Why Cognitive Enhancement Is in Your Future (and Your Past)

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Using technology to enhance our brains sounds terrifying, but using tools to make ourselves smarter may be part of humans' nature.

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It could be that we are on the verge of a great deluge of cognitive enhancement. Or it's possible that new brain-enhancing drugs and technologies will be nothing compared to how we've transformed our minds in the past. If it seems that making ourselves "artificially" smarter is somehow inhuman, it may be that similar activities are actually what made us human.

Let's look at the nature of the new technology. Last week a team of ethicists from Oxford released a paper on the implications of using Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (TDCS) to improve cognition in human beings.  Recent years have seen some encouraging, if preliminary, lab results involving TDCS, a deep brain stimulation technique that uses electrodes placed outside the head to direct tiny painless currents across the brain. The currents are thought to increase neuroplasticity, making it easier for neurons to fire and form the connections that enable learning. There are signs that the technology could improve language acumen, math ability, and even memory. The Oxford paper argues that TDCS has now reached a critical stage where its risks must be carefully considered before the research goes further.

Of course, not everyone is convinced that the technology will pan out. Some remain skeptical of TDCS, calling it a fad, the latest in a long series of "neuro-myths" that bubble up when scientists distort or embellish their findings in the name of publicity. But even if brain stimulation fizzles, the questions raised by the Oxford paper are going to be with us for a long time. That's because TDCS is just one of many promising new technologies that neuroscientists hope will enhance cognition, including smart pills, genetic engineering, and brain-to-computer interfacing. As deep brain stimulation has become the flavor du jour in neuroscience, bioethicists have increasingly given it a starring role in the thought experiments they use to tease out the philosophical dilemmas posed by cognitive enhancement.

Allen Buchanan is one such bioethicist. As a Professor of Philosophy at Duke University and a consultant to the President's Council on Bioethics, Buchanan has written extensively about the ethical implications of human enhancement. In his most recent book Better Than Human he makes a sustained philosophical case for pursuing human enhancement, arguing that its critics often proceed from a deeply flawed understanding of human nature. Last week I spoke with Buchanan at length about the ethics of deep brain stimulation, the history of cognitive enhancement, and what a world of cognitively enhanced human beings might look like.

Some have argued that enhancement, cognitive or otherwise, is somehow antithetical to human nature. Part of your response to that argument, if I understand it correctly, has been to say that the drive toward enhancement is actually very much a part of human nature. Can you elaborate on that a bit?

Buchanan: I think that any appeal to the notion of human nature, on either side of the enhancement debate, is tricky and problematic and has to be handled with care. Yes, in one sense we might say that it's part of human nature to strive to improve our capacities. Humans have done this in the past by developing literacy and numeracy, and the institutions of science, and more recently we've done it with computers and the Internet. So, yes, if an alien were looking at humanity and asking "What is human nature?" one of the ingredients is going to be that these beings seem quite concerned with improving their capacities and they seem to have a knack for doing it.

On the other hand, sometimes people say that we shouldn't engage with these technologies because we could somehow damage our nature or interfere with our nature, and in doing so they seem to have a kind of rosy pre-Darwinian view about human nature and about nature generally. They tend to think that an individual organism, a human being, is like the work of a master engineer---a delicately balanced, harmonious whole that's the product of eons of exacting evolution.

Now that's one account of human nature, but I want to contrast it with another one from Charles Darwin who wrote in a letter to Joseph Hooker: "What a book a devil's chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful blundering, low and horribly cruel works of nature" and by the works of nature, he's talking about us. And so these are two quite different views about nature and about human nature, and if you begin with the first one, the sort of rosy and pre-Darwinian view, then you're almost bound to conclude that anything we try to do to improve ourselves is bound to be a disaster, that any form of intervention is going to end up looking like reckless, foolhardy behavior. On the other hand if you take the Darwinian view and think of human beings as being like any other organisms---sort of cobbled together beings, products of mutation and selection and the crude development of ways to cope with short term problems in the environment, then you'll be more open to the idea that we should at least consider the possibility of improving ourselves.

Humans have done enhancement in the past by developing literacy and numeracy, and the institutions of science, and more recently we've done it with computers and the Internet.

The list of design flaws in human beings is pretty long, as it is in other organisms, and so to think that somehow we're at the summit of perfection and that we're stable is to have the wrong idea of human nature. The misleading assumption is that if we don't interfere, we're going to continue the way we are, and of course that goes completely contrary to everything we know about evolution. In fact it might turn out that the only way to prevent us from going extinct, or to prevent some great worsening of our condition, is to enhance some of our capacities.

