If you had the ability to improve your memory and intelligence by implanting a device into your brain, would you do it?
When I think of this question, I am reminded of the movie Limitless, in which a struggling writer is introduced to a nootropic drug called NZT-48 that allows him to fully utilize his brain and vastly improve his lifestyle.
There are some undeniable points to be made about a drug, or an implant, that can enhance intelligence: If people have the choice to enhance their mental abilities with medication or an implant, what does that mean for society? Because if we all have access to the same enhancement, would it be an enhancement, or a new reality?
But then it leads to the question, are we coming up with these devices because our lifestyles are so bad? The way we eat, our toxic environments, drug use, alcohol use, over stressed, overworked, and medications…
Why are we coming up with enhancements that could easily be solved by healthy lifestyle and eating? Why not focus on simply fixing the root problem?
Computers In Our Brains
Back in 1998, Andy Clark and David Chalmers claimed that a computer can work with our brains to extend the mind, thereby offering additional processing capabilities as we break down and solve problems, as well as an extension for our memories complete with information, images, etc.
Now, a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Southern California, Theodore Berger, is capitalizing on this very proposal as he works to bring to market human memory enhancement via a prosthetic implanted in the brain.
Berger has been working on the prosthetic for 10 years, and claims it can function as an artificial hippocampus, which is the area in the brain associated with memory and spatial navigation. Berger’s goal is for the device to change short-term memory into long-term memory, and hopefully store it as the hippocampus does.
Entrepreneur Bryan Johnson, who is working with Berger, says: “The idea is that if you have loss of memory function, then you could build a prosthetic for the hippocampus that would help restore the circuitry, and restore memory.” Johnson says that people with memory disorders from traumatic experience or aging will be the first people to test this form of prosthesis. “The first super-humans are those who have deficits to start with,” says Johnson.
Johnson formed a venture capital fund, the OS Fund, that “invests in entrepreneurs working towards quantum-leap discoveries that promise to rewrite the operating systems of life.” Johnson views Berger’s work in such a way, and so formed kernel to support it, heading the company himself, and appointing Berger as the company’s Chief Science Officer.
Berger initially began his experiment by way of teaching a rabbit to connect an audio tone to a puff of air directed at the rabbit’s face, forcing the animal to blink. Electrodes attached to the rabbit gave Berger the ability to analyze patterns of activity shooting off in the rabbit’s hippocampus, which Berger calls “space-time code” that show where neurons are in the rabbit’s brain at a certain moment.
Berger observed the evolution of the rabbit garnering the ability to associate the tone and puff of air. He said: “As the space-time code propagates into the different layers of the hippocampus, it’s gradually changed into a different space-time code.” After sometime, the tone itself proved enough for the hippocampus to generate a recallable space-time code built upon the most recent version to force the rabbit blink.
This predictable space-time code gave Berger the tools he needed to create a mathematical model representing the process. He then created an artificial rat hippocampus to serve as his experimental prosthesis, training rats to press a level with electrodes monitoring their hippocampuses. “They recall the correct code as if they’ve created it themselves. Now we’re putting the memory back into the brain,” Berger noted.
“We’re testing it in humans now, and getting good initial results. We’re going to go forward with the goal of commercializing this prosthesis,” Berger said.
Berger wants to create the brain prosthetic specifically for people with memory problems. The minuscule device would be implanted in the patient’s own hippocampus, and would work by stimulating the neurons whose role it is to turn short-term memories into long-term memories.
While Berger hopes his invention can help patients suffering from Alzheimer’s, other forms of dementia, stroke victims and people whose brains have been injured, there is undoubtedly a bit of skepticism to be noted, of which I can only think of a blockbuster film like Limitless once again.
What Does This Mean For Us?
Inventions like to touch on transhumanism and the idea that we could essentially have our entire reality pushed into machine like bodies over time. Things like these hint at steps that move towards that, move away from our physical bodies that are only challenged because of the way we treat them and our environment, not out of necessity.
It can be argued that implants like this only move us even further away from connection.
Will the implant stay within the realms of patients with said memory loss issues? And how will they then pair up to people without memory issues? Will this be, dare I say, “fair”?
If this implant makes its way outside of its original desire for use, it could strike an issue of people taking advantage of science which makes them so far removed from the beauty of the requirement of obtaining optimal health and a better environment for improving memory. Would people no longer value mental exercises like reading, attending classes, or doing logic puzzles?
There is something to be said for making our bodies’ and their most valuable organs work to achieve greatness. Earning enhanced abilities ought to hold precedence over any form of scientific advancement, but this kind of news sparks far too many questions not to see that perhaps the future has looming controversies we cannot ignore.