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Boosting Your Brain for Fun and Profit

A diverse assortment of legal, bioscience, psychology, and ethics academics argue in the pages of Nature for

  • ...a presumption that mentally competent adults should be able to engage in cognitive enhancement using drugs.
  • ...an evidence-based approach to the evaluation of the risks and benefits of cognitive enhancement.
  • ...enforceable policies concerning the use of cognitive-enhancing drugs to support fairness, protect individuals from coercion and minimize enhancement-related socioeconomic disparities.
  • ...a programme of research into the use and impacts of cognitive-enhancing drugs by healthy individuals.
  • ...physicians, educators, regulators and others to collaborate in developing policies that address the use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by healthy individuals.
  • ...information to be broadly disseminated concerning the risks, benefits and alternatives to pharmaceutical cognitive enhancement.
  • ...careful and limited legislative action to channel cognitive-enhancement technologies into useful paths.
  • You might not think this is a terribly controversial idea, but it is -- remember, drugs are bad, m'kay? As far as I can tell, that's the core of the argument against the use of enhancement biochemistry. If the cognitive enhancement came about through education, through computer use, or even through some less-conventional methods like meditation and yoga, the arguments would be about how to increase access, not prevent it.

    The notable element here is that this argument is appearing in the pages of Nature, pretty much the biggest name in science journals. That doesn't mean that such proposals are likely to be adopted any time soon, but it does mean that they're starting to receive mainstream attention -- or, to be precise, more mainstream attention. Recall that Tech Crunch reported that cognitive enhancement drugs were becoming all the rage in Silicon Valley. I can't imagine that, in a rougher economic environment, these executives and programmers are going to rely less on such assistance.

    Here's a bit of what I wrote about the phenomenon in the last draft of the Atlantic article (which now looks like a summer publish date, which means that it will go through yet another round of big edits and rewrites).

    This is one way a world of intelligence augmentation emerges. Little by little, people who don't know about drugs like modafinil (or don’t want/can't afford to use them) will find themselves facing greater competition from the people who do. [...]

    But these are primitive enhancements. As the science improves, we could see other kinds of cognitive modification drugs, boosting recall, brain plasticity, even empathy and emotional intelligence. They would start as therapeutic treatments, but would end up being used to make users "better than normal." Eventually, some of these may end up as over-the-counter products, for sale at your local pharmacy, or on the juice and snack aisle at the supermarket. Spam email would be full of offers to make your brain bigger, and your idea production more powerful.

    Such a future would bear little resemblance to "Brave New World" or similar narcomantic nightmares; we may fear the idea of a population kept doped and placated, but we're more likely to see a populace stuck on overdrive, searching out the last bit of competitive advantage, business insight, and radical innovation. No small amount of that innovation would be directed towards inventing the next, more powerful, cognitive enhancement technology.

    Cognitive enhancement drugs may be primitive for now, but they're here -- and in increasing use. It would be painfully irresponsible to think that it's a fringe issue, and to continue to pretend that prohibition is a reasonable response.

    The series of proposals in the Nature article strike me as eminently reasonable, cautious, and forward-looking. I'm trying hard not to be cynical about their likelihood of implementation. Maybe they should start working on optimism-enhancement technologies, too.


    Here's the thing that bothers me about this whole issue: the right to do anything I want to with my body also gives me the right NOT to do anything with my body. It bothers me that, unless I want to cripple my career, I'm going to _have_ to take these drugs. If I don't want to eat meat, I should be able to be a vegan without having it affect my work. If I don't want to take foreign substances into my body, I should be able not to take foreign substances into my body without having it affect my work.

    Let's see how soon it takes some idiot to say "then change careers, jerk".

    Re:Patrick DiJusto

    Intelligence enhancing drugs can be thought of as just the future Higher Education. If I want to be a nuclear engineer I have to do the things required to go into that career. It's a matter of suitability, not a matter of choice.
    Plus, a comparison could be made linking prohibition of these drugs with holding back human advancement. Why should we put progress on hold just because you don't want to take pills?
    Or, don't take the pills, but you may have to get a different job. Just like if you don't spend six hours per day at the gym you probably won't be a professional athlete.

    Odd though that it all gets coached in terms of competitive advantage, the 'if you don't keep up you're going to be a janitor with a 140 IQ in the brave new world.' syndrome. Hey, my brain only works half as well as it should on my best days. I'm not looking to put it into overdrive, just open up the potential.

    What is putting the cart before the horse?

    Where are these cognitive enhancing drugs? WHERE?! 'Cause I want some, oh yes please.

    But Nature are just talking about Modanifil. Which is still making the (*cough*BigPharma*cough*) headlines as a miracle.

    Now sure, it might be the new amphetamine, but SFW. We already have coffee, red bull, etc.

    One pill won't make you a DaVinci etc.

    Can we pause the hypothetical ethics discussion until there's actually something to talk about please?


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