Noah J Nelson on Friday, May. 16th
The thing about the future is that it is always right around the corner, and then all of a sudden it’s right here. With it comes a host of new opportunities—and problems—that few people will have anticipated.
That’s where think tanks like the Institute for the Future come in. For over a decade now the IFTF has been making ten-year forecasts, anticipating the issues of tomorrow, today.
In a recent article (“The Not-So-Distant Future When We Can All Upgrade Our Brains”) The Atlantic’s senior editor Alexis C. Madrigal shares some of the insights from the IFTF’s latest forecast (“10YF2014: Recoloring the World”).
He focuses on the work surrounding the ethics of human modification as smart drugs and other tools that will provide for cognitive enhancements. The Institute finds inspiration in the Magna Carta, one of the foundational documents of western democracy, and suggests that in the future we’ll need a “Magna Cortica.”
”Magna Cortica is the argument that we need to have a guidebook for both the design spec and ethical rules around the increasing power and diversity of cognitive augmentation,” said IFTF distinguished fellow, Jamais Cascio. “There are a lot of pharmaceutical and digital tools that have been able to boost our ability to think. Adderall, Provigil, and extra-cortical technologies.”
While the idea that we’ll be upgrading our gray matter still sounds like science fiction anyone who came up in the ‘90s knows that the world can spin on a dime thanks to technical breakthroughs. The Magna Cortica as it now stands—Cascio calls this version 0.1—consists of five principles.
Magna Cortica version 0.1
- The right to self-knowledge
- The right to self-modification
- The right to refuse modification
- The right to modify/refuse to modify your children
- The right to know who has been modified
Right off the bat I’m going to personally take issue with the first part of item 4. While I have no problem with parents asserting the right to refuse to modify their children I find the idea that they have to right to modify their kids dangerous.
One: shouldn’t modification be a conscious, informed choice on the part of an individual who fully understands the consequences? Consent has to be a major factor when it comes to modifications. That should be a hard line for ethicists.
Two: the last thing we need is an arms race amongst the monied classes for “most evolved kid.” Hell, there are whole sub-plots on Star Trek about this exact issue. Maybe I’m just a silly old nerd, but if Starfleet rejected a technology maybe it should be put in the “Things Humanity Was Not Meant To Have” box.
Three: it just doesn’t seem wise to tinker with still developing organisms… which is E.T. for saying we shouldn’t mess around with kid’s heads because they are not fully baked. Which is not to say that adult brains are ever truly “finished”; the act of learning changes the relationships of neurons in the brain, which counts as a kind of growth. However adults don’t have the same major changes that come with puberty.
The Magna Cortica is not the only topic brought up in Madrigal’s article, which makes for a fascinating glimpse at the World That Just Might Be in 2024.