FREEDOM AND SAFETY
Recently, I have had numerous conversations with people about neural interfaces. They have a number of different names, such as brain-computer interfaces, neuroprosthetics, BCIs, BMIs, etc. People are excited about the possibility of restoring function to stroke and motor impaired patients by using emerging technologies that can tap into the mind. I often push the conversation to see how far that excitement will go. Specifically, nobody has a problem with recovering capabilities that have been lost due to some type of injury. So there is little reluctance to consider implants for somebody who is paralyzed or has lost a limb.
Here is where it gets interesting: What about implants in normal people? At first, people usually become a little quieter and circumspect.
“Well, I would have to consider the risks; why would you put one in in the first place? Sounds fine, but not sure I would want one in my brain.” Then I say, “Well let me put it to you this way: What if I could give you an implant that was no more risky than getting a tattoo, it would not be cosmetically noticeable, and it fundamentally enhanced your intelligence.”
Now people start to perk up. I spoke to a lawyer and he said of course he would get one, because he would be at a disadvantage in the courtroom not having one. Once available, he would always assume his opposing counsel would be enhanced. I asked a class of medical students if they would want one and they all raised their hands. Many people say they would want one but there is a pretty common follow-up question: “What about the people who can’t afford the devices? Won’t that create a larger social divide between the haves and have-nots?” Here is the biggest rub: If we can enhance people’s intellects, but it is not uniformly available, should we do it?
The answer is yes, we absolutely should be augmenting human intelligence.
To justify the future, we should look at the past. Let’s look at the impact of previous technologies that would be considered human enhancements and how they have changed the world. Perhaps the biggest cognitive amplifier is the computer in all its manifold forms - laptops, mobile phones, the cloud, the internet, supercomputers - all of them have fundamentally improved the human condition. While yes, people in sub-Saharan Africa have less access to computers and this reduced access makes them less competitive. The global creation of increased computational power, however, has fundamentally improved the human condition and solved far more problems than it created. Along those same lines, the next generations of neurotech that will improve memory and elevate intelligence quotients will markedly enhance humanity’s ability to solve the big problems.
By big problems, I mean feeding 10 billion people in 2050, global warming, and developing sustainable energy past peak petroleum. All of these trillion dollar items require the best human minds can offer (and then some) if we as a species are going to survive. Also, as these enhancements become more mainstream, the technologies will reduce in price. Just as cell phones became ubiquitous across first, second, and third world nations, intelligence, connectivity, and capabilities will be democratized by cheap and effective neurotech. Thus, every world citizen will be able to both contribute to solving the earth’s largest existential challenges and compete in the global economy.
Hopefully in the future, when somebody tells you they will be making an appointment with a surgeon for an augment, they will come back smarter. The world will be a better place for it.
Eric C. Leuthardt, M.D., is a neurosurgeon who is currently a professor with the Department of Neurological Surgery and the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis. He is Director of the Center for Innovation in Neuroscience and Technology and the Brain Laser Center. His work has yielded him numerous accolades as a scientist, a neurosurgeon, and an inventor. He was named one of the Top Young Innovators by MIT’s magazine Technology Review. The magazine names individuals under the age of 35 each year whose work in technology has global impact. In addition to numerous peer reviewed publications, Leuthardt has numerous patents on file with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for medical devices and brain computer interface technologies.
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