When I was a child, which was quite some time ago, in textbooks in public schools you often saw this depiction of some sort of primordial being pulling itself out of primordial soup, sort of a half fish half mammal sort of thing, and then just to the right of that in this line of development, there would be an apelike creature walking on all fours, then you see a Neanderthal walking partly upright, and then you see a human being walking fully upright, and then that's the end. There's no indication that things could get better or worse after that. And that's the picture that we're the summit of the evolutionary process and of course that's really just importing the old pre-Darwinian view and giving it a superficial coating of Darwinian terms.

Human enhancement has been a frequent subject in popular culture, even if its treatment there has often been superficial. Have films like Gattaca or Limitless primed the public for thinking about the ethical implications of these technologies?

Buchanan: It's interesting you mentioned both Gattaca and Limitless because they're quite different. Gattaca is, in a way, representative of the majority of films that tackle these topics, which tend to be very dark. They tend to play on the anxieties people have about these technologies, and they tend to take a very negative view of their social consequences. Gattaca, for instance, paints a fairly grim picture, because it looks at the effects of genetic engineering on human beings simply in terms of its potential for creating a caste system, and I just think there's more to it than that. Limitless on the other hand, at least as I saw it, seemed to be much more positive and seemed to convey that people could have quite legitimate interests in cognitive enhancement technologies, and that the people who desire these technologies aren't just cranks or people who have inappropriate desires.

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"One thing that Limitless missed is the interactive benefit of these enhancements."

One of the most common objections to cognitive enhancement--one that Gattaca addresses in the context of genetic engineering--stems from the fear that cognitive enhancements might exacerbate social inequality by disproportionately advantaging elites. You have argued, persuasively I think, that some examples of previous cognitive enhancement technologies, like literacy and mobile phones, have diffused rapidly across classes after some initial period of monopolization by elites. Are there good reasons to think cognitive enhancement will follow suit?

Buchanan: I think that it depends on which kind of cognitive enhancements you're talking about, especially which modes of technology are being used. If you're thinking about something like surgical procedures for implanting genetically engineered tissue into someone's brain, or if you're talking about very high tech brain to computer interfacing technologies or the genetic engineering of human embryos, presumably those technologies are going to be very expensive and won't be available to a lot of people. So if that's the direction that we go, there might be very serious problems of inequality.

On the other hand cognitive enhancements like TDCS and cognition-enhancing drugs may become inexpensive fairly quickly, and in turn might diffuse much more rapidly than literacy did. This is especially clear in the context of prescription drugs. Right now if you go to Wal-Mart there are over one hundred and thirty drugs that used to be on patent and have now gone off patent and gone generic, and a month supply of each of these drugs is only four dollars. Now that's a lot cheaper than the cognitive enhancement drug that you get at Starbucks. So yes in the future there might be a period when these drugs are on patent, and are expensive, but when they go off patent they could become very inexpensive.

And also it's important to bear in mind that this may not be something where access to the market is an issue at all. If it turns out that some safe version of TDCS has dramatic cognitive benefits, then governments may view these as very important for national productivity and they may subsidize them in the way they now subsidize education for the very same reason.

Cell phones are another example. No one dreamed that cell phones would become available so rapidly to hundreds of millions of people around the world. But some technologies do diffuse slowly, and where they diffuse slowly there's a potential for problems of inequality.

Assuming then that some cognitive enhancements will spread rapidly across socioeconomic lines, is there a fear that they might make society more likely to produce certain outliers on the continuum of human personality--say, evil genius figures capable of horrific atrocities. If this technology increases the set of highly intelligent individuals within a certain population, won't it also increase the chances that those individuals will overlap with the small set of homicidal, or even genocidal maniacs within a population? I'm thinking of someone like Pol Pot with the intellectual capacities of a figure like Richard Feynman.

Buchanan: At present we don't know enough about the connections between intelligence and personality to know how serious a risk that is but I think it's a risk worth considering. I mean there's another way to look at this, and that is that there is a general problem here. We've developed technologies, which are so powerful and so readily accessible that a very small number of people can use them to create great harm, and that's just due to the success of science.

Even today, without a tremendous amount of specialized knowledge, people may be able to produce lethal viruses that we don't have much immunity to, or a small terrorist group can acquire some plutonium and put it in a municipal water supply and kill lots of people. So in one way this is a more general problem about how powerful our technologies are and the fact that they can be used for good or for ill by small numbers of people---people who are not subject to the discipline of large organizations like states, who aren't subject to the logic of deterrence that state actors are subject to.

Now the other side of this coin is that if there's a general ramping up of intelligence, then presumably there's also going to be a lot more people who are very intelligent and who have good motivations, and who will be committed to trying to constrain the bad apples and prevent them from doing damage.

