Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Musings on future technologies for cognitive enhancement

A former college classmate of my son's, researching a magazine article on cognitive enhancement, just emailed me asking my opinion on future technologies for cognitive enhancement.... Here's the reply I gave him -- not much new information for the well-educated transhumanist reader, but I figured I'd paste it here anyways...

Regarding technologies for cognitive enhancement, present and future..

Firstly, I am not an expert on nootropics, but I can remember seeing various studies indicating potential positive benefits for cognitive aging. The racetams and modafinil come to mind, among many others. Anecdotally I am aware of plenty of folks who say these improve cognitive function, including older folks, but I'm not up on the literature.

I also see a huge future for neural stem cell therapy, and you can find a substantial literature on that online, though I'm not an expert on it. The regulatory issues here become interesting -- I know a number of individuals operating stem cell therapy clinics in Asia and Latin America, that cater substantially to US clients. So far these aren't focusing on neural stem cell therapy but I think that's not far off. The US regulatory environment has become archaic and highly problematic. One can envision a future in which Americans routinely fly to foreign countries for neural stem cell therapy and other medical interventions aimed at maintaining or increasing their intelligence. And the ones who stay home won't be as smart. One hopes that as these technologies mature, the American regulatory infrastructure will eventually mature as well.

I have also heard rumor (from reliable sources) of a device under development by the Chinese government in Beijing, in collaboration with some Western scientists, going by the name of the "head brain instrument" (three Chinese characters). This device uses transcranial magnetic stimulation, and has the dual effects of increasing learning rate, and also increasing susceptibility to suggestion. Interesting. I read an article a few months ago about a different but related device being tested in Australia, using transcranial stimulation to increase creativity. This sort of research seems fascinating and promising. No doubt one could advance even faster and further in this direction using direct brain-computer interfacing, but no one has yet developed an inexpensive and safe method of installing a Neuromancer-style "cranial jack" in the brain, alas. I'm sure the cranial jack is coming, but it's hard to estimate exactly when.

In terms of ongoing and future research, I think that a combination of genomics, experimental evolution and artificial intelligence is fairly shortly going to lead us to a variety of therapies to improve cognitive performance throughout the human lifespan, as well as to extend the healthy human lifespan overall. I'm seeing this now in the work my bioinformatics firm Biomind is doing in collaboration with the biopharma firm Genescient Corp. Genescient has created a set of populations of long-lived fruit flies, which live over 4x as long as control flies, and also display enhanced cognitive capability throughout their lives, including late life. We've gathered gene expression and SNP data from these "superflies" and are using AI technology to analyze the data -- and the results are pretty exciting so far! We've discovered a large number of gene-combinations that are extremely strongly associated with both longevity and neural function, and many of these correspond to likely-looking life-extension and cognitive-enhancement pathways in the human organism. The supplement Stem Cell 100, now on the market, was inspired by this research; but that's just the start ... I think we're going to see a lot of new therapies emerge from this sort of research, including nutraceuticals, pharmaceuticals, gene therapy, and others.

I'm currently in San Francisco, where I just got finished with 4 days of the Artificial General Intelligence 2011 conference, which was held on Google's campus in Mountain View. Now I'm at the larger AAAI (Association for the Advancement of AI) conference in San Francisco. I think that AI research, as it matures, is going to have a huge effect on cognitive enhancement research among many other areas. Right now my own Biomind team and others are using AI to good effect in bioinformatics -- but the AI tools currently at our disposal are fairly narrow and specialized, albeit with the capability to see pattens that are inaccessible to either unassisted humans or traditional statistical algorithms. As AI gradually moves toward human-level artificial general intelligence, we're going to see a revolutionary impact upon all aspects of biomedical science. Already there's far more biomedical data online than any human mind can ingest or comprehend -- an appropriately constructed and instructed AGI system could make radical advances in cognitive enhancement, life extension and other areas of biomedicine, just based on the data already collected ... in addition to designing new experiments of its own.

Down the road a bit, there's the potential for interesting feedback effects to emerge regarding cognitive enhancement, conceivably resulting in rapid exponential growth. The better science and technology we have, the better cognitive enhancers we can create, and the smarter we get. But the smarter we get, the better the science and technology we can develop. Et cetera, and who knows where (or if) the cycle ends! We live in interesting times, and I suspect in the next few decades they will become dramatically *more* interesting....