The Path to Future Intelligence

Often when people think about intelligence and the future, they have visions of monolithic supercomputers, Terminator scenarios and Skynet. But there’s an entirely different path to future intelligence. Intelligence augmentation (IA, not to be confused with AI) involves supplementing our own brain’s abilities using a range of different technologies. While some people may find such developments disconcerting, evidence suggests this will be a viable technology in the future. And it’s one that may be considerably closer than you think.

In some ways the augmentation of intelligence already has a long history. From the first time we cut notches into sticks or painted on cave walls, we were augmenting our memories by creating a tangible record. The written word developed this concept even further. More recently, the internet and search engines have given us access to a vast subset of human knowledge, effectively extending our memory by many orders of magnitude.

Now a number of fields stand at the threshold of augmenting human intelligence directly. Pharmacological methods include drugs called nootropics which enhance learning and attention. Among these are Ampakines which have been tested by DARPA, the research arm of the Defense Department, in an effort to improve attention span and alertness of soldiers in the field, as well as facilitate their learning and memory.

Biotechnological and genetic approaches are also being explored in order to identify therapeutic strategies which promote neuroplasticity and improve learning ability. A 2010 European Neuroscience Institute study found memory and learning in elderly mice restored to youthful levels when a cluster of genes was activated using a single enzyme. Several stem cell research studies offer hope not only for degenerative mental pathologies but also for restoring our ability to learn rapidly. In another study, mice exposed to the natural soil bacterium, Mycobacterium vaccae, found their learning rate and retention significantly improved, possibly the result of an autoimmune response. All of these suggest we’ve only begun to scratch the surface when it comes to improving or augmenting intelligence.

Brain-computer interfaces, or BCIs, are another avenue currently being explored. A BCI gives a user the ability to control a computer or other device using only their thoughts. BCIs already exist that allow the operation of computer interfaces and wheelchairs, offering hope of a more interactive life to quadriplegics and patients with locked-in syndrome. Systems are even being developed to replace damaged brain function and aid in the control of prosthetic limbs. Cochlear implants are restoring hearing and considerable progress has been made in developing artificial retina implants. Work has also been done on an artificial hippocampus and it is likely there will be a number of other brain prostheses as the brain becomes better understood. All of these point to a day when our ability to tie in to enhanced or external resources could become a reality.

Of course, as with many new technologies, there will be those who believe intelligence augmentation should be restricted or banned altogether. But as we’ve seen in the past, this is a response that is doomed to failure. Even if draconian measures managed to prohibit R&D in one country, there will always be others who believe the benefits outweigh the costs. For instance, China is currently sequencing the genomes of 1,000 Chinese adults having an IQ of 145 or higher and comparing these to the genomes of an equal number of randomly picked control subjects. Since a substantial proportion of intelligence is considered to be heritable, the project has interesting potential. But even if this method fails to identify the specific genes that give rise to high intelligence, important information is sure to be garnered. However, regardless of the result, it definitely tells us that China, and probably others, are already committing significant resources to this matter.

The augmentation of human intelligence is likely to be a mixed blessing, yielding both benefits and abuses. Regardless of our feelings about it, we would be wise to anticipate the kind of future such enhancements could one day bring.

Intelligence augmentation is just one of the approaches to information overload and the data explosion explored in my upcoming article in the July-August issue of The Futurist. The article is an abridged version of my paper “Treading Data: Staying Afloat in a Sea of Information” which will be published this summer in the WorldFuture conference volume, “Moving From Vision to Action,” editor, Cynthia G. Wagner.

[This introduction to intelligence augmentation was previously published in “The Intelligence Report” at Psychology Today.]