What Are Your Options for Cognitive Enhancement?

Illustration of brain-labeled pills fizzing in blue background.
Illustration: James Fryer/The i Spot

By: G. Pascal Zachary

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not represent positions of IEEE Spectrum or the IEEE.

THE ENGINEER’S PLACE Steve Jobs took LSD 10 to 15 times and said that taking the drug was one of “two or three” most important things he ever did.

The late cofounder of Apple was an American original. Whatever singular qualities he possessed as a digital savant can’t be explained by his choice of recreational drugs. However, a new generation of engineers and software coders, centered in Silicon Valley but not limited to the world’s premier innovation hub, are now imitating Jobs in a rather dramatic way. They are routinely dropping “microdoses” of acid—about one-tenth the amount of the standard recreational dose—in order to achieve higher levels of creativity on the job, and greater intensity and focus.

Should you be doing the same?

Excuse me for posing such a personal question, but in the years ahead the question of whether you microdose may arise during a job interview or a coffee break with co-workers.

In Silicon Valley and other enclaves of leading-edge technology, the phrase “woke and wired” is coming to describe a certain openness by technologists to using pills and processors.

While the “pill” paradigm fits neatly into modern concepts of how to achieve wellness through supplements, the processor approach raises concerns, especially when it comes to implanting devices in the brain. Obvious risks notwithstanding, trailblazers believe they can enhance cognition using a brain-computer interface (BCI) to make real-world connections more quickly and durably.

It’s a compelling yet controversial vision, one that differs radically from mind-expansion through smart phones and Internet searches. Part of the appeal of implants comes from the passionate interest of serial entrepreneur Elon Musk. He founded Neuralink, in San Francisco, to pursue his dream of using BCIs to control digital devices and connect your thoughts to the Internet.

For some cognitive enhancement enthusiasts, the combination of drugs and chips is a bio-digital marriage made in heaven. They surmise that in the future, engineers may have to pursue parallel paths—microdosing and digital implants—to achieve heightened consciousness and levels of creativity and productivity that translate into more rewards and promotions as well as better designs, devices and services.

My personal position on the pill versus processor, or both, is old-fashioned. For the individual engineer and coder, consider an alternative: try systematically to squeeze more value from mental discipline.

In my view, the best methods to heighten creativity and increase your “out of the box” thinking are traditional, analog, and noninvasive. These methods can be found in John Dewey’s classic “How to Think” primer, first published in 1910 or even earlier from Rene’ Descartes’s Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and Seeking Truth in the Science. In 1637, Descartes famously wrote, Cogito Ergo Sum (“I think, therefore I am”), laying the foundation for centuries cognitive enhancement through varieties of mental discipline.

The advice from Dewey, an American philosopher, also boils down to imposing various rules and routines on your own consciousness. The practice harkens back to Socrates and the memory exercises of medieval monks and includes ancient Asian techniques of meditation and control of mind-over-body. Learning the tools of deductive logic, statistical analysis and scenario planning could also qualify as humble traditional forms that are proven cognitive enhancers.

The perspective I’m advancing calls for first exhausting “analog” means to achieve mind-expansion before pursuing either pills or processors or both in combination.

While I can be fairly accused of being stuck in the past, my objections to microdosing or neural implants are not moralistic, but empirically-based and in tune with how humans study and evaluate risks from emerging technologies.

There are simply too many uncertainties with bio-pharmacological means to expanded consciousness. The costs are too great or entirely unknown. Digital means, especially those which require invasive surgery, such as electronic implants and anything supplying electric charges strike me as equally risky. And I take seriously a point advanced by Martha Farah, a cognitive neuroscience researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, that highly individualized reactions to a range of cognitive interventions could make more difficult, even impossible, rational assessment of relative risks and rewards.

In short, engineers who pursue heightened consciousness by any means available may find themselves trading short-term gain for long-term pain.

Science fiction, of course, is the master teacher of the perils of following new technologies wherever they lead. The drug soma, of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, made people happy whether or not they wanted to be. Because humans are entitled to their emotions and feelings, employers instead emphasize performance on tasks that comprise a job. If you do your job well, while miserable or supremely happy, who cares?

Performance metrics, however, seem like fair game to employers. If they find an enhancer that endows their workers with an advantage, can’t they mandate its use, provided the enhancer is lawful?

I think we are the verge of entering this brave new world of work, where enhancers are essentially mandatory. And not only in polities where individual rights are weak or non-existent. The potential benefits are too great to ignore. Engineers of the future, I humbly submit, will face wicked choices over whether to bio-digitally enhance at work or not.

To highlight the challenge, here’s a simple thought-experiment: You and I work as product architects for Corporation-of-Tomorrow. Our managers announce that everyone on our team will begin taking a daily pill to increase our concentration. The pill is legal, has no apparent side effects, and costs nothing to employees. Corporation-of-Tomorrow even declares that taking pill is voluntary. You can opt out. But the company also makes clear that the stakes are high: their products, on which lives depend, must be highly reliable, as perfect as humans can make them, and the daily pill is now viewed by management as an obligation, part of the company’s commitment to excellence and the public good.

Persuaded, you decide to take the pill daily (and be observed doing so by your smart phone). I say no. After six months, your work steadily improves. Mine does not.

I am fired.

The potential for employer-mandated enhancers should force us to reflect deeply about the importance of work, the relative value of enhancers, and illusion of choice. How might engineers respond in ways other than individually?

Collective responses would seem appealing. Engineers might band together and ask their employers to craft better policies. Or they might appeal to government to limit the power of employers to cajole, pressure or compel an employee to use bio-chemical or digital means to perform better on the job. Government could then create rules of the road for cognitive-enhancers on the job.

I figure that most engineers will reject collectivism and be comfortable with a libertarian framing. Confident individuals, educated and experienced in making design trade-offs, they will choose to engineer their own accommodation with enhancement. They will do what they wish and accept the consequences. And that means allowing individuals to opt out without fear or favor.

Some engineers, because they are clever, will divine effective “analog” means of cognitive enhancement. Praise their enterprise but admit there’s a disturbing possibility that invites comparisons to the present controversies over vaccination: that the government, or your employer, may be right and that legislators do know what’s best for your cognitive health. Won’t resisters merely drag down the group, and endanger the rest of us?

This article originally appeared in IEEE Spectrum on 6 December 2019.