Decades from now when our augmented brains have enhanced our cognitive function and transformed nearly every aspect of our lives, many of us will look back and wonder why we didn’t do more to prepare for these inevitable changes. Government leaders may grapple with the runaway effects of AI and brain enhancement on geopolitics. Companies that fail to incorporate neurotechnologies and BCI into their operational flow could lose significant market share and be forced to scramble in an attempt to regain a foothold in an industry they once dominated.
Workers who don’t heed the warnings to re-skill or upskill may find themselves out of a job as entire industries disappear. Graduating college students may discover their field of study is no longer relevant in the business world, leaving them unprepared for the changing job market. Tech innovators could be caught up in fierce competition to snap up employees from a very limited talent pool, driving up the cost of innovation and hampering its development. And everyday citizens may be wrestling with the unexpected consequences of unintentionally giving away the rights to their neural data.
Rest assured, it doesn’t have to be this way. There are a number of areas where we can take a more practical approach to address the changes already underway and lay the groundwork for a more seamless transition.
Now is the time to create positions to drive policy.
Addressing new advances with a one-size-fits-all approach won’t do, however. Non-invasive technologies—such as our own EEG headsets, the tablet-based games coming out of Adam Gazzaley’s labs, the proposed smartphone-enabled concepts at Tom Insel’s Mindstrong, and the potentially memory-boosting movies Ed Boyden is researching—lie at one end of the spectrum. On the other end are invasive tools—deep brain stimulation, neural implants, and transplanting memories in the hippocampus—that pose greater physical risks. In addition, there are neurotechnologies that merely monitor brain activity while others alter the brain in some way—influencing neurochemistry, stimulating or inhibiting electrical activity, or impacting cellular function. Similarly, medical neurotechnologies differ from consumer devices. The most effective policy making will take all of these differences into account. It makes sense that invasive medical neurotechnologies that alter brain function call for more stringent restrictions and guidelines than “read-only” consumer devices.
In terms of being able to identify people based on their neuro-data, policymakers need to take into account how data is being collected, stored, and shared. There is a pressing need to adopt the concept of “informed risk” in addition to the informed consent most of us are familiar with. Patients and consumers should be made aware of a variety of issues associated with neurotechnologies and should expect certain protections. Users must be informed about the differences between privacy (the concept that your neural data is available only to you), security (the idea that your neural data won’t be inadvertently shared), and anonymity (the understanding your neural data may be shared but without possibility of you being identified).
Nations will have to rethink educational systems, retooling the focus to provide the building blocks for the future by emphasizing STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) programs. Educators also have a tremendous opportunity to produce better results by taking advantage of the latest advances in neurotechnology in a variety of ways—tailoring education to individual learning styles, allowing students to utilize technology that facilitates learning, and making tools available that promote better focus and attention.
Four-year colleges may become a thing of the past. As the economy starts to change at a breakneck pace, professionals may need to skill up more quickly and more often throughout their careers. I see the concept of higher education moving away from the traditional teacher-pupil model of learning a subject from the master and shifting toward the facilitation of lifelong learning. Our educational efforts will be better suited by focusing on complex problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity so we can acquire and implement the skills that will be required in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Machines and algorithms are expected to displace 75 million jobs by 2022, according to the WEF Future of Jobs Report 2018. But the news isn’t all dire. AI is also expected to create 133 million new jobs for a net gain of 58 million new positions. By 2022 over half of all employees will require significant retraining. Some workers may need additional education while others may need to focus on creativity, social and emotional skills, and other high-level cognitive functions that are more difficult to automate.
Take a cue from one of the superstars in the field who is creating an AI blueprint for businesses. Andrew Ng, a Stanford professor and co-founding lead of the Google Brain and former chief scientist at Baidu, is the founder of several operations—including Landing AI, Coursera, and deeplearning.ai—that are teaching enterprises to integrate AI. In 2018, he released “AI Transformation Playbook: How to Lead Your Company into the AI Era” to help guide companies into the field.
