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Fast Forward to 2040: How to prepare for the new era in brain enhancement that will change the way we think, work, and heal

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.

Policymakers:

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).

Education:

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.

Business:

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?

Technologists:

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.

Individuals:

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:

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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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