An interesting article appeared recently in the Wall Street Journal in which a couple of leading brain scientists argued that within a few years we’ll have the technology to provide brain implants that will allow us to enhance our ability to think and reason. Because of the rapid advancements we are making in molecular biology and neuroscience, someday soon getting a brain implant will be as common as getting plastic surgery. Think of it as getting a brain tuck instead of a tummy tuck!
In fact, Vint Cerf will tell you that we already have enhanced our brain function through the power of the Internet, something I completely agree with. We can get answers to any question virtually instantly thanks to search engines like Google and Yahoo and the vast amount of data the Internet stores.
Here’s an interesting factoid: At the rate computing power is growing, within 10 years we’ll be producing a computer with the computing capability of a single human brain and by 2045, a single computer will have the processing power of all human brains combined! It’s not far-fetched to think that scientists will figure out a way to tap into that power by connecting the human brain directly to a micro-miniaturized PC implanted in your head. Imagine having the ability to instantly recall any specific bit of data or being able to do calculus in your head? Heck, I’d like to be able to just balance my checkbook without needing to pull up a spreadsheet!
As it frequently is with this kind of fantastic leap in technology, we now have to deal with the ethical, moral and philosophical questions. I don’t know about you, Rebecca, but I remember back in the day, when I was first learning upper level math in high school, my teacher refused to let us use calculators in class, although we were free to use slide rules, if we could figure out how to! Now, of course, students are allowed to use all sorts of technology to help them with their studies; the teachers have just made the material they use and the questions they have to answer that much harder. What happens, though, when students start showing up in class with brain implants that can’t be detected? Obviously, an unfair advantage against a kid without an implant, but does it matter?
A lot of people will argue that brain implants, like the Internet today, frees us from having to remember useless facts and complex processes that we rarely need and instead allows us to focus on higher level thinking and cognitive skills. Others will argue that those kind of technologies are crutch which are fundamentally changing humans, and not in a good way. Scientists will argue that the major beneficiaries of brain implant technology will be people with learning disabilities and impaired brain function, like Alzheimer’s patients. At some point, though, we are going to have to sit down and figure out some rules of the road for the use of brain implants.
With that in mind, a team of researchers at the University of Oxford got together to dig into the ethical, legal and social implications of brain enhancement technology with the goal of developing a regulatory framework for what they call cognitive enhancement devices, or CEDs. Their conclusion? Outside of the usual medical device regulatory process, leave the decision to the consumer.