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12 March 2013

The coming revolution in mental enhancement

Filed under: entrepreneurs, futurist, intelligence, neuroengineering, nootropics, risks, UKH+ — David Wood @ 2:50 pm

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.

nbpicAs 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).

next big thingThe 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.

Timescales

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.

headset-renderA variety of “helmets” are already available, or have been announced as being under development.

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…

AndrewVSomeone who has made a close personal study of the whole field of nootropics and biophysical approaches (including tDCS) is London-based researcher Andrew Vladimirov.

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.

20 December 2012

An absorbing, challenging vision of near-future struggles

nexus-75-dpiTechnology can cause carnage, and in the wake of the carnage, outrage.

Take the sickening example of the shooting dead of 20 young children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. After that fearful carnage, it’s no surprise that there are insistent calls to restrict the availability of powerful automatic guns.

There are similar examples of carnage and outrage in the new science fiction novel “Nexus: mankind gets an upgrade”, by the noted futurist and writer Ramez Naam.

I met Ramez at the WorldFuture 2012 event in Toronto earlier this year, where he gave a presentation on “Can Innovation Save the Planet?” which I rated as one of the very best sessions in the midst of a very good conference. I’ve been familiar with the high calibre of his thinking for some time, so when I heard that his new book Nexus was available for download to my Kindle – conveniently just ahead of me taking a twelve-hour flight – I jumped at the chance to purchase a copy. It turned out to be a great impulse purchase decision. I finished the book just as the airplane wheels touched down.

The type of technology that is linked to carnage and outrage in Nexus can be guessed from the image on the front cover of the book – smart drugs. Of course, drugs, like guns, are already the source of huge public debate in terms of whether to restrict access. Events described in Nexus make it clear why certain drugs become even more controversial, a few short decades ahead, in this fictional but all-too-credible vision of the near future.

Back in the real world, public interest in smart drugs is already accelerating:

  • I hear more and more discussions when people talk about taking nootropics of one sort or another – to help them “pull an all-nighter”, or to be especially sharp and mentally focused for an important interview. These comments often get followed up by reflections on whether these drugs might convey an unfair advantage.
  • The 2011 film Limitless – which I reviewed in passing here – helped to raise greater public awareness of the potential of this technology.
  • Audience attendance (and the subsequent online debate) at the recent London Futurist event “Hacking our wetware, with Andrew Vladimirov”, convinced me that public appetite for information on smart drugs is about to greatly intensify.

And as discussion of the technology of smart drugs increases, so (quite rightly) does discussion of the potential downsides and drawbacks of that technology.

Nexus is likely to ratchet this interest even higher. The technology in the novel doesn’t just add a few points of IQ, in a transitory basis, to the people who happen to take it. It goes much further than that. It has the potential to radically upgrade humans – with as big a jump in evolution (in the course of a few decades) as the transition between apes and humans. And not everyone likes that potential, for reasons that the book gradually makes credible, through sympathetic portrayals of various kinds of carnage.

Nexus puts the ideas of transhumanism and posthumanism clearly on the map. And lots more too, which I shouldn’t say much about, to avoid giving away the plot and spoiling the enjoyment of new readers.

But I will say this:

  • My own background as a software engineer (a profession I share with Ramez Naam) made me especially attuned to the descriptions of the merging of computing science ideas with those of smart drugs; other software engineers are likely to enjoy these speculations too
  • My strong interest in the battle of ideas about progress made me especially interested in inner turmoil (and changes of mind) of various key characters, as they weighed up the upsides and downsides of making new technology more widely available
  • My sympathy for the necessity of an inner path to enlightenment, to happen in parallel with increasingly smart deployment of increasingly powerful technology, meant that I was intrigued by some of the scenes in the book involving meditative practices
  • My status as an aspiring author myself – I’m now about one third of the way through the book I’m writing – meant that I took inspiration from seeing how a good author can integrate important ideas about technology, philosophy, societal conflict, and mental enlightenment, in a cracking good read.

Ramez is to be congratulated on writing a book that should have wide appeal, and which will raise attention to some very important questions – ahead of the time when rapid improvements of technology might mean that we have missed our small window of opportunity to steer these developments in ways that augment, rather than diminish, our collective humanity.

Anyone who thinks of themselves as a futurist should do themselves a favour and read this book, in order to participate more fully in the discussions which it is bound to catalyse.

Footnote: There’s a lot of strong language in the book, and “scenes of an adult nature”. Be warned. Some of the action scenes struck me as implausible – but hey, that’s the same for James Bond and Jason Bourne, so that’s no showstopper. Which prompts the question – could Nexus be turned into a film? I hope so!