You also have to consider the possibility that cognitive enhancements may go hand in hand with moral enhancements. There's a great debate as to what extent bad behavior results in part from flawed cognitive processes, but even if improving our intelligence is not by itself is not likely to make us behave better, it may turn out that some of the same knowledge we're using to make cognitive enhancements---knowledge about the relationship between our brains and behavior--- may allow us to develop what some people have called "moral enhancements." And if that happens, that may be something that will at least reduce the kind of risk that you're talking about, because you're right that people who have a super-developed intelligence along with a moral sensibility that's dwarfed in comparison could be a real problem.

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An incomplete picture?

It strikes me that the development of "moral enhancements" would probably rip open five or six new subfields in bioethics.

Buchanan: Oh I agree and it already is, and it's very tricky. Cognitive enhancement is something that's relatively easy for people to understand, because it's easier for people to see what's controversial about it because it's easier to see what counts as a boost in cognitive performance. When it comes to moral performance, we have all sorts of problems that have to do with disputes about what a moral improvement is, what the moral virtues are, and that sort of thing.

We also have interesting precedents, interesting examples of existing morally enhancing technologies, like religion, social morality, institutionalized morality---there's no question that these have increased our capacity to interact with each other. Even legal systems have been moral enhancements in some respect because they've enabled us to control our aggressive impulses, to find ways of settling disputes that are more morally acceptable.

People who have a super-developed intelligence along with a moral sensibility that's dwarfed in comparison could be a real problem.

And it might turn out that there are some biochemical interactions that might stimulate our moral imagination, increase our empathy towards others, or, in the cognitive dimension, might improve our powers of moral judgment and reasoning. There's a lot of interesting literature now on what are called normal cognitive biases, cognitive flaws in cognitively normal people. Some of these cognitive flaws might have bad moral consequences in certain contexts, and so it's possible that by reducing some of those we might make ourselves better off also. 

Putting aside the outliers, the extreme personalities, some neuroethicists are worried about what they call ''hyper-agency,'' the notion that as human beings become more able to control their lives and themselves, they also become less constrained by traditional limits, and that human wisdom will ultimately be insufficient to manage that kind of freedom.

Buchanan: Look, I think this is a genuine problem. It's the old problem of hubris, and it's important to recognize that it doesn't just apply to cognitive enhancement or even biomedical enhancement more generally, it applies to all human interventions, technological or social or economic or political. One thing I would point out is that even though the worry about hubris is a serious one, it's hard to see how it could be a conclusive argument against biomedical enhancements across the board. Instead it's like all genuine concerns---it has to be given due weight and then balanced against the potential benefits of these technologies.

So while I think we should take the problem of hubris seriously, I also realize that it's not a local problem for biomedical enhancements, it's something we face everywhere and that consequently, it can't be a conversation-stopper. We have to take a more fine-grained approach, because there's no sort of general answer to the question "how should we go slow" or "how we should use due caution" for all of these different technologies. Different modes of enhancement in different contexts are going to have different risk benefit profiles.

A lot of people worry that the widespread use of cognitive enhancement will mean raised standards in the classroom and in the workplace. And while that may turn out to be a net positive for society, there is a fear that individuals who would rather not participate in cognitive enhancement will be forced to just to keep up with their enhanced coworkers, and that such pressures would constitute a kind of soft coercion.

Buchanan: That does worry me; I think it's a very reasonable concern. Now, again, it's not a conversation stopper, it's not something that would lead to the conclusion that we shouldn't develop these technologies. I think the situation you've described is quite widespread in sports. Some athletes, or even a majority of athletes, would prefer not to use enhancement drugs, but they do so in a defensive manner to prevent being put at a disadvantage when others use them. It's also a concern with the off-label use of drugs like Adderall, drugs that have not been developed specifically for the kind of cognitive enhancement they are often used for.

It would be better if we would bring these cognitive enhancement drugs out of the closet, and do regular clinical double-blind trails with them

The worst case scenario is where large amounts of people feel this pressure to use a drug even though they would prefer not to do it, and it's happening in a kind of unregulated context as it is now (with Adderall) and many people may be led to set aside reasonable worries about bad side effects because of this pressure, this soft coercion you're talking about. We have a huge unregulated experiment going on in this country, and in many other advanced countries I suspect, where a large population of university students are using these drugs, and that's unfortunate because it might be that five years from now or ten years from now it's going to be discovered that these drugs have some large scale adverse effect. It would be better if we would bring these cognitive enhancement drugs out of the closet, and do regular clinical double-blind trails with them, and genotype the people that take them and later if there's an adverse effect, see if it only affects people with a certain genotype, and be in a better position to prevent the wide diffusion of these drugs before they're safe.

