Neuroscience is all the rage. We are mapping the brain these days with all of our cool imaging technology and color-coding the spots with Sharpies so we can get back in there later and do, uh, what? Well, improve! Get better, faster, and stronger like The Six Million Dollar Man. Remember shock treatments? Or, more properly, electroconvulsive therapy? Hey, it’s back, just new and improved, and it’s more like biofeedback now, very groovy and benign. Turns out pro athletes are doing these things as a matter of routine. It’s even making it’s way into major league baseball, which means it’s become mainstream. The particular product that inspired me this morning is called Halo Sport and it doesn’t strike me as particularly radical or bizarre. Frankly, the whole thing might be the frammis in a simple con, after all ballplayers have plenty of disposable income, and if the so-called Steroid Era is any indication they are willing to do almost anything to try and improve their performance.
Even ultra-hip entrepreneur Elon Musk is interested in the cybernetic future with his Neuralink venture, hoping someday to use body-machine interfaces that connect living beings with artificial intelligence networks. The headgear the athletes are playing with is nothing close to that of course, but it’s a step on the same path. The cyborg is the future! We are already there with our smartphones, carrying around in our pockets the collective knowledge of the human race. We can also “network” and “crowdsource” and all that other sort of collective distributed problem solving so much better in today’s hyper-connected world. I suppose one way to get at, or potentially get at, the nuggets of wisdom buried in all that information is to tap into the power of the global village. But one has to think that the vast archive of human stupidity is also available! Amplifying a beautiful voice is one thing, amplifying a blackboard screech is another.
But I don’t worry about the Dr. Frankenstein’s of the world very much. I know we’ll destroy our food supply with GMOs and ruin our kids’ brains with video games so it’s all good. What’s a few half-baked experimental cyborgs run amok? We’ve seen it play out in Blade Runner, right? OK, seriously, I’m not the doomsday type. I’ve no doubt that the human race is capable of colossal stupidity, but most of the time we just stumble along and muck things up a bit without initiating Armageddon. Not that we can’t, but I tend to think our collective survival instinct is pretty good and that, like the army of ants we are, we’ll adjust and adapt and figure out a working solution. It probably won’t be elegant or pretty or even efficient, but it will buy us some time until we get a little better at whatever we are doing.
But the new era of brain hacks is here whether we want ’em or not. We can’t run without our training watch, drive or hike without our GPS, get a ride, book a room, reserve a table or even birdwatch without the right app on our phone. This is the new way of being in the 21st century, sort of a ‘soft’ cyber-existence, stopping just short of hardware implanted in our flesh. If we are willing to go this far, then the next step of direct brain stimulation (like these Halo Sport thingies) shouldn’t be so hard. In fact they may be useless, or even harmful; they strike me more like groping in the dark than fine tuning performance!
The desire to improve athletic performance has resulted in some remarkable technologies like reconstructive, arthroscopic, and laser eye surgeries which are now available to ordinary people. The chemical enhancements never caught on, people for some reason are bothered by pharmaceutical solutions but not mechanical ones. That is unless you can show you have a medical condition; ballplayers can get exemptions from the banned substances list and take stimulants for example to treat ADD/ADHD. Students who are otherwise healthy sometimes take such drugs to improve their memory and academic performance but that remains controversial. I wonder if they used headgear with electrical stimulation and/or feedback to achieve the same end would it be as ethically troubling? Amphetamines have a long history of use in combating fatigue and helping people perform long and arduous tasks and there is evidence of coca leaf consumption going back several millenia. Brain hacks are nothing new!
Imagine a world without technological advancement. We’d have nothing to talk about! All the things that religion and philosophy achieved without science would be the sum total of human thought. Science came along and challenged every single conception that had come before it. Think about it: everything we fight about today in our political and cultural arenas have come about because science upended traditional viewpoints. Two genders, male and female only? Factually, biologically outdated. Race? Genetically a worthless, outmoded notion. Mental illness? Not a moral failing, but a health issue just like cancer, TB, or an enlarged prostate. That’s not to say humans didn’t have good ideas, just that science required them to pass the experimental test, and lots of them failed. And now that technology has jumped the rails and started to grow all on its own without the need for its scientific underpinnings we should expect a lot more experimenting.
This neuroscience stuff has been great for people with debilitating conditions and much of what we know we learned from treating schizophrenics and other people with both physical and mental disorders. And there’s always an acceptance of such things; when a paraplegic can use his limbs because of implanted electrodes we have a hard time arguing with that or seeing the more sinister implications of the technology. But once the Pandora’s Box is opened that means anyone gets to play. Perfectly healthy ballplayers can now get “preventative” Tommy John surgery, they don’t have to wait until they trash their ulnar collateral ligament. Perhaps we’ll all get little gizmos we can attach to ourselves so we can be smarter, cooler, and more accomplished at whatever we are doing, whether it is housework or jai alai.
What do you think? Are you ready to plug in?