2 November 2012

The future of human enhancement

Is it ethical to put money and resources into trying to develop technological enhancements for human capabilities, when there are so many alternative well-tested mechanisms available to address pressing problems such as social injustice, poverty, poor sanitation, and endemic disease? Is that a failure of priority? Why make a strenuous effort in the hope of allowing an elite few individuals to become “better than well”, courtesy of new technology, when so many people are currently so “less than well”?

These were questions raised by Professor Anne Kerr at a public debate earlier this week at the London School of Economics: The Ethics of Human Enhancement.

The event was described as follows on the LSE website:

This dialogue will consider how issues related to human enhancement fit into the bigger picture of humanity’s future, including the risks and opportunities that will be created by future technological advances. It will question the individualistic logic of human enhancement and consider the social conditions and consequences of enhancement technologies, both real and imagined.

From the stage, Professor Kerr made a number of criticisms of “individualistic logic” (to use the same phrase as in the description of the event). Any human enhancements provided by technology, she suggested, would likely only benefit a minority of individuals, potentially making existing social inequalities even worse than at present.

She had a lot of worries about technology amplifying existing human flaws:

  • Imagine what might happen if various clever people could take some pill to make themselves even cleverer? It’s well known that clever people often make poor decisions. Their cleverness allows them to construct beguiling sophistry to justify the actions they already want to take. More cleverness could mean even more beguiling sophistry.
  • Or imagine if rapacious bankers could take drugs to boost their workplace stamina and self-serving brainpower – how much more effective they would become at siphoning off public money to their own pockets!
  • Might these risks be addressed by public policy makers, in a way that would allow benefits of new technology, without falling foul of the potential downsides? Again, Professor Kerr was doubtful. In the real world, she said, policy makers cannot operate at that level. They are constrained by shorter-term thinking.

For such reasons, Professor Kerr was opposed to these kinds of technology-driven human enhancements.

When the time for audience Q&A arrived, I felt bound to ask from the floor:

Professor Kerr, would you be in favour of the following examples of human enhancement, assuming they worked?

  1. An enhancement that made bankers more socially attuned, with more empathy, and more likely to use their personal wealth in support of philanthropic projects?
  2. An enhancement that made policy makers less parochial, less politically driven, and more able to consider longer-term implications in an objective manner?
  3. And an enhancement that made clever people less likely to be blind to their own personal cognitive biases, and more likely to genuinely consider counters to their views?

In short, would you support enhancements that would make people wiser as well as smarter, and kinder as well as stronger?

The answer came quickly:

No. They would not work. And there are other means of achieving the same effects, including progress of democratisation and education.

I countered: These other methods don’t seem to be working well enough. If I had thought more quickly, I would have raised examples such as society’s collective failure to address the risk of runaway climate change.

Groundwork for this discussion had already been well laid by the other main speaker at the event, Professor Nick Bostrom. You can hear what Professor Bostrom had to say – as well as the full content of the debate – in an audio recording of the event that is available here.

(Small print: I’ve not yet taken the time to review the contents of this recording. My description in this blogpost of some of the verbal exchanges inevitably paraphrases and extrapolates what was actually said. I apologise in advance for any mis-representation, but I believe my summary to be faithful to the spirit of the discussion, if not to the actual words used.)

Professor Bostrom started the debate by mentioning that the question of human enhancement is a big subject. It can be approached from a shorter-term policy perspective: what rules should governments set, to constrain the development and application of technological enhancements, such as genetic engineering, neuro-engineering, smart drugs, synthetic biology, nanotechnology, and artificial general intelligence? It can also be approached from the angle of envisioning larger human potential, that would enable the best possible future for human civilisation. Sadly, much of the discussion at the LSE got bogged down in the shorter-term question, and lost sight of the grander accomplishments that human enhancements could bring.

Professor Bostrom had an explanation for this lack of sustained interest in these larger possibilities: the technologies for human enhancement that are currently available do not work that well:

  • Some drugs give cyclists or sprinters an incremental advantage over their competitors, but the people who take these drugs still need to train exceptionally hard, to reach the pinnacle of their performance
  • Other drugs seem to allow students to concentrate better over periods of time, but their effects aren’t particularly outstanding, and it’s possible that methods such as good diet, adequate rest, and meditation, have results that are at least as significant
  • Genetic selection can reduce the risk of implanted embryos developing various diseases that have strong genetic links, but so far, there is no clear evidence that genetic selection can result in babies with abilities higher than the general human range.