Again, though, it's not confined to cognitive enhancement drugs or biomedical enhancements; I'm sure there are lots of people who used to be able to qualify for a job without an advanced degree, and now they have to have an advanced degree, and so they're "coerced" into getting that degree whether they think it gives them that much benefit or not. Similarly, if you're raising a child in a society where literacy is a necessary condition for any job worth having, you're going to be under pressure to make sure your child learns how to read and write. So these aren't necessarily bad things, they're only bad if they lead people to disregard reasonable worries about the risks of these technologies.

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"Yeah, we're going to need you to put those electrodes on now."

Some of the films about cognitive enhancement make it look pretty dull in practice. I remember seeing Limitless and thinking "so this guy ramps up to these breakout levels of raw intellect and creativity and the best he can do is a Wall Street job and a fancy car?" And that's an extreme example---there have been other, deeper explorations of enhancement, particularly in the superhero genre---but on the whole it seems like the subject has been treated pretty unimaginatively. What have you thought of that's really far out there, culturally or intellectually, that cognitive enhancement might bring about?

Buchanan: While I do think Limitless was more sympathetic toward these technologies than most pop culture representations of them, there's no question it was a little disappointing in terms of what was considered to be a fantastic improvement in the quality of this individual's life. I think one thing that Limitless missed is the interactive benefit of these enhancements. Cognitive enhancements in particular tend to have what economists call network effects, meaning that the value of you having the enhancement increases as more people have it.

Think about having a computer. If you have a computer, that's good you can do a lot of things with it, but part of what makes having your computer so valuable is that hundreds of millions of other people have computers. Similarly with literacy, if you were the only person who knew how to read certainly that would give you some advantages, but you wouldn't have nearly as rich a world as the one we live in where billions of people are literate.

So, I think perhaps one of the problems with Limitless was that it portrayed this guy by himself having much more developed cognitive capacities than other people, so it overlooked the fact that if lots of people have cognitive enhancements, there might be completely new forms of interaction, new kinds of social relationships, new forms of productivity and human flourishing, or new kinds of intrinsically enjoyable activities that we just don't have access to now.

I have an analogy for this, and the reason it's an analogy is that by the nature of the case it's hard for us to imagine what these new forms of interaction will be, and how rewarding they might be, but here's the analogy. Consider two card games: one is the child's game of "go fish" and the other is contract bridge. Now it might turn out that in the future if huge numbers of people are cognitively enhanced, they will look back at the kinds of activities that people in our world perform and say "that was like children playing go fish."

Think about the kinds of interactions that we now have, and the kinds of enjoyments and productivity we can have because of the Internet. If you try and ramp that up, if you magnify it by many orders of magnitude, you might begin to get an idea of how human life could be if many hundreds of millions of people were cognitively enhanced.

Because TDCS is thought to pair especially well with active learning, it's been suggested that it might be grafted on to media devices of one sort or another. Some have even imagined that in the future iPads and Kindles may come with these electrodes attached, so that you could read in some heightened state of neuronal connectivity. If such a technology were to become safe and available, what would be the first thing you'd read while attached to it?

I've actually heard that the people using this stuff in labs are using it on themselves the way in the way that the rest of us use coffee breaks

Buchanan: It's funny; I've actually heard that the people using this stuff in labs are using it on themselves the way in the way that the rest of us use coffee breaks. But that's a good question, I might go back and try to read an organic chemistry text that I had a lot of trouble with as an undergraduate. Or maybe I'd try to read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason in the original German and see if it's still as impenetrable to me as it was thirty years ago.

You're obviously someone at the outer edge, the innovating edge, of a particular field. I'm curious as to whether you'd want to use cognitive enhancement technologies in order to go deeper in that field, or would you try to expand your range of abilities, like you mentioned with the organic chemistry.

Buchanan: I think that's a question that many people are facing on a smaller scale, because as information becomes available more readily through the Internet, more forms of independent learning are available, and as people live longer, at least people in relatively affluent societies, they're facing this question. They may have specialized in something for most of their productive life, but now they realize they have another twenty years---I'm 63 years old right now, and I'm sort of thinking about what I want to be doing for the next fifteen or twenty years, however long it is that I'm going to be alive.

And that's a real question, the question of whether I should keep hammering away at the things that I do and try to do them better, or whether I should make some kind of radical change and go into some new area, or a diversity of areas, and I think that if the technologies we're talking about are developed it's going to add to the scope of that kind of choice, and I think that's probably a good thing. 

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Ross Andersen is a senior editor at Aeon Magazine. He is based in California.

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