Friday, May 15, 2009

Will Designer Brains Divide Humanity?

As technology continues to advance, making the agenda of the transhumanist folks a little more plausible, questions arise about how these developments might impact our sense of self, and also about the social divide that might be created between the haves (who can transform their brains) and the have-nots (who cannot afford the technology).

Would tweaking human brains widen the gulf between the world's haves and have-nots? (Image: Norbert Millauer/AFP/Getty)

Would tweaking human brains widen the gulf between the world's haves and have-nots?

(Image: Norbert Millauer/AFP/Getty)

Will designer brains divide humanity?

WE ARE on the brink of technological breakthroughs that could augment our mental powers beyond recognition. It will soon be possible to boost human brainpower with electronic "plug-ins" or even by genetic enhancement. What will this mean for the future of humanity?

This was the theme of a recent Neuroscience in Context meeting in Berlin, Germany, where anthropologists, technologists, neurologists, archaeologists and philosophers met to consider the implications of this next stage of human brain development. Would it widen the gulf between the world's haves and have-nots - and perhaps even lead to a distinct and dominant species with unmatchable powers of intellect?

One view is that this is merely the next phase in a process that has been taking place throughout human history. Humans have always played an active role in improving their own brainpower, says Lambros Malafouris of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research in Cambridge, UK, who was one of the organisers of the Berlin meeting. It began with inherited gene mutations that gave us uniquely "plastic" brains, capable of changing physically to meet hitherto unassailable intellectual and practical challenges.

More recent changes have been moulded through our interactions with the physical environment, and by the socially created "memes" passed down through culture. Milestones in human brain improvements over the past 2 million years have included the invention of gestures and language to describe our thoughts to others, as well as the written word and our ability to commit everything to permanent records.

These all act as extensions of our own brains, forming what Malafouris describes as a "metaplastic" system - a feedback loop between our brain's own neurology and the cultural and material demands on it. "Part of the reason Homo became sapiens lies in its unique ability to alter, modify and change what for other species remained fixed and stable," he says.

The evidence for this plasticity continues to grow. Andreas Roepstorff of Aarhus University in Denmark presented brain scans at the Berlin meeting showing that in people who meditate, the areas of the brain that control breathing are larger than the corresponding areas in people who do not (NeuroReport, DOI: 10.1097/wnr.0b013e328320012a).

Today, our minds are even more fluid and open to enhancement due to what Merlin Donald of Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, calls "superplasticity", the ability of each mind to plug into the minds and experiences of countless others through culture or technology. "I'm not saying it's a 'group mind', as each mind is sealed," he says. "But cognition can be distributed, embedded in a huge cultural system, and technology has produced a huge multiplier effect." In other words, humans already have minds evolving beyond anything seen before in history.

The next stage of brainpower enhancement could be technological - through genetic engineering or brain prostheses. Because the gene variants pivotal to intellectual brilliance have yet to be discovered, boosting brainpower by altering genes may still be some way off, or even impossible. Prostheses are much closer, especially as the technology for wiring brains into computers is already being tested (see "Dawn of the cyborgs"). Indeed, futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil believes the time when humans merge with machines will arrive as early as 2045 (New Scientist, 9 May, p 26).

It won't be long before "clip-on" computer aids become available for everybody, says Andy Clark, a pro-enhancement philosopher at the University of Edinburgh in the UK. These could be anything from memory aids to the ability to "search" for information stored in your brain. "We'll get a flowering of brain augmentations, some seeping through from the disabled community," he says. "I see them becoming fashion items, a bit like choosing clothing." Clark says that even today, devices such as head-up displays on spectacles or simply being adept at using computer programs like Photoshop come close to being physical extensions of people's minds.

Malafouris also believes such augmentation is the next logical stage in human development. "If we accept that tool use was part of the reason we came to develop language, then why should we perceive neuro-engineering as a threat rather than as the new stone industry of the 21st century?"

Not everyone thinks this is a good idea, however. Dieter Birnbacher, a philosopher at the University of Düsseldorf in Germany, says there are risks in technological self-improvement that could jeopardise human dignity. One potential problem arises from altering what we consider to be "normal": the dangers are similar to the social pressure to conform to idealised forms of beauty, physique or sporting ability that we see today.

People without enhancement could come to see themselves as failures, have lower self-esteem or even be discriminated against by those whose brains have been enhanced, Birnbacher says. He stops short of saying that enhancement could "split" the human race, pointing out that society already tolerates huge inequity in access to existing enhancement tools such as books and education.

The perception that some people are giving themselves an unfair advantage over everyone else by "enhancing" their brains would be socially divisive, says John Dupré at the University of Exeter, UK. "Anyone can read to their kids or play them music, but put a piece of software in their heads, and that's seen as unfair," he says. As Dupré sees it, the possibility of two completely different human species eventually developing is "a legitimate worry".

Can these potential pitfalls be avoided? The guiding principle, perhaps, could be to make sure the technology is cheap enough to be open to all, much as books, computers and cellphones are today, at least in richer countries. "If this stuff can be produced cheaply and resonates with what people want to do anyway, it could take off," says Chris Gosden, an archaeologist at the University of Oxford.

There are, however, simple alternatives to technological enhancement that would achieve many of the same goals, says Dupré: education and child-rearing. Moreover, he thinks such changes can be heritable via epigenetics - the reprogramming of gene expression in offspring by exposure to cultural, maternal and environmental influences. Dupré points to a study in rats showing that good maternal care was passed on largely because it permanently altered gene activity in the brains of the pups.

The upshot is that drastic changes are not the only way for our brain to evolve. "There will be a lot of evolution, but it won't be classic neo-Darwinist changes in the genome," says Dupré. "It will be changes in the environment, in technology and in the availability of good education." We should not tweak our genes, he adds. "I don't think souping up people's genomes is the way to go."

Whether we choose implants or not, our minds are destined to carry on evolving. "Given the right environment, most humans have an amazing potential to develop exciting mental capabilities," says Dupré.

Gosden agrees. "We're part of one long experiment and have no idea of the outcome, and being a Luddite is as much a leap into the unknown as adopting new technology," he says. "There's such a huge input from the material world that we're only partly in control of what happens."

Dawn of the cyborgs

Brain implants are already on their way. Four severely disabled people have already been fitted with hardware enabling them to interface with computers. Pioneered by neuroscientist John Donoghue at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, the BrainGate technology allows paralysed people to move a cursor on a computer screen, open emails, and operate lights or the TV.

Some researchers have gone even further. Andrew Schwartz and colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania have inserted computer chips into macaque brains that enable them to guide a prosthetic arm to feed themselvesMovie Camera.

Schwartz and other researchers are also contemplating implants that allow people to "speak" through computer systems, possibly by using wireless communication.

The US military is getting involved, with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency developing a prosthetic arm controlled by the brain through its "revolutionising prosthetics" programme, backed by $50 million over six years.

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