Slate writer Will Oremus has put together a fairly revealing article about how easy it’s becoming to supercharge our brains, prompting him to wonder why there’s still so much push-back against the idea of technologically enhancing ourselves.
The fact that tDCS may pose unknown risks, that its benefits and drawbacks are not yet fully understood, that it can be dangerous in the wrong hands—none of these arguments should keep scientists from carefully exploring its potential. Having spent the better part of two months immersed in the vertiginous world of human enhancement, I’ve become convinced that societal and academic taboos against the use of technology to give healthy people extraordinary powers are, on the whole, counterproductive. College students are already popping Adderall in droves. Body hackers are implanting microchips in their bodies. Entrepreneurs are hawking tDCS kits for $99 online. Some athlete, somewhere, is probably experimenting with gene doping. The riskiness of some of these behaviors makes it tempting to simply outlaw them all and expect everyone to comply. But that’s as unrealistic as it is blinkered.
This isn’t a call to legalize everything and let God or Darwin sort ’em out. It’s a plea to lawmakers, the media, academics, and those who fund academic research to take seriously the growing availability of and demand for human-enhancement technologies. Only by acknowledging and researching their potential benefits as well as their risks can we hope to craft mature policies that promote public safety and welfare. If that means continuing to classify Adderall as a Schedule II controlled substance until we’re even more convinced that it doesn’t pose long-term health risks, so be it. But here’s where we’re going astray: One university professor who studies ADHD drugs told me he has learned that every public-health research paper “has to have a certain (cautionary) tone to it” in order to be accepted for publication. “I know what I have to write, and it has to be, basically, ‘Drugs are bad.’ ”
Maybe he’s wrong. But I’ve talked with enough academics over the past two months who flat-out refused to even discuss the potential use of various medical technologies for human enhancement—or to even have their name attached to an article that discusses them—to suspect that there’s some legitimacy to his paranoia. Too many people seem to think that humans are fine the way we are, and that the only proper use of these technologies is to restore “normal” human functions to people with disabilities.