Here’s a near-future scenario: Within five years, 10% of people in the developed world will be regularly taking smart drugs that noticeably enhance their mental performance.
It turns out there may be a surprising reason for this scenario to fail to come to pass. I’ll get to that shortly. But first, let’s review why the above scenario would be a desirable one.
As so often, Nick Bostrom presents the case well. Nick is Professor at the Faculty of Philosophy & Oxford Martin School, Director at the Future of Humanity Institute, and Director of the Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology, all at the University of Oxford. He wrote in 2008,
Those who seek the advancement of human knowledge should [consider] kinds of indirect contribution…
No contribution would be more generally applicable than one that improves the performance of the human brain.
Much more effort ought to be devoted to the development of techniques for cognitive enhancement, be they drugs to improve concentration, mental energy, and memory, or nutritional enrichments of infant formula to optimize brain development.
Society invests vast resources in education in an attempt to improve students’ cognitive abilities. Why does it spend so little on studying the biology of maximizing the performance of the human nervous system?
Imagine a researcher invented an inexpensive drug which was completely safe and which improved all‐round cognitive performance by just 1%. The gain would hardly be noticeable in a single individual. But if the 10 million scientists in the world all benefited from the drug the inventor would increase the rate of scientific progress by roughly the same amount as adding 100,000 new scientists. Each year the invention would amount to an indirect contribution equal to 100,000 times what the average scientist contributes. Even an Einstein or a Darwin at the peak of their powers could not make such a great impact.
Meanwhile others too could benefit from being able to think better, including engineers, school children, accountants, and politicians.
This example illustrates the enormous potential of improving human cognition by even a tiny amount…
The first objection to the above scenario is that it is technically infeasible. People imply that no such drug could possibly exist. Any apparent evidence offered to the contrary is inevitably suspect. Questions can be raised over the anecdotes shared in the Longecity thread “Ten months of research condensed – A total newbies guide to nootropics” or in the recent Unfinished Man review “Nootropics – The Facts About ‘Smart Drugs'”. After all, the reasoning goes, the brain is too complex. So these anecdotes are likely to involve delusion – whether it is self-delusion (people not being aware of placebo effects and similar) or delusion from snake oil purveyors who have few scruples in trying to sell products.
A related objection is that the side-effects of such drugs are unknown or difficult to assess. Yes, there are substances (take alcohol as an example) which can aid our creativity, but with all kinds of side-effects. The whole field is too dangerous – or so it is said.
These objections may have carried weight some years ago, but increasingly they have less force. Other complex aspects of human functionality can be improved by targeted drugs; why not also the brain? Yes, people vary in how they respond to specific drug combinations, but that’s something that can be taken into account. Indeed, more data is being collected all the time.
Evidence of progress in the study of these smart drugs is one thing I expect to feature in an event taking place in central London this Wednesday (13th March).
The event, The Miracle Pill: What do brain boosting drugs mean for the future? is being hosted by Nesta as part of the Policy Exchange “Next big thing” series.
Here’s an extract from the event website:
If you could take a drug to boost your brain-power, would you?
Drugs to enhance human performance are nothing new. Long-haul lorry drivers and aircraft pilots are known to pop amphetamines to stay alert, and university students down caffeine tablets to ward off drowsiness during all-nighters. But these stimulants work by revving up the entire nervous system and the effect is only temporary.
Arguments over smart drugs are raging. If a drug can improve an individual’s performance, and they do not experience side-effects, some argue, it cannot be such a bad thing.
But where will it all stop? Ambitious parents may start giving mind-enhancing pills to their children. People go to all sorts of lengths to gain an educational advantage and eventually success might be dependent on access to these mind-improving drugs…
This event will ask:
- What are the limits to performance enhancement drugs, both scientifically and ethically? And who decides?
- Is there a role for such pills in developing countries, where an extra mental boost might make a distinct difference to those in developing countries?
- Does there need to be a global agreement to monitor the development of these pills?
- Should policymakers give drug companies carte blanche to develop these products or is a stricter regulatory regime required?
The event will be chaired by Louise Marston, Head of Innovation and Economic Growth, Nesta. The list of panelists is impressive:
- Dr Bennett Foddy, Deputy Director and Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Science and Ethics, Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford
- Dr Anders Sandberg, James Martin Fellow, Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford
- Dr Hilary Leevers, Head of Education & Learning, the Wellcome Trust
- Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer for England.
Under-currents of mistrust
From my own experience in discussing smart drugs that could enhance mental performance, I’m aware that objections to their use often run more deeply than the technical questions covered above. There are often under-currents of mistrust:
- Reliance of smart drugs is viewed as irresponsible, self-indulgent, or as cheating
- There’s an association with the irresponsible advocacy of so-called “recreational” mind-altering drugs
- Surely, it is said, there are more reliable and more honourable ways of enhancing our mental powers
- Besides, what is the point of simply being able to think faster?
I strongly reject the implication of irresponsibility or self-indulgence. Increased mental capability can be applied to all sorts of important questions, resulting in scientific progress, technological breakthrough, more elegant product development, and social benefit. The argument I quoted earlier, from Nick Bostrom, applies here.
I also strongly reject the “either/or” implication, when people advocate pursuit of more traditional methods of mental enhancement instead of reliance of modern technology. Why cannot we do both? When considering our physical health, we pay attention to traditional concerns, such as diet and rest, as well as to the latest medical findings. It should be the same for our mental well-being.
No, the real question is: does it work? And once it becomes clearer that certain combinations of smart drugs can make a significant difference to our mental prowess, with little risk of unwelcome side effects, the other objections to their use will quickly fade away.