This lack of evidence of strong tangible results is one reason why Professor Kerr was able to reply so quickly to my suggestion about the three kinds of technological enhancements, saying these enhancements would not work.

However, I would still like to press they question: what if they did work? Would we want to encourage them in that case?

A recent article in the Philosophy Now journal takes the argument one step further. The article was co-authored by Professors Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson, and draws material from their book “Unfit for the Future: The Need for Moral Enhancement”.

To quote from the Philosophy Now article:

For the vast majority of our 150,000 years or so on the planet, we lived in small, close-knit groups, working hard with primitive tools to scratch sufficient food and shelter from the land. Sometimes we competed with other small groups for limited resources. Thanks to evolution, we are supremely well adapted to that world, not only physically, but psychologically, socially and through our moral dispositions.

But this is no longer the world in which we live. The rapid advances of science and technology have radically altered our circumstances over just a few centuries. The population has increased a thousand times since the agricultural revolution eight thousand years ago. Human societies consist of millions of people. Where our ancestors’ tools shaped the few acres on which they lived, the technologies we use today have effects across the world, and across time, with the hangovers of climate change and nuclear disaster stretching far into the future. The pace of scientific change is exponential. But has our moral psychology kept up?…

Our moral shortcomings are preventing our political institutions from acting effectively. Enhancing our moral motivation would enable us to act better for distant people, future generations, and non-human animals. One method to achieve this enhancement is already practised in all societies: moral education. Al Gore, Friends of the Earth and Oxfam have already had success with campaigns vividly representing the problems our selfish actions are creating for others – others around the world and in the future. But there is another possibility emerging. Our knowledge of human biology – in particular of genetics and neurobiology – is beginning to enable us to directly affect the biological or physiological bases of human motivation, either through drugs, or through genetic selection or engineering, or by using external devices that affect the brain or the learning process. We could use these techniques to overcome the moral and psychological shortcomings that imperil the human species.

We are at the early stages of such research, but there are few cogent philosophical or moral objections to the use of specifically biomedical moral enhancement – or moral bioenhancement. In fact, the risks we face are so serious that it is imperative we explore every possibility of developing moral bioenhancement technologies – not to replace traditional moral education, but to complement it. We simply can’t afford to miss opportunities…

In short, the argument of Professors Savulescu and Persson is not just that we should allow the development of technology that can enhance human reasoning and moral awareness, but that we must strongly encourage it. Failure to do so would be to commit a grave error of omission.

These arguments about moral imperative – what technologies should we allow to be developed, or indeed encourage to be developed – are in turn strongly influenced by our beliefs about what technologies are possible. It’s clear to me that many people in positions of authority in society – including academics as well as politicians – are woefully unaware about realistic technology possibilities. People are familiar with various ideas as a result of science fiction novels and movies, but it’s a different matter to know the division between “this is an interesting work of fiction” and “this is a credible future that might arise within the next generation”.

What’s more, when it comes to people forecasting the likely progress of technological possibilities, I see a lot of evidence in favour of the observation made by Roy Amara, long-time president of the Institute for the Future:

We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.

What about the technologies mentioned by Professors Savulescu and Persson? What impact will be possible from smart drugs, genetic selection and engineering, and the use of external devices that affect the brain or the learning process? In the short term, probably less than many of us hope; in the longer term, probably more than most of us expect.

In this context, what is the “longer term”? That’s the harder question!

But the quest to address this kind of question, and then to share the answers widely, is the reason I have been keen to support the growth of the London Futurist meetup, by organising a series of discussion meetings with well-informed futurist speakers. Happily, membership has been on the up-and-up, reaching nearly 900 by the end of October.

The London Futurist event happening this weekend – on the afternoon of Saturday 3rd November – picks up the theme of enhancing our mental abilities. The title is “Hacking our wetware: smart drugs and beyond – with Andrew Vladimirov”:

What are the most promising methods to enhance human mental and intellectual abilities significantly beyond the so-called physiological norm? Which specific brain mechanisms should be targeted, and how?  Which aspects of wetware hacking are likely to grow in prominence in the not-too-distant future?

By reviewing a variety of fascinating experimental findings, this talk will explore:

  • various pharmacological methods, taking into account fundamental differences in Eastern and Western approaches to the development and use of nootropics
  • the potential of non-invasive neuro-stimulation using CES (Cranial Electrotherapy Stimulation) and TMS (Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation)
  • data suggesting the possibility to “awaken” savant-like skills in healthy humans without paying the price of autism
  • apparent means to stimulate seemingly paranormal abilities and transcendental experiences
  • potential genetic engineering perspectives, aiming towards human cognition enhancement.

