A few weeks ago I was at the Brave New World conference in Leiden, the Netherlands. I was really looking forward to the event, especially because of the presence of Neil Harbisson, a cyborg artist. He got a skull implant when he was 20 years old. When I heard that story, I realized that the chip in my hand is not that that special. Just as the nootropics that I take. Neil is a real biohacker. He uses electronics on his brain to improve himself.
Neil Harbisson was born color blind. With his implant he is able to hear colors. You could say that Neil did not have the full capabilities that the rest of society has and that he can now participate at the same level.
After all, a lot of things in the world are based on colors. Not just traffic lights, but also maps of metro connections and how we navigate the world. Now it's less common with apps like Google Maps, but when I used to have to show someone the way in my village?
Then I often mentioned the color as an adjective: "Go to the right at the house with the blue roof and turn left at the building with the purple curtains".
Color in our culture
Color plays a dominant role in our culture. Not only when it comes to locating places or metro routes. Think Greenland, the Red Cross and 'The blues' (Manchester City). If you do not have the sensory experience of 'color vision', then you also lag behind culturally. Not that Greenland is very green, but still.
Neil can now join the rest of the society that can see colors. He can do even more with it. First, Neil's implant is connected to his smartphone via bluetooth. With that he can download photos and listen to them. A friend occasionally sends him a photo of a sunset in Australia and listens to the photos taken by the International Space Station (ISS). He himself says: "The space is full of colors, most people do not realize that".
The second advantage that Neil has is that the color spectrum that he can hear is broader than the spectrum that we can see with our eyes. He is also able to hear infrared and ultraviolet.
Have the roles not been reversed? With his bluetooth connection and his extensive color spectrum, he has more options than we do. He has given himself an upgrade. According to him, that is a basic right: he thinks that everyone should have that opportunity. At least, anyone who wants to.
I asked Neil if this does not lead to a class difference. Will only the well-to-do in the world soon be able to buy and use such technology? His answer is that it must remain a free choice.
Personally, I agree with this, but what if a lot of people make this (individual) choice and that you can not stay behind? An alternative scenario is that it is partly imposed, for example by your parents, employer or the government.
The development that Neil represents is also called 'human enhancement': adding technology to improve your abilities or skills. In essence it is not new. If you wear glasses, you have also artificially improved yourself: the capacity to see things far or close to sharp.
The same goes for a mobile phone: communicate directly with people who are hundreds of miles away. The current smartphones optimize other functions as well. Think of Evernote for notes and memories, a digital agenda to remember meetings and translation apps to understand another languages.
The ultimate form of 'human enhancement' is when we link artificial intelligence directly to human intelligence. This is the vision of the future that the Wachowski brothers display in the first film from The Matrix trilogy.
There, Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, gets software downloaded directly into his brain. After a few hours of being directly connected to a computer, he has the highest level of karate, kung-fu, jiu jitsu and all other Asian martial arts.
Deep Brain Stimulation
How long do films such as The Matrix still remain science fiction? The neurosciences are developing pretty fast. For example, physicians and scientists are doing experiments with deep brain stimulation with patients suffering from Parkinson's disease.
That means that when scientists send a weak current through a needle that is in the brain of the patient, all vibrations and shocks disappear. In fact, the patient regains his or her fine motor skills. An example can be seen in this video.
The next step in this development is that we use 'deep brain stimulation' not only to make sick people better, but to make normal people even better. This is, among other things, the vision of Elon Musk with the company Neuralink. With a brain implant we can link artificial intelligence directly to human intelligence.
The role of nootropics
Until the moment that we immediately receive 1,000 extra IQ points or 'instant focus' by activating a brain implant, we have to use the current possibilities. Such as healthy food, a good night sleep and swallowing nootropics.
What does this vision of the future mean for how we now look at nootropics? I personally experience the benefits: a sharper focus, more concentration and a better memory. But what happens when nootropics becomes the norm? It can therefore have social implications: what if you refuse to take nootropics?
Or take a different scenario (but not unthinkable in professions that require an immense focus such as stock traders or poker players): your employer requires you to take nootropics. A moment of lost focus can mean huge financial losses.
Using nootropics is a free and individual choice. As far as I am concerned, that also remains the case. You can decide for yourself whether you want to use it or not. But what if we can impact our brains more profoundly? Then it can have consequences for your professional life, your social life and how we interact with each other in society.
For that reason, we must already think about it and discuss it.
With or without nootropics. You still have that choice.