A thought-provoking Q & A with Allen Buchanan, Professor of Philosophy at Duke University, a consultant to the President’s Council on Bioethics and author of the book, Better Than Human:
It could be that we are on the verge of a great deluge of cognitive enhancement. Or it’s possible that new brain-enhancing drugs and technologies will be nothing compared to how we’ve transformed our minds in the past. If it seems that making ourselves “artificially” smarter is somehow inhuman, it may be that similar activities are actually what made us human.
Let’s look at the nature of the new technology. Last week a team of ethicists from Oxford released a paper on the implications of using Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation TDCS to improve cognition in human beings. Recent years have seen some encouraging, if preliminary, lab results involving TDCS, a deep brain stimulation technique that uses electrodes placed outside the head to direct tiny painless currents across the brain. The currents are thought to increase neuroplasticity, making it easier for neurons to fire and form the connections that enable learning. There are signs that the technology could improve language acumen, math ability, and even memory. The Oxford paper argues that TDCS has now reached a critical stage where its risks must be carefully considered before the research goes further.
Of course, not everyone is convinced that the technology will pan out. Some remain skeptical of TDCS, calling it a fad, the latest in a long series of “neuro-myths” that bubble up when scientists distort or embellish their findings in the name of publicity. But even if brain stimulation fizzles, the questions raised by the Oxford paper are going to be with us for a long time. That’s because TDCS is just one of many promising new technologies that neuroscientists hope will enhance cognition, including smart pills, genetic engineering, and brain-to-computer interfacing. As deep brain stimulation has become the flavor du jour in neuroscience, bioethicists have increasingly given it a starring role in the thought experiments they use to tease out the philosophical dilemmas posed by cognitive enhancement.