The Not-So-Distant Future When We Can All Upgrade Our Brains

The analysts at the Institute for the Future present new research about our weird times. 

In a decade, cognitive enhancement may have gone mainstream. Pills can already help you stay up longer, bring more focus to your work, and who knows what else. But what might sound good on an individual level could create societal disruptions, or so Palo Alto think-tank the Institute for the Future proposes in its latest Ten-Year Forecasts. 

As a result, the Institute has proposed that the world's citizens need a "Magna Cortica."

"Magna Cortica is the argument that we need to have a guidebook for both the design spec and ethical rules around the increasing power and diversity of cognitive augmentation," said IFTF distinguished fellow, Jamais Cascio. "There are a lot of pharmaceutical and digital tools that have been able to boost our ability to think. Adderall, Provigil, and extra-cortical technologies."

Back in 2008, 20 percent of scientists reported using brain-enhancing drugs. And I spoke with dozens of readers who had complex regimens, including, for example, a researcher at the MIT-affiliated Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. "We aren't the teen clubbers popping uppers to get through a hard day running a cash register after binge drinking," the researcher told me. "We are responsible humans." Responsible humans trying to get an edge in incredibly competitive and cognitively demanding fields.

Then there is transcranial brain stimulation, which is already being practiced by dedicated DIYers because of tantalizing results like this, despite limited clinical evidence about its efficacy.

And part of Google Glass's divisiveness stems from its prospective ability to enhance one's social awareness or provide contextual help in conversations; the company Social Radar has already released an app for Glass that shows social network information for people who are in the same location as you are. A regular app called MindMeld listens to conference calls and provides helpful links based on what the software hears you talking about.

Both are one more step to integrating digital information directly into how we think as prosthetic knowledge.

So what do we do, societally, with all these possibilities from drugs to intelligent digital agents?

"As the technology improves, the potential for abuse and damage becomes really profound," Cascio continued. "So many of the parallel examples that we would go back to have has really bad results: Are we going to treat this like doping in sports, and create a criminal culture around it? Do we treat it as another version of a cell phone?"

These are not questions that can be answered by the development of the technologies. They require new social understandings. "What are the things we want to see happen?" Cascio asked. "What are the things we should and should not do?"

So, he floated five simple principles:

1. The right to self-knowledge

2. The right to self-modification

3. The right to refuse modification

4. The right to modify/refuse to modify your children

5. The right to know who has been modified

The point, as in the other IFTF forecasts, is not to resolve these complex future problems, but to shift the time when people begin thinking about them a bit closer to our present, so that technologists and critics don't begin thinking about them too late. Cascio calls this Magna Cortica version 0.1, a starting point for a deeper conversation about this strange new world.

But the IFTF makes forecasts across many different realms. While they, and many futurists, have focused on prognostications of technical change, they have increasingly begun to focus on the circumstances that might lead to large scale social changes like, for example, the massive shift in public opinion on gay marriage in the United States, or the problems that the idea of the European Union has encountered in recent years. "I've been doing this kind of work since 1995," Cascio said, "and I can tell you that these kinds of stories were not given enough attention in years past. I'm happy to see that the IFTF is pushing harder on talking about these social issues."

One situation they highlight in their new forecasts is what they're calling The End of Prisons. Prisons are expensive. It's unclear how well they actually work at reducing crime. And better methods of rehabilitation and punishment are available. They predict that these factors (along with others) could lead to a large shift in the way Americans, at least, think about putting people in jail.

At the other end of the spectrum, the IFTF, led by Mike Leibhold, is also looking at what they call the "second-curve Internet." The idea would be to take the existing physical infrastructure on the Internet and rebuild a newly decentralized network with it.

"What's really fun about Mike's idea is that it doesn't require tearing down the old one," Cascio added. "It's not I'll go make my own Internet."

What kind of Internet could be built on the ossified skeleton of the one we've all grown up with?

"It's post-NSA and post-Comcast," Cascio said. "Basically, the original model for the Internet was this peer-to-peer structure. Over the last decade, the Internet has evolved much more hub and spoke. Everything has to go through the major services. The idea with the second-curve Internet would push back into that other model. Peer-to-peer, mesh focused, and getting away from those central points of control and failure."

These ideas, of course, are provocations or arguments as much as they are forecasts. They are frames for thinking about what the future could be beyond the latest tech acquisition or bit of scientific research news. They try to synthesize emerging technological capabilities, social movements, and cultural affordances.

And you can even check their work: the IFTF has posted their forecasts going back to 2001. I dipped in to the 2002 report and found an entire section devoted to "viral marketing." That was a full two years before Mark Zuckerberg launched as an Ivy League-only Friendster.