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.


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!

26 March 2012

Short-cuts to sharper thinking?

Filed under: bias, futurist, intelligence, nootropics — David Wood @ 11:15 pm

What are the best methods to get our minds working well? Are there ways to significantly improve our powers of concentration, memory, analysis, and insight?

Some methods for cognitive enhancement are well known:

  • Get plenty of sleep
  • Avoid distracting environments
  • Practice concentration, to build up mental stamina
  • Augment our physical memories with external memories, whether in physical or electronic format, that we can consult again afterwards
  • Beware the sway of emotion – “when your heart’s on fire, smoke gets in your eyes”
  • Learn about cognitive fallacies and biases – and how to avoid them
  • Share our thinking with trusted friends and colleagues, who can provide constructive criticism
  • Listen to music which has the power both to soothe the mind and to stimulate it
  • Practice selected yoga techniques, which can provide a surge of mental energy
  • Get in touch with our “inner why”, that rekindles our motivation and focus.

Then there are lots of ideas about food and drink to partake, or to avoid. Caffeine provides at least a transient boost to concentration. Alcohol encourages creativity but weakens accurate discernment. Sugar can provide a short-term buzz, though (perhaps) at the cost of longer-term sluggishness. Claims have been made for ginseng, ginkgo biloba, ginger, dark chocolate, Red Bull, and many other foods and supplements.

But potentially the most dramatic effects could result from new compounds – compounds that are being specially engineered in the light of recent findings about the operation of the brain. The phrase “smart drugs” refers to something that could dramatically boost our mental powers.

Think of the character Eddie in the film Limitless, and of the mental superpowers he acquired from NZT, a designer pharmaceutical.

If a real-world version of NZT were offered to you, would you take it?

(Note: NZT has its own real-world website – which is a leftover part of a sophisticated marketing campaign for Limitless.)

I foresee four kinds of answer:

  1. No such drug could be created. This is just fiction.
  2. If such a drug existed, there would be risks of horrible side-effects (as indeed – spoiler alert! – happened in Limitless). It would be foolish to experiment.
  3. If such a drug existed, it would be immoral and/or inappropriate to take it. It’s unfair to short-circuit the effort required to actually make ourselves mentally sharper.
  4. Sure, bring it to me! – especially for mission-critical situations like major exams, job interviews, client bid preparation, project delivery deadlines, and for those social occasions when it’s particularly important to make a good impression.

My own answer: even though nothing as remarkable as NZT exists today, drugs with notable mental effects are going to become increasingly available over the next decade or so.  As well as being more widely available, the quality and reliability will increase too.

So we’re likely to be hearing more and more of the phrases “cognitive enhancers”, “smart drugs”, and “nootropics“.  We’ll all going to have to come to terms with weighing up the pros and cons of taking these enhancers.  And we’ll probably need to appreciate many variations and special cases.

Yes, there will be risks of side effects.  But it’s the same with other drugs and dietary supplements.  We need to collect and sift evidence, as it is most likely to apply to us.

For example: on the advice of my doctors, I take a small dose of aspirin every evening, and a statin.  These drugs are known to have side-effects in some cases.  So my GP ensured that I had a blood test after I’d been taking the statins for a while, to check there were no signs of the most prevalent side-effect.  In due course, genomic sequences might identify which people are more susceptible to particular side-effects.

Similarly with nootropics: the best effects are likely to arise from tailoring doses to the special circumstances of individual people, and to monitoring for unusual side effects.

There’s already lots of information online about various nootropics.  For example, see this Nootropics FAQ.  That’s a lot to take in!

Personally, for the next few years, I expect to continue to focus my own cognitive enhancement project on the methods I listed at the start of this article.  But I want to keep myself closely informed about developments in nootropics.  If the evidence of substantive beneficial effect becomes clearer, I’ll be ready to take full advantage.

Hmm, the likelihood is that I’m going to need to become smarter, in order to figure out when it’s wise to try to make myself smarter again by taking one or more nootropics.  But that first-stage mental enhancement can happen by immersing myself in a bunch of other smart people…

That’s one reason I’m looking forward to the London Futurist Meetup on the subject of nootropics that is taking place this Thursday (29th March), from 7pm, in the Lord Wargrave pub at 42 Brendon Street, London W1H 5HE.  It’s going to be a semi-informal discussion, with attendees being encouraged to talk about their own experiences, expectations, hopes, and fears about nootropics.  Hopefully, the outcome will be improved collective wisdom!

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