A step closer to cognitive enhancement
Mohamed Taha looks at the latest developments in human cognitive enhancement.
It sounds like something out of a science fiction novel: scientists attaching electrodes to the heads of ordinary human beings to boost brain function – yet at Oxford University, that’s exactly what’s happening.
Called Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (TDCS), the technique involves applying currents of 1 – 2 milliAmps (mA) to the brain in order to ease firing for neurons. This is believed to improve learning and memory capabilities.
An unusual combination of neuroscientists and neuro-ethicists from Oxford University worked on the deep brain stimulation experiment, which they say has promising signs.
In February 2012, they published an essay about their work, entitled ‘The neuroethics of non-invasive brain stimulation’ in the journal ‘Current Biology’.
“This is a first step down the path of maximising human potential”, said Professor Julian Savulescu, co-author of the report. “This kind of technology enables people to get more out of the work they put into learning something.”
The technique has potential to improve language acumen, problem solving, math ability, memory, attention span and even coordination and movement.
“I can see a time when people plug a simple device into an iPad so that their brain is stimulated when they are doing their homework, learning French or taking up the piano,” said Dr Roi Cohen Kadosh, another of the report’s co-authors.
Dr Kadosh said a lot of thought went into the experiment.
“Our aim was to look at whether it gives rise to new ethical issues, issues that will increasingly need to be thought about in our field but also by policymakers and the public.”
Dr Savulescu agreed, stating that the technique is still in its infancy.
“Although this looks like a simple external device, it acts by affecting the brain. That could have very good effects, but unpredictable side effects.”
Dr Anders Sandberg, a James Martin Fellow for the Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology at Oxford University, is optimistic about the progress of cognitive enhancement.
“We should embrace it – but wisely,” he said.
Dr Sandberg is a renowned expert commentator and participant in the global discourse surrounding human enhancement.
In July 2012, he featured as a keynote speaker at the Robotics: Science and Systems Conference held at Sydney University.
His talk, entitled ‘The robot and the philosopher: charting progress at the Turing Centenary,’ explored the intersection between philosophy and robotics.
“Philosophers have both gained valuable insights from robotics and found deep new problems. And conversely, there are many robotics problems where philosophy might provide useful help or warnings,” he said.
In a practical sense, Dr Sandberg believes there’s a very real prospect that humans can enhance their cognition.
“We can certainly improve ourselves, just consider the effects of exercise and learning memory arts.”
Dr Sandberg said issues surrounding the testing and trialling of TDCS are still a major obstacle.
“Developing safe enhancement requires testing, and we might be too risk aversive as a society to accept that.”
Questions have been raised regarding the ethical issues surrounding human enhancement and possible new technology.
Dr Sandberg maintains that we must ensure individual autonomy when approaching these new technologies.
“We should be allowed to enhance ourselves, but we have a right to refuse to be enhanced if others insist on it,” he said.
To date, there are already memory-training methods that are used involving numbers, cards and text. There are also performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), which have plagued suspicions surrounding particular athletes in the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Other developing cognitive enhancement techniques include genetic engineering, testing enhanced memory in mice, implants of magnetic vision and cochlear implants for deaf people.
“I believe that in 50 years people are going to be much more enhanced compared to us; yet finding their artificial intelligence, nano-implants and tweaked genes will be completely normal,” said Dr Sandberg.
“Most people want to make things better, so if people have better minds more intelligence will be devoted to solving problems.”
Find the original report about TDCS here.