Neurotechnology is a hot area of future tech that’s becoming less and less “future.” The technological achievements so far are pretty miraculous: paralyzed people gaining control of robotic limbs and controlling computers with their mind and blind people receiving eye implants, for example. But what happens when this technology is used not to patch up deficits but instead to augment the abilities of everyday people?
Computational neuroscientist Anders Sanberg is a senior research fellow at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute where he explores the ethics of future human enhancement through AI, genetic engineering, and brain implants. IEEE Spectrum‘s Eliza Strickland interviewed Sanberg about the ethics of augmenting your brain with nanotech:
Spectrum: Do you worry that neurotech brain enhancements will only be available to the wealthy, and will increase the disparities between the haves and have-nots?
Sandberg: I’m not too worried about it. If the enhancement it is in the form of a device or pill, those things typically come down in price exponentially. We don’t have to worry so much about them being too expensive for the mass market. It’s more of a concern if there is a lot of service required—if you have to go to a special place and get your brain massaged, or you have to take a few weeks off work for training, the prices for those services won’t come down because they’re based on salaries. The real question is, how much benefit do you get from being enhanced? You have to consider positional benefits versus absolute benefits. For example, being tall is positionally good for men, tall men tend to get ahead in work and have better life outcomes. But if everyone becomes taller, no one is taller. You only get the benefit if you’re taller than everyone else. Many people who are against enhancement use this argument: Enhancement leads to this crazy race and we’re all worse off.
Spectrum: So even if a cognition-enhancing device became available, you don’t think everyone should get one?
Sandberg: Intellectual enhancement would be good for the lower half of the bell curve, for people who are generally hindered by their lack of intelligence, and make stupid mistakes that they make their lives worse.
People with good life outcomes tend to be smart but not super geniuses. Giving these people more intelligence might allow them to solve problems that less intelligent people can’t solve, but that might not be an advantage unless you care about solving deep problems.
Super geniuses tend to toil away at something very specialized. Everyone benefits from their work, and having more of those people would be a very good thing. Or if we could make them even smarter, they would come up with more interesting solutions to the hard problems facing our society.
Spectrum: Would it be feasible to use neurotech for moral enhancements in the context of law enforcement and prisoner rehabilitation?
Sandberg: I have given some thought to enhancement and punishment. Today’s punishment relies on operant conditioning, where you punish the person for doing something wrong. A philosopher would say, that’s not respecting the thinking being, if you just inflict pain when they do something wrong. If you want to rehabilitate someone, it’s more important that they understand why what they did is wrong.
The real reason people become criminals is often that they don’t have opportunities and don’t have the skills they need to succeed in society. They might need to understand that you don’t need to solve problems with violence. So I can imagine using cognitive enhancement in rehabilitation.
But the more interesting case would be to use enhancement to make them understand what they did. Sociopaths might not feel remorse for what they did. Could you make them understand? That would be a pretty tough punishment—if they suddenly understood why it was bad, and had to live with that guilt forever. So there’s a case for not curing the sociopath.
It’s a pretty interesting interview which is definitely worth a read: Q&A: The Ethics of Using Brain Implants to Upgrade Yourself. The discussion surrounding class and access to augmentation is especially interesting:
‘I’m not too worried about it. If the enhancement it is in the form of a device or pill, those things typically come down in price exponentially.’
Can you imagine a society in which poor people have to struggle to afford pills that rich people take for granted? What a crazy dystopian world THAT would be! The whole discussion and current events really make me wonder; do I want to be the first person I know with a brain implant that makes me smarter, or do I want to be the first person with a cranial firewall?