I recently came across a TEDx talk by James Cascio that I’m surprised I hadn’t seen before. At the present point in technological development, I’m of the belief that provoking contemplation and conversation is about as important a job as science fiction writers and ethicists have, and James seems to have aimed to do just that:

Though my mind tends to wander to the ethical implications of potential cognitive enhancements, it’s curious to note that the folks I’ve interviewed (and we’ve done many such interviews, including this insightful episode on “reading” brain signals with Brown University’s Dr. Beata Jarosiewicz) in the brain-machine interface medical domain have never once mentioned “enhancement,” and seem to consider the idea somewhat outlandish from the outset.

Tuning into other views and reading other interviews with top neuroprosthetics researchers, I found the same firm focus on amelioration of suffering (for example: reducing tremors in Parkinson’s disease patients with deep brain stimulation), and restoring of normal function (for example: permitting paralyzed individuals to control a robotic arm to feed themselves again). Despite all the potential implications of extending cognitive function, and the seemingly obvious possibilities of non-paralyzed or non-Parkinson’s-suffering individuals to leverage such technologies, the topic never seemed on the table for those in the medical field.

Tempting as it was to suppose they’d all signed some secret DARPA oath to shove issues of cognitive enhancement off the table, that’s almost certainly not the case. I’ve come to the conclusion after dozens of such conversations with neuroscience PhDs and researchers, that they

  1. See themselves as working on projects to better the condition of sufferers specifically
  2. Tend to see cognitive enhancement as less of a serious ethical concern, and likely beyond the time horizons of their own research (few neuroscientists tend to share the optimism in outcomes or timelines of Kurzweil)

Certainly, any respectable PhD speaking of enhancement would probably be shunned (even if behind closed doors), and it seems as though anyone working with millions of dollars of grant money geared to help sufferers ought not say a word of much else. It seems without question that DARPA is considering cognitive enhancement seriously, for better or for worse, and that even it’s memory repair prosthetic project would imply some potential for enhancing soldiers.

Even given these considerations, it seems to me as though the medical community at large isn’t all that concerned about the enhancement side of things, as of now.

Maybe we are 100 years from serious, regularly-accessible brain-machine interfaces that could permit enhancement. It’s possible that even the safe and widespread use of such technologies as BrainGate could be decades away. Is it possible that even if the genie got out of the lamp and intuitive mind-controlled devices became common, they might remain relegated to amelioration entirely?

Only time will tell, but some of us might be comforted by the notion that (from my experience) it doesn’t seem a pressing concern for the neuroscience medical that we set in place the ethical groundwork for regulating enhancement – as it may be unrealistic in the near future. Part of me hopes they’re right. We could probably use more time to think about all this…

 

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