The fields of artificial intelligence and neuroscience are converging rapidly. AI researchers are using ideas from neuroscience to build innovative technology, and neuroscientists are learning from the behaviors of artificial agents to better interpret biological brains. These two disciplines are merging into one, while including elements of psychology, behavioral science and philosophy.
Why should it matter to us? For one, this convergence is revolutionizing neurotechnology applications that directly interface the brain and stimulate human cognition—heralding the possibility of an artificially intelligent human race. Innovators in the field are envisioning extraordinary possibilities in the next decade or two: an ability to acquire new skills at will, create entirely new sensory abilities, and ultimately, meld human and artificial intelligence with brain-computer interface.
Consider the Halo Sport headset that uses neuropriming technology to enhance the plasticity of the motor cortex, helping athletes to increase their physical power and performance. In other startup experiments shared by Vivienne Ming, neuroscientist and cofounder of Socos, the use of a cognitive neuro-prosthetic resulted in working memory span increasing by 15 percent.
Although currently limited to fields like clinical healthcare and professional sports, neurotech applications for optimizing the brain’s learning capacities will start to emerge once research advances, quality improves, and costs fall. Progress will also depend on our understanding the ethical and legal implications, such as potential side-effects, equity of access and long-term societal changes.
Initiatives like WEF's Global Future Council on Neurotechnologies will define many of the adoption factors for mainstream consumers and companies. It’s no longer alarming to have a metallic hip or other implants in the body—and our brain might just be the next organ to support once clarity emerges on the risks and ethics.
This makes me wonder if I would adopt neurotech to enhance my intelligence. Well, depends… let’s see…what’s my motivation? My personal resolution today is to develop greater empathy and compassion. Good for me, good for business—as studies show these distinctly human traits are gaining prominence in the AI-augmented workplace (see “Missing Middle Skills for Human-AI collaboration” and previous blog).
If a neurological headset could make me more compassionate very quickly, I would go for it. Saves me daily hours of mental training and mindfulness practices to rewire my brain for compassion. But if the effects were only temporary and made me dependent on the headset forever, I would prefer instead the mindfulness way to compassion. (Separately, my reverie looks feasible: neuroscience already understands the distinct patterns of altruistic brain activity and how to train the brain in compassion; maybe a neurotech device can assist this training in future?)
Although the pace of advancement and adoption is debatable, neurotech’s potential to reinvent human capability and tap “super intelligences” is certainly remarkable. We interviewed Elizabeth Johnson, executive director and senior fellow at Wharton Neuroscience Initiative, who rightly said “The line between enhanced learning and development and long-term cognitive enhancement is thin and quite blurred, but the impact of crossing the line is potentially profound.”
Will you opt for neurotech to make a profound change in your learning and skills? And if you don’t and I do, do you risk being left behind in the workplace? Worth reflecting—and joining efforts to shape developments—before innovators present us these options.