The advance number of positive RSVPs for this talk, as recorded on the London Futurist meetup site, has reached 129 at the time of writing – which is already a record.

(From my observations, I have developed the rule of thumb that the number of people who actually turn up for a meeting is something like 60%-75% of the number of positive RSVPs.)

I’ll finish by returning to the question posed at the beginning of my posting:

  • Are these technological enhancements likely to increase human inequality (by benefiting only a small number of users),
  • Or are they instead likely to drop in price and grow in availability (the same as happened, for example, with smartphones, Internet access, and many other items of technology)?

My answer – which I believe is shared by Professor Bostrom – is that things could still go either way. That’s why we need to think hard about their development and application, ahead of time. That way, we’ll become better informed to help influence the outcome.

10 April 2009

The future: neuroengineering and virtual minds

Filed under: books, futurist, neuroengineering — David Wood @ 8:25 pm

Because things have been so absorbing and demanding at work, during the setup phase of the Symbian Foundation, I’ve had little time over the last few months for a couple of activities that I usually greatly enjoy.

First, I’ve had little time to write articles for this blog (my personal blog). Any time and energy that I’ve had available for blogging has tended to go, instead, to postings in my work blog. For example, over the last fortnight I’ve written work-related postings entitled A new software journey, Collaboration at the heart, The first hardware reference design, Who wants to join a movement?, and Simpler and cleaner code. In principle, this blog here is for more personal reflections, and for matters removed from my day-to-day work responsibilities.

Second, I’ve had little time to read books. Last year, I probably finished on average at least one book and/or audio-book every two weeks. This year, so far, I’ve only made it to the end of one book: Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, by David Sloan Wilson. (It’s a fine book, which is both intellectually challenging and intellectually satisfying, and which also happens to be very relevant to the ongoing debates over “the new atheism”. My review of it can be found on the LivingSocial site.)

However, earlier today, in the course of a long flight, I took the time to open a book I’ve been carrying with me on several previous trips, and I made a good start on it. From what I’ve read so far, it already seems clear to me that this is a tremendous piece of work, about a field that deserves a significant increase in attention. The author is Bruce F. Katz, adjunct professor at Drexel University, and Chief Artificial Intelligence Scientist at ColdLight. The book is Neuroengineering the future: virtual minds and the creation of immortality.

Wikipedia gives the following definition of the term “Neuroengineering”:

Neural engineering also known as Neuroengineering is a discipline that uses engineering techniques to understand, repair, replace, enhance, or treat the diseases of neural systems. Neural engineers are uniquely qualified to solve design problems at the interface of living neural tissue and non-living constructs… Prominent goals in the field include restoration and augmentation of human function via direct interactions between the nervous system and artificial devices.

That’s an ambitious set of goals, but Bruce sets out an even grander vision. To give a flavour, here’s an extract from the Preface of his book:

I am not the first, and certainly will not be the last, to stress the importance of coming developments in neural engineering. This field has all the hallmarks of a broad technological revolution, but larger in scope and with deeper tentacles than those accompanying both computers and the Internet…

To modify the brain is to modify not only how we perceive but what we are, our consciousnesses and our identities. The power to be able to do so cannot be over-stated, and the consequences can scarcely be imagined, especially with our current unmodified evolutionarily provided mental apparatuses…

Here are just a few topics that we will cover…

  1. Brain-machine interfaces to control computers, exoskeletons, robots, and other devices with thought alone;
  2. Mind-reading devices that will project the conscious contents of one’s brain onto a screen as if it was a movie;
  3. Devices to enhance intellectual ability and to increase concentration;
  4. Devices to enhance creativity and insight;
  5. Mechanisms to upload the mind to a machine, thus preserving it from bodily decay and bodily death.

Other writers have addressed these topics before – both in science fiction and in technology review books. But it looks to me that Bruce brings a greater level of rigour and a wider set of up-to-date research information. To continue quoting from the Preface:

The book is divided into three sections:

  1. The first develops the neurophysiological as well as philosophical foundations on which these advances may be made;
  2. The second describes the current state of the art, and neuroengineering developments that will be with us in the near term;
  3. The final part of the book speculates on what will happen in the long-term, and what it will be like to be a post-evolutionary entity…

The futurist will naturally be drawn to the final section, but in their case it is all the more imperative that the initial development be mastered, especially the chapters with a philosophical bent. The uploading of the soul to a chine is not just a matter of creating the proper technology; it is first and foremost figuring out what it means to have a soul…

As an unabashed futurist, I’m greatly looking forward to finding more time (somehow!) to read further into this book!

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