The Coming Age of Enhancement
IF a brain implant were safe and available and allowed you to operate your iPad or car using only thought, would you want one? What about an embedded device that gently bathed your brain in electrons and boosted memory and attention? Would you order one for your children?
In a future presidential election, would you vote for a candidate who had neural implants that helped optimize his or her alertness and functionality during a crisis, or in a candidates’ debate? Would you vote for a commander in chief who wasn’t equipped with such a device?
If these seem like tinfoil-on-the-head questions, consider the case of Cathy Hutchinson. Paralyzed by a stroke, she recently drank a canister of coffee by using a prosthetic arm controlled by thought. She was helped by a device called Braingate, a tiny bed of electrons surgically implanted on her motor cortex and connected by a wire to a computer.
Working with a team of neuroscientists at Brown University, Ms. Hutchinson, then 58, was asked to imagine that she was moving her own arm. As her neurons fired, Braingate interpreted the mental commands and moved the artificial arm and humanlike hand to deliver the first coffee Ms. Hutchinson had raised to her own lips in 15 years.
Braingate has barely worked on just a handful of people, and it is years away from actually being useful. Yet it’s an example of nascent technologies that in the next two to three decades may transform life not only for the impaired, but also for the healthy.
Other medical technologies that might break through the enhancement barrier range from genetic modifications and stem-cell therapies that might make people cognitively more efficient to nano-bots that could one day repair and optimize molecular structures in cells.
Many researchers, including the Brown neuroscientist John Donoghue, leader of the Braingate team, adamantly oppose the use of their technologies for augmenting the nonimpaired. Yet some healthy Americans are already availing themselves of medical technologies. For years millions of college students and professionals have been popping powerful stimulants like Adderall and Provigil to take exams and to pull all-nighters. These drugs can be highly addictive and may not work for everyone. While more research is needed, so far no evidence has emerged that legions of users have been harmed. The same may be true for a modest use of steroids for athletes.
Which leads us to the crucial question: How far would you go to modify yourself using the latest medical technology?
Fascinating: Read more . . .
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