In addition, companies should address head-on the ethical concerns of neurotechnologies by building trust through transparency. This is especially true when it comes to the collection, management, and sharing of neural or mental data. Developing policies regarding employee access to and use of new neurotechnologies constitutes another area of concern. Will brain enhancement tools or nootropics become a part of corporate wellness programs the same way gym memberships and massages are? Will companies offer access to brainwear to increase worker productivity? Will neural implants be covered? How will businesses deal with human-AI interactions in the workplace?
Rather than tinker individually on short-sighted technologies, our focus should be on full-scale collaboration. I recommend stepping out of our silos and working together toward intentionally creating something that has long-term benefits for society at large.
Central to this effort is a commitment to develop democratically accessible technologies that will augment and empower the human brain. We will also benefit from retooling our own industry. By simplifying the tools, platforms, and technologies we use, we can enable more people to participate in the work we do. If we fail to confront this challenge head-on, we will find the skills gap widening and our own projects will be held back by a lack of viable workers. By making technology easy to use, we make it accessible and in doing so empower individuals to create their own places at the heart of what has been called the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”—the integration of the physical, biological, and digital realms.
Healthcare and insurance:
As neurotechnologies, machine learning, and algorithms become integrated into the field of preventive, diagnostic, and therapeutic healthcare, it is critical to begin mapping out a deployment strategy. Healthcare providers and diagnosticians, typically slow to adopt new technologies, will require training to be able to transition quickly and maximize the benefits of the tools being developed. Medical schools may want to add neurotechnology and AI to the course list and medical boards may want to consider offering certifications or continuing education credits in new technologies and data science.
With a growing number of neurotechnologies on the horizon that can detect and share data on a patient’s biological or mental health status, it is critical to craft and adopt broad privacy policies. Patients must be made aware of who has access to their data and how it will be used. This isn’t just some social media platform sharing information on your posting and search habits so marketers can target ads to you. This is data on the inner workings of your brain—cognitive abilities and failings, mental health issues, and perhaps at some point in the future, even a window into your darkest thoughts. Healthcare organizations must address these privacy issues with great care.
Healthcare leaders should also consider strategies to implement neurotechnologies that can monitor and reduce medical errors due to mental fatigue. Tracking waning focus or reduced reaction times could prompt medical workers to take breaks when necessary, ultimately protecting against burnout, reducing employee turnover, and decreasing the labor costs associated with hiring and training new employees.
On the insurance side, I would like to see providers begin crafting policies regarding reimbursement for emerging neurotechnologies and AI diagnostics that will make them available at all income levels, not just the wealthiest echelon. Reimbursement is also key for the further development of treatments. If insurers fail to grasp the importance of these new technologies, they could languish underutilized. The promise they hold to heal in remarkable new ways could fizzle.
For anyone who wants to succeed in work and in life, emerging brain enhancement technologies offer tremendous promise. The same way we have taken control of our physical health with digital devices that track our heart rate, blood pressure, exercise, and nutrition, we will be able to harness and strengthen the power of our brain with tools that enhance cognitive function creativity, productivity, mood, memory, and more. But adapting to the new technologies won’t be without friction. Individuals who dedicate themselves to learning how to make the brain sync with the new tools will outperform those who aren’t willing to invest the hours necessary.
To help you transition to augmented human status more seamlessly, you can start training your brain now—engage in new experiences, dive into tasks that challenge your brain, include diversity in your everyday life, practice some form of mindfulness, and sharpen your attention. Most importantly, open your mind and accept the reality that you will most likely need to learn how to incorporate some of these tools into your daily life.
– This is an adapted excerpt from the new book The NeuroGeneration: The New Era in Brain Enhancement That Is Revolutionizing the Way We Think, Work, and Heal (BenBella Books, 2020) by neurotech pioneer Tan Le. An inventor, explorer, and entrepreneur, Tan is the founder and CEO of EMOTIV, a San Francisco-headquartered neuroinformatics company on a mission to improve understanding of the human brain and to develop a platform for research and innovation.
You can read previous NeuroGeneration book excerpts here: