Use the future to build the present
Cognitive Enhancement
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1Quantum Revolution& Advanced AI2HumanAugmentation3Eco-Regeneration& Geo-Engineering4Science& Diplomacy1.11.21.31.42.12.22.32.43.13.23.33.43.54.14.24.34.44.5HIGHEST ANTICIPATIONPOTENTIALAdvancedArtificial IntelligenceQuantumTechnologiesBrain-inspiredComputingBiologicalComputingCognitiveEnhancementHuman Applications of Genetic EngineeringRadical HealthExtensionConsciousnessAugmentation DecarbonisationWorldSimulationFuture FoodSystemsSpaceResourcesOceanStewardshipComplex Systems forSocial EnhancementScience-basedDiplomacyInnovationsin EducationSustainableEconomicsCollaborativeScience Diplomacy
1Quantum Revolution& Advanced AI2HumanAugmentation3Eco-Regeneration& Geo-Engineering4Science& Diplomacy1.11.21.31.42.12.22.32.43.13.23.33.43.54.14.24.34.44.5HIGHEST ANTICIPATIONPOTENTIALAdvancedArtificial IntelligenceQuantumTechnologiesBrain-inspiredComputingBiologicalComputingCognitiveEnhancementHuman Applications of Genetic EngineeringRadical HealthExtensionConsciousnessAugmentation DecarbonisationWorldSimulationFuture FoodSystemsSpaceResourcesOceanStewardshipComplex Systems forSocial EnhancementScience-basedDiplomacyInnovationsin EducationSustainableEconomicsCollaborativeScience Diplomacy

Emerging Topic:

2.1Cognitive Enhancement

Associated Sub-Fields

The 21st century has seen an acceleration in our ability to decode cognitive states from both invasive brain implants and, increasingly, non-invasive techniques. It is also becoming possible to manipulate those brain states in more targeted ways using a wide spectrum of methods, from electrical to chemical.

Many of these interventions have been developed to aid people with incapacitating disorders of memory such as Alzheimer’s disease, the incidence of which is predicted to increase dramatically in the developed world by 2035. Alzheimer's is typical of the diseases that have driven academic research into memory enhancement. But other disorders can also be characterised as disorders of memory — for example post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — which suggests that not only boosting memory but also its suppression and manipulation could fall under the rubric of enhancement. Furthermore, manipulating memory could boost other types of cognition: enhancing procedural memory, for example, may upgrade task competency in a way that makes memory enhancement attractive to healthy people, and usher in an age of cosmetic cognitive augmentation.

As imminent brain monitoring technologies combine reading and writing brain states, aided by ever more capable AI, the ability to decode cognitive and emotional states and make them increasingly transparent will yield unexpected applications across society. New privacy schemes must be developed and ethical guidance formalised to ensure that this kind of data is protected. Even more urgent is governance around emerging ways to alter and improve cognition. Being able to change cognitive capacity is something many people want. This suggests that it will be widely adopted once the technology gets to a particular inflection point. Unanticipated societal outcomes must be considered.

Selection of GESDA Best Reads and further key reports

The 2019 “Neurotechnologies for Human Cognitive Augmentation: Current State of the Art and Future Prospects” provides a useful overview of the field.1 A US clinical trial of deep brain stimulation for mild Alzheimer dementia gives an interesting perspective on the efficacy of this intervention.2 Significant progress in reading and interpreting brain signals was described in Nature in 2021.3 In 2019, the UK’s Royal Society published a perspective on neural interfaces.4

Few technologies have such potential to drastically reshape our societies as cognitive enhancement. This is reflected in the consistently high impact scores found across the four topics investigated by respondents. There is also considerable overlap between the key tools and bringing them to fruition will require advances in a wide range of scientific fields that are likely to lead to breakthroughs in other domains as well. Brain monitoring technology is much closer to maturity and is likely to have a less transformative impact than the other three approaches. But memory enhancing nootropics should be a particular focus as, despite the lack of attention they have received so far, they could be highly disruptive.

GESDA Best Reads and Key Resources