In today’s New York Times, David Ewing Duncan’s article How Science Can Build A Better You looks ahead to a time when new implantable devices could enhance memory, alertness, hearing, vision, and limbs.
Duncan points to devices like cochlear implants as evidence that we’ve started down that road. Cochlear implants do work. I should know; I have two. They let me use the phone and listen to the radio, and I do surprisingly well at parties. I’ve written a book about the experience of getting them, titled Rebuilt.
But I also know that cochlear implants fall well short of restoring normal hearing, let alone enhancing it. If normal hearing is 100%, cochlear implants get to maybe 30% of it at best, in terms of sharpness of hearing and the ability to distinguish between frequencies. (This is a very approximate guess, based on my observations of how well I hear compared to the people around me.) And the cochlear implant industry seems to have stalled; since I got my first implant in 2001, I’ve seen only incremental improvements to the technology. Getting from 20% to 30%, I'd say. Scientists have no idea how to get to 100%, let alone beyond it.
On top of that, surprisingly little progress has been made in other kinds of implants. Cochlear implants have been on the market since the early 1990s. There is no commercial retinal implant. There is no commercial prosthetic arm that comes even close to doing what a real arm can do, and despite much hype, none is on the horizon. (I wrote a feature for Wired on this.) There are brain implants for severe cases of depression and Parkinson’s, and spinal-cord implants for pain, but they are far from perfect.
Based on that, I don't think the future isn’t going to be about making existing human abilities better. It’s going to be about enabling people to do new things – things we can barely imagine now.
It is, in fact, not particularly necessary to “improve” the human body. Consider: a normal, healthy ear can hear a sound so faint that the eardrum is displaced by only one-hundredth the width of a hydrogen molecule. Suppose you made your hearing acute enough to eavesdrop on a conversation a mile away. Great: then you’d hear everything going on in a mile’s radius. You’d be overwhelmed by a cacophony of sound. More is not always better. In fact, it usually isn’t better.
Besides, if you do want to eavesdrop on a distant conversation, or hear in the ultrasonic for that matter, there’s gadgets for that. No surgery, no messing with your genes. No risk.
There is one way in which normal ears could be improved: make them more durable. Everyone progressively loses the ability to hear high-frequency sounds as they age, and this becomes a problem for people in old age when they can’t hear the high-pitched s’s and t’s that help us distinguish one word from another. The inner ear is filled with cell-sized hairs that resonate to sound, and the ones that respond to high frequencies are the most easily damaged by noise. If they could be made less vulnerable to noise, that would be a real improvement, one worth developing. Provided, of course, that it can be done safely.
Which is very hard to do. Duncan asks his audiences how many of them would give their children a pill that increased memory by 25%, and says that 80% say no. Good answer. They’re probably thinking of all the “safe” pills that turned out not to be, like thalidomide, steroids, and hormone replacement therapy. Even antibiotics do bad things to our intestinal bacteria that we’re only now beginning to understand. But then he asks, “What if all the other kids are taking the pill?” Most everyone then votes yes, he says. But that doesn’t make it a good idea.
And let’s ask: what does it really mean to “increase memory by 25%” in a healthy person, one not suffering from a disease like Alzheimer’s? This is actually a very complicated question. There are many different kinds of memory: the muscle memory in riding a bike or playing an instrument, the long-term memory of events of years past, the short-term memory of holding a phone number in mind. The ability to remember names and faces, the ability to memorize words in a foreign language, and molecules for an organic chemistry test: these all very likely use different parts of the brain in different ways. Which means that there is no blanket way to improve memory in general, and indeed most of us wouldn’t want to; the rare people who retain a perfect memory of the past are often troubled by being unable to let go of it.
Most people would be glad to be able to memorize vocabulary words effortlessly and remember the formulae of all the simple hydrocarbons. Yet we have almost no understanding of how the brain actually carries out these particular activities on a neural and biochemical level. Right now it’s fantasy to talk about enhancing either of those specific skills while also guaranteeing that nothing disconcerting will happen to all the other neurons in one's head.
Besides, in the age of Google, encyclopedic recall is becoming less and less important. We used to revere people who could memorize vast genealogies and histories, because these used to be socially valuable skills. Not anymore.
Remembering people’s names better would be socially valuable. I have trouble with it myself. But in not too long, there will be ways to build gadgets into glasses that recognize faces and project the name onto your field of view. Much simpler and less risky.
That's why, to me, enhancing existing abilities is beside the point, and too risky to be worth the benefits. I think the real future of enhancement lies in enabling people to do new things. Not to do old things better, but to do things we now can’t do at all. Things we can't imagine today.
Think about email. Email was originally meant as a way of sending letters faster. And it was, of course. But the real value of email was that it let people do new kinds of things. Collaborate at a distance. Search a bank of interactions at will. Today, email has become a vast, shared external memory. These things were simply unimaginable in 1980.
And that’s my point about enhancement. As David Ewing Duncan says, it is going to be a very long time before we can confidently make major functional changes to the human body. But whenever we can, the real payoff is going to be in creating entirely new kinds of human abilities.
I tried to imagine some of them in my book World Wide Mind. I wrote about research on precise control of neural activity, and made extrapolations I thought were ambitious but conceptually plausible. For example, I suggested that it might be possible to create “telempathy” – to make one brain experience a simulacrum of what another brain is experiencing. To experience a shadow of someone else’s pleasure, or pain, or alarm. The value of this might be in collective action; say, to know rapidly when other members of one’s group are in danger. Or to know when a crisis is happening in another part of the world, and to feel it in some sense instead of simply watching video and reading articles.
This may not sound useful today, and that's because there's no social context in which such a thing is useful. In 1980, nobody needed email or even imagined what it lets us do today. But when implantable technologies come of age, new uses will be found for them, and they won’t be about merely enhancing our bodies. It’ll about letting our bodies do things we have never dreamed of doing before.