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.