Western societies have an ambivalent attitude toward drugs. While casual consumption is often overlooked and treated as a permissible social activity, drug-taking in sport, politics and business is tantamount to deception: perceived as impure and improper.
The question that no one seems to be asking is: can this attitude persist much further into the future? We are at a stage now where there is some editorial muttering about us transcending our human world to become a hybrid of man and machine. However, it should be noted that there has been much less commentary on the pharmaceutical equivalent around issues of extending and enhancing our human nature. While the commentary lags behind the reality of what is actually going on, there are arguments building, particularly in academic quarters, for the increased use of brain-enhancers of a pharmaceutical, rather than technological, nature.
IQ drives GDP
At a recent gathering of futurists in London, Anders Sandberg, of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, made a powerful argument for a far more biological, rather than technological, enhancement of our brains. Arguing that higher IQs lead to a higher GDP, his premise was that if, as a society, we can improve our cognition, we will improve our productivity. We could improve our cognition by outsourcing some human brain function to technology, but machines can perform only the more basic functions required. They aren’t great at pattern-recognition, meaning and interpretation – ie strategic thinking. Sandberg’s eventual conclusion is that we should seriously explore the use of smart drugs as enhancers of our mental and physical capabilities.
Did you know that amphetamines are used by airline pilots? How do you feel about that? What about if we extend that to surgeons?
Drugs are already used in some professions to enhance or maintain performance standards. Sandberg uses the example of classical musicians, some of whom are known to use beta blockers to calm their nerves. Most of us would probably find that both understandable and acceptable. But did you know that amphetamines are used by some airline pilots? How do you feel about that? What about if we extend that to surgeons? Would you be happy for surgeons performing operations to be ‘under the influence’ or ‘enhanced by’ drug-taking? We’d probably be more conflicted about it. However, if there were evidence that those drugs improved the surgeon’s concentration, precision or decision-making, what would we have to fear?
Nootropics are drugs that enhance cognitive function in some way and are known to be used by some university academics. Two of the most common seem to be methylphenidate (aka Ritalin) and dextroamphetamine (aka Adderall). Look at YouTube and you’ll find people reviewing all kinds of nootropics.
Food for thought
So if it’s OK for academics, what about students? Instead of pumping sugar into our children on a daily basis, what if FMCG brands infused foods with pharmaceutical brain-enhancers? Children could go to school with enhanced powers of concentration, much more able to memorise their lessons and just overall better equipped to learn. Furthermore, smart drugs could lead to smart people, which would lead to a smart society doing smart things. It’s certainly a different approach from the one where we keep children artificially comatose with fast food and turn them into sugar-induced zombies. And can we logically say that Red Bull is OK but smart drugs aren’t?
This ‘enhancement need’ is summarised best by Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics at Reading University, who recently told BBC Radio 4 listeners how he had connected technology directly to his nervous system through a series of implants. It connects his movements to his computer, which knows when he walks in and can welcome him home. He believes ‘internal technology’ will increase our natural abilities using connected technological implants. "If we stay as ordinary humans, we’ll be taken over by machines. We need to upgrade by linking with technology to stay in the driving seat," he explains.
Indeed, if marketers in the health and wellness sector aren’t looking at smart drugs as a future consumer need, what are they looking at? A host of regulatory issues springs to mind, but if higher IQs lead to higher productivity, the government may see a benefit if it increases our GDP. As the commercialisation of smart drugs explodes, more people will buy them online. Amphetamine-based Adderall, which is available on prescription, can be obtained in various guises online by anyone with a credit card.
Someone needs to offer a trusted ‘brand’, rather than allow an unregulated black market to be created. If we can permit the brand marketing of e-cigarettes, why not smart drugs?
The stumbling block seems to be that while society is happy to accept brain-enhancement from technological devices, it’s more suspicious about pharmaceutical solutions – a position that is irrational. Sandberg brings home the sheer irrationality of our thinking when he talks about politicians.
Could we accept our politicians making their decisions while taking smart drugs? If not, we should ask why, therefore, we accept having them make decisions for us when they are tired. Is the best way to reach a good decision on say, the euro, via a sleep-deprived all-nighter? As a society, we accept a lot of bad cognition. Maybe it’s time to get smarter and accept smart drugs instead. It will take a smart brand to attempt it.