The science of cognitive enhancement is evolving, which means the business of cognitive enhancement is evolving. Supplying cognitive enhancement to the masses can be viewed through the lens of any commodities marketplace. Human experience is already commoditized through drugs that pack mood and performance into portable units — pills or doses — that can be easily traded and consumed, and the drug market is one of the biggest on the planet. The same can be said for audio and visual experience. The platforms and hardware for trading audiovisual experience — TVs, computers, media players, telecomm, cell phones, software — are huge markets with influence over every facet of our lives. The media and drug markets are built upon the ideal of commoditizing consumer moods and experiences. The cognitive enhancement industry is now poised to undergo a similar market revolution.
The cognitive revolution has already begun, as concepts of enhancement move from counterculture and science fiction into mainstream media. Within the last year, the mainstream press has embraced off-label use of Adderall and similar pills as cognitive enhancers for students seeking to better their grades. Soon there will be research to confirm if students using off-label pharmaceuticals get better grades than their peers. The fact that Teva Pharmaceuticals is the corporate supplier of Adderall is rarely mentioned, nor is the fact that these “enhancement” drugs are all copyrighted blends of amphetamines and stimulants marketed to fidgety children. A similar mainstream embrace of students using methamphetamine or cocaine to get better grades will never be seen, because it‘s in the interest of the media to drive the market for regulated cognitive enhancers and beat the drum against unregulated generic alternatives. All forms of cognitive enhancement — whether a drug or a technology — will face a similar inherent media bias.
Anyone wanting to get into the business of selling moods, memories, and cognitive solutions to the public must first have the interest of the media to help shape market demand. For instance, the same neurostim device that uses electric impulses from a brain implant to treat people with Parkinson‘s Disease can be tweaked by a few millimeters and pulse rates to make cocaine addicts feel like they are high all the time. Neurostim isn‘t a cheap commodity yet, but in the future it could be. The “off label” demand for designer neurostim does not exist today, but if the implant procedure was automated and the price was reduced, it could be a very marketable alternative to long-term drug therapy. Cheap neurostim would then fuel an off-label market for cosmetic and personal use with subsidiary markets for designer software upgrades, patches, and applets to customize functionality. But first there needs to be consumer demand for the product, and that has yet to materialize.
The neurostim device that uses electric impulses to treat people with Parkinson‘s Disease can be used to make cocaine addicts feel high all the time.
The cognitive enhancement revolution may ultimately fail. Comparisons can be made to the Virtual Reality market, which promised a bold age of cyber-living but was encumbered with wonky gear and appealed only to a small number of consumers. Most people prefer watching a very large TV to being goggled into VR — the novelty of a platform doesn‘t change human preference. VR was clunky, disorienting, and it gave people headaches, motion sickness, and vision problems. Pills with worse side effects are sold by huge corporations, but ultimately VR had no real mass-market application other than coolness. The lesson here is that the success of the platform does not depend on the coolness factor, it depends on consumer demand once the technology becomes affordable. Will the average consumer embrace being implanted, or even crave non-invasive tinkering with memory and intelligence? Modern consumers have embraced taking whatever pill or procedure their doctors recommend, so all perspective next-gen neurotech should take a page from Big Pharma‘s playbook and pressure MDs to prescribe invasive cognitive solutions to patients for cosmetic and off-label purposes (and pressure insurance companies to cover the costs). Cosmetic therapeutic applications are the doorway to the mainstream consumer market. On the bleeding edge of this field, scientists are already doing research on neurostim to treat depression and sexual dysfunction. (See Resources)
Neural implants and neurostim, like any form of cognitive enhancement, face some challenges with regard to public opinion. The implant procedure is delicate and expensive and could have some unforeseen effects like improper healing or infection. The same can be said of cosmetic surgery or implanting a pacemaker, and the public has adopted those procedures. There are recurring problems with implant interface, hardware, batteries, and security, but the same can be said of iPhones and the public has adopted those. Mix the glamour of surgical self-improvement with the geekiness of high-tech gadget fetishism and you have a niche cosmetic neurostim market waiting to be tapped. The hardware for the neurostim platform is ultimately cheap and automating the procedure is feasible. The applications could enhance memory, intelligence, and mind-to-mind communication. Automating the neural surgery is not impossible — it just takes research grant money and investors. This may seem like science fiction, but in twenty years it may be considered essential consumer technology. It all depends on how the market plays out.
James Kent is the former publisher of Psychedelic Illuminations and Trip Magazine. He currently edits DoseNation.com, a drug blog featuring news, humor and commentary.