About this author
Zack Lynch is author of The Neuro Revolution: How Brain Science Is Changing Our World (St. Martin's Press, July 2009).
He is the founder and executive director of the Neurotechnology Industry Organization (NIO) and co-founder of NeuroInsights. He serves on the advisory boards of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies, Science Progress, and SocialText, a social software company. Please send newsworthy items or feedback - to Zack Lynch.
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May 9, 2006

Before the Brain Bomb...Should We Build or Ban Neuroweapons?

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Imagine it was 1935 and you were at a gathering that was exploring the geopolitical implications of developing the A-Bomb. Last week I was afforded the opportunity to spend several days with 30 others discussing and debating the implications of developing neuroweapons. The conference was sponsored by Sandia's Advanced Concepts Group and was hosted by ASU's Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes. There is too much to cover in a blog and a paper will be forthcoming later this summer that summarizes the discussions.

targethead.jpgAs part of the discussion we explored different policy scenarios along the following lines:

In the literature on technologies intended to promote the development of human capabilities in general, four broad perspectives emerge that will have differing implications for legislation, regulation, and allocation of public resources.

1. Laissez-faire on cognitive enhancements. In this view, the emphasis is on the freedom of the individual to seek and employ technologies that he or she judges would benefit his or her self or family. By and large, market mechanisms can manage the risks, and government should play little or no role.

2. Managed cognitive enhancements. Technologies for human capability enhancements promise great benefits to individuals and to society, but a supportive government role is needed to foster research and development increase the fairness of distribution, to assure the effectiveness of the technologies, and to manage the risks.

3. Techno-skepticism. The risks both to individual well-being and to a fair and just society outweigh the promised benefits of these technologies. Commercial values and interests in profit are likely to override broader social interests. Negative unintended consequences are likely, and enhancement technologies should not be made available until net benefits can be demonstrated. The government emphasis should be on regulation and fairness, not promotion.

4. Cultural conservatism. Technologies that may restore disabled people to normal function may be acceptable, but attempts at “transhuman” enhancement of undiseased people threatens to violate God-given or evolved human nature and to undermine the values that make us human. Government should carefully restrict when and how these technologies are used.

Where do you find yourself?

Comments (5) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: NeuroWave 2050


1. Daniel on May 10, 2006 12:08 PM writes...

Heaven helps us if we become transhuman, allowing for human enhancement like... living longer, increased brain power and abilities, and regenerative abilities.

God/nature determined that we'd be pitiable creatures who do NOT have the longest lifespans on the planet by a long shot, and that we are supposed to wither away and die -- typically our brains at the same rate, if not faster, than our bodies. Bring on transhumanism. I will be one of the first to volunteer for enhanced neuroplasticity, increased HGH, and skin that's a bit more elastic.

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2. Daniel on May 10, 2006 12:11 PM writes...

But here's the question... If transhumanism is a bad thing... and we evolved from apes. Maybe our natural form is that of the ape? Perhaps transhumanism can be allowed then, but only in the direction of de-evolution. Since nature already defined that as being OK. But unexplored territory... Let's leave that to nature.

Horse hockey!

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3. Kensai on May 12, 2006 7:46 AM writes...

Is using you money to send your kids to a better college "transhuman"? Is paying for an exotic vacation to a tropical island "transhuman"? Is summoning a personal trainer to help you with your workouts "transhuman"? Is having a custom-made diet with the best food ingredients in the market "transhuman"?

If not, then using neurodevices to enhance your cognition, pleasure or physical performance shouldn't be either. I'm for the first or second approach. Use them at your own risk as long as you're not breaking any law.


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4. Ron on May 12, 2006 1:34 PM writes...

The cat is out of the bag. There's no looking back. The real purpose of any law to restrict human augmentation, would be to restrict augmentation to those in power, or to agents of those in power.

Elitism feels good to its practitioners, but in this context it only indicates a clueless inability to keep up.

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5. Reason Prime on May 12, 2006 3:01 PM writes...

The premise of a “God-given or evolved human nature” as being a conventional value of humanity is non-sense.

Human beings have been trying to improve upon their nature from time immemorial. Primitive peoples are well known for undertaking practices, ranging from psycho-active drugs to social rituals, to improve their consciousness -- albeit to achieve altered states in mystical practices, or performances in battle or hunting, or whatever. They also are well documented for attempting physical enhancements to improve their existence -- though most of these are in the form of mutilations of one sort or another. The fact that these attempts by primitives were limited and mainly ineffectual doesn’t make them any less significant in consideration of the moral implications of human enhancement. It mustn’t be overlooked that knowledge is epistemologically bounded, and that while such primative efforts were for the most part found wanting, they were working at the limits of their abilities to achieve more relevant results.

Rather then being threatened by boogieman mumbo-jumbo, ““transhuman” enhancement of undiseased people,” we should find inspiration in an age where technological enhancement of human-beings is actually a matter of serious discussion and within the realm of acquirable possibility.

The conclusion that “Government should carefully restrict when and how these technologies are used” is not reasoned to, but slathered with emotional appeal dressed up like reasoning. Government intervention has historically had little more then a sickening affect upon the evolution of technology. The more important question that is not addressed is that of where government should be limited with respect to such enhancement technologies.

Specifically not addressed: Should government be allowed to force enhancements upon individuals through the legal system? Should it be allowed to force military personnel to undergo enhancements? Should government be allowed to perform enhancement experiments secretly upon humans? Each of these questions touches on the issue of choice -- chocolate or venila, choose.

It is my perspective that government should always be limited and devolutional in nature. That is, government should be restrained from undertaking activities that it cannot hand down to the public at any time. When it is enabled to undertake activities that it cannot easily hand down, then the management of devolution should be addressed in the articles that enable government to undertake the activity.

What individuals do with technology is properly of no concern to others, as long as they do not cause or threaten real harm to others in their pursuit of technological experiences. If someone finds a way to enhance their existence through technological enhancement of their being in a life affirming way, the more power to them. Personally, if they have done so, I believe they’ve improved human kind.

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