It will be similar to the rapid change in attitudes towards IVF (“test tube babies”). I remember a time when all sorts of moral and theological hand-wringing took place over the possibility of in-vitro fertilisation. This hubristic technology, it was said, might create soul-less monstrosities; only wickedly selfish people would ever consider utilising the treatment. That view was held by numerous devout observers – but quickly faded away, in the light of people’s real-world experience with the resulting babies.
This brings us back to the question: how quickly can we expect progress with smart drugs? It’s the 64 million dollar question. Actually it might be a 640 million dollar question. Possibly even more. The entrepreneurs and companies who succeed in developing and marketing good products in the field of mental enhancement stand to tap into very sizeable revenue streams. Pfizer, the developer of Viagra, earned revenues of $509 million in 2008 alone, from that particular enhancement drug. The developers of a Viagra for the mind could reasonably imagine similar revenues.
The barriers here are regulatory as well as technical. But with a rising public interest in the possibility of significant mental enhancement, the mood could swing quickly, enabling much more vigorous investment by highly proficient companies.
The biophysical approach
But there’s one more complication.
Actually this is a positive complication rather than a negative one.
Critics who suggest that there are better approaches to enhancing mental powers than smart drugs, might turn out to be right in a way they didn’t expect. The candidate for a better approach is to use non-invasive electrical and magnetic stimulation of the brain, targeted to specific functional areas.
The start-up website Flow State Engaged raises and answers a few questions on this topic, as follows:
Q: What is tDCS?
A: Transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS) is one of the coolest health/self improvement technologies available today. tDCS is a form of neurostimulation which uses a constant, low current delivered directly to the brain via small electrodes to affect brain function.
Q: Is this for real?
A: The US Army and DARPA both currently use tDCS devices to train snipers and drone pilots, and have recorded 2.5x increases in learning rates. This incredible phenomenon of increased learning has been documented by multiple clinical studies as well.
Q: You want one?
A: Today if you want a tDCS machine it’s nearly impossible to find one for less than $600, and you need a prescription to order one. We wanted a simpler cheaper option. So we made our own kit, for ourselves and for all you body hackers out there…
Back in November, Andrew gave a talk to the London Futurists on “Hacking our wetware: smart drugs and beyond”. It was a well-attended talk that stirred up lots of questions, both in the meeting itself, and subsequently online.
The good news is that Andrew is returning to London Futurists on Saturday 23rd March, where his talk this time will focus on biophysical approaches to “hacking our wetware”.
You can find more details of this meeting here – including how to register to attend.
Introducing the smart-hat
In advance of the meeting, Andrew has shared an alternative vision of the ways in which many people in the not-so-distant future will pursue mental enhancement.
He calls this vision “Towards digital nootropics”:
You are tired, anxious and stressed, and perhaps suffer from a mild headache. Instead of reaching for a pack from Boots the local pharmacists, you put on a fashionable “smarthat” (a neat variation of an “electrocap” with a comfortable 10-20 scheme placement for both small electrodes and solenoids) or, perhaps, its lighter version – a “smart bandana”.
Your phone detects it and a secure wireless connection is instantly established. A Neurostimulator app opens. You select “remove anxiety”, “anti-headache” and “basic relaxation” options, press the button and continue with your business. In 10-15 minutes all these problems are gone.
However, there is still much to do, and an important meeting is looming. So, you go to the “enhance” menu of the Neurostimulator and browse through the long list of options which include “thinking flexibility”, “increase calculus skills”, “creative imagination”, “lateral brainstorm”, “strategic genius”, “great write-up”, “silver tongue” and “cram before exam” amongst many others. There is even a separate night menu with functionality such as “increase memory consolidation while asleep”. You select the most appropriate options, press the button and carry on the meeting preparations.
There are still 15 minutes to go, which is more than enough for the desired effects to kick in. If necessary, they can be monitored and adjusted via the separate neurofeedback menu, as the smarthat also provides limited EEG measurement capabilities. You may use a tablet or a laptop instead of the phone for that.
A new profession: neuroanalyst
Entrepreneurs reading this article may already have noticed the very interesting business-development opportunities this whole field offers. These same entrepreneurs may pay further attention to the next stage of Andrew Vladimirov’s “Towards digital nootropics” vision of the not-so-distant future:
Your neighbour Jane is a trained neuroanalyst, an increasingly popular trade that combines depth psychology and a variety of advanced non-invasive neurostimulation means. Her machinery is more powerful and sophisticated than your average smartphone Neurostim.
While you lie on her coach with the mindhelmet on, she can induce highly detailed memory recall, including memories of early childhood to go through as a therapist. With a flick of a switch, she can also awake dormant mental abilities and skills you’ve never imagined. For instance, you can become a savant for the time it takes to solve some particularly hard problem and flip back to your normal state as you leave Jane’s office.
Since she is licensed, some ethical modulation options are also at her disposal. For instance, if Jane suspects that you are lying and deceiving her, the mindhelmet can be used to reduce your ability to lie – and you won’t even notice it.
Sounds like science fiction? The bulk of necessary technologies is already there, and with enough effort the vision described can be realised in five years or so.
If you live in the vicinity of London, you’ll have the opportunity to question Andrew on aspects of this vision at the London Futurists meetup.
Smart drugs or smart hats?
Will we one day talk as casually about our smarthats as we currently do about our smartphones? Or will there be more focus, instead, on smart drugs?
Personally I expect we’ll be doing both. It’s not necessarily an either/or choice.
And there will probably be even more dramatic ways to enhance our mental powers, that we currently can scarcely conceive.