? And what would such a lone genius mean to the world?

    Hopefully there would be more than one pill.

  • verkan

    I would take the pill, on the slight chance that it might actually imporve my superior intelligence.

    Any social side-effects would be no worse than what I have to deal with daily.

    –Dr. Sheldon Cooper.

  • patrick.brown.999
  • sarah.natividad

    stephentg, good question. I’d add to that, would other people find your company valuable? I’ve found that mentioning at parties that I have a graduate degree in mathematics has the odd effect of making my interlocutors suddenly become thirsty and have to run for the punchbowl and stay there for an extended period of time. I cannot imagine how difficult it would be to find friends if I were smarter than all of them put together.

    Even giant super-brains need friends, but vanishingly few people are not alienated by super-brains.

  • pulley.jerry

    Stephen, good point.

    People who differ by more than two standard deviations or so in the measure of any facility cannot effectively cooperate in its use. A weakling is of little use to a normal person in a physical task, and the same is true for the normal person relative to an especially strong one. The comparison extends to learned skills as well.

    Intelligence is a fundamental trait like strength, and affects a similarly broad spectrum of activity. If you take the pill you’re going to have meaningful interactions with very few people, unless they’re on the pill too.

    I’d want a case of these pills.

    And no, the singularity will probably arrive as hardware-augmented human intelligence. The early implementation will be bulky and clumsy, and require surgical connection and possibly the sacrifice of some native function. All that will change quickly, as the other two singularity-inducing paths (nano and bio) advance and feed back into intelligence augmentation. It takes at least one of those two to make the pill.

    Nobody knows what happens after that, but I think this is the toughest of the Great Filters. I don’t think humans will come out of the other side, but I’ll still take the pill.


    The speculative fiction writer Ted Chiang wrote an exceptional short story called Understand about precisely this very thing; it can be found here:

  • jbeall2

    Larry Niven has one of his characters deal with this question in his novel Protector. The character has just eaten an alien root that vastly increases his intelligence (among other things).


      “I didn’t get any choices. I was too intelligent. It’s been that way ever since I woke up. I get answers before I can finish formulating the question. If I always see the best answer, then where’s my choice? Where’s my free will? You can’t believe how fast this all was. I saw the whole chain of logic in one flash. I slammed Phssthpok’s head hard against the edge of the freezer. It stunned him long enough so that I could break his throat against the edge. Then I jumped back in case he attacked. I figured I could hold him off until he strangled. But he didn’t attack. He hadn’t figured it out, not yet.”
      “It sounds like murder, Brennan. He didn’t want to kill you?”
      “Not yet. I was his shining hope. He couldn’t even defend himself for fear of bruising me. He was older than me, and he knew how to fight. He could have killed me if hed wanted to, but he couldn’t want to. It took him thirty-two thousand years of real time to bring us those roots. I was supposed to finish the job.”
      “I think he died believing he’d succeeded. He half-expected me to kill him.”
      “Brennan. Why?”
      The Brennan-monster shrugged cantaloupe shoulders. “He was wrong. I killed him because he would have tried to wipe out humanity when he learned the truth.”


    I want the free will.

    Michael Crichton basically had one plot for all his books. Man (usually scientists) messes with something he never should have messed with and bad things happen. Basically Marry Shelley’s Frankenstein.


    It would be fun to brainstorm the entire list of science-fiction stories that this movie rips off; “Flowers for Algernon” and “The Fourth Profession” are the first two that come to mind. I just wonder how they got away with making it.

  • matthewbakin

    Personally, I think we put too much emphasis on memorizing things in education, and we call people intelligent who are able to do this (at least, most of these movies do). I’m not convinced that memorizing things translates to intelligence, though. It’s a skill, but it’s not “thinking.” Still, I’d take the pill. The test of intelligence would still be what you do with the information.


    I answered this question for myself when, as a young woman in the early 70s, I made a decision to never take The Pill. Why? TANSTAAFL is as good a reason as any, and a confidence in serendipity is probably the other side of that coin.

    I have plenty of IQ points, but as Arthur C Clarke said “It has yet to be proven that intelligence has any survival value.” :-)

  • Phil

    A couple of commenters have mentioned one of my favorite books, Flowers for Algernon. I think the suggestion that Limitless is close enough to Flowers for Algernon to raise copyright issues is silly, but obviously the basic idea is the same.

    One of the great things about Flowers for Algernon is that it’s NOT a freaking parable about Hubris. Or at least, not exactly. When Charlie loses his gift, it’s tragic. I don’t come away from that story thinking that they shouldn’t have increased his intelligence. Instead, I think they should have done a better job of it so it would stick.

  • shaneblake

    The only way I take the pill is if there was another one for my wife, otherwise, life would be way too lonely…

  • fox.sarae

    Thank you, those who brought up ‘Flowers for Algernon.’ First thing I thought of when I saw this. The premise is medical. Granted our protagonist doesn’t have an IQ of 68 but he does rely on medical science to increase the rapid firing of those synapses. And when you run out of brain drugs, it all slows down. Or at least it feels like it all slows down. Those of us who are being experimented on by these drugs know what it’s like. Any licensed drug dealer (they’re called psychiatrists) will admit they don’t know exactly how these things work. Would I take the blue pill? No way. My reality is messed up enough as it is.

  • http://ChristRemnantChurchOnline Leslie

    Yes, I’d like to have some type of gift to use in this life…….anyone got it? I’d like to have some!

  • xx

    Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus…It’s called zooloft. But only under the right conditions and circumstances. Do not consider it unless under the care of a good Doc. xx