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Nanotechnology for cognitive enhancement: okay or not

Cognitive enhancement technologies already exist — if you drink coffee, you’re a user — so it seems likely that nanotechnology will eventually be used for this purpose. A new report (pdf) from the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes at ASU summarizes the results of a workshop on this topic held with Sandia. They identified four main policy pathways:

• Laissez-faire – emphasizes freedom of individuals to seek and employ enhancement technologies based on their own judgment;
• Managed technological optimism – believes that while these technologies promise great benefits, such benefits cannot emerge without an active government role;
• Managed technological skepticism – views that the quality of life arises more out of society’s institutions than its technologies; and
• Human Essentialism – starts with the notion of a human essence (whether Godgiven or evolutionary in origin) that should not be modified.

I have only skimmed this 32-page report so far, but I noticed a graph that seems wrong. On page 21 the four pathways are charted on an axis of “Pluralistic democratic discourse” versus “Elite decision making”. All four pathways are charted on the Pluralistic democratic discourse side, but Laissez-faire is shown as closer than the others to the Elite decision making side. This does not seem to make sense to me at all. The other three involve far more elite (government) decision making. This would have been clearer if the axis had been labeled “Individual decision making” versus “Elite decision making”.

After all, no matter how much pluralistic democratic discourse there is, what matters ultimately is who makes the decisions on whether you are allowed to drink coffee (or use other enhancement technologies). Your views on this are welcome, as always. —Christine

4 Responses to “Nanotechnology for cognitive enhancement: okay or not”

  1. Kyle Haviland Says:

    I would love to have a better memory. That is a wish i imagine millions of Alzheimers patients share. If it’s a question of ethics then I personally couldn’t imagine anything more ethical then giving someone back their memory or “essence.”

    On the other hand there is a danger of abuse. There are brainwashing techniques already available to change someone’s memory. The abuse of nanotech for this purpose is a frightening thought to me. How would an individual know if they were being manipulated?

    This question of the ethicalness of cognitive augmentation is not a new one, but until the technology is actually available to do these feats it will be a question that will remain in the realm of science fiction.

  2. Anonymous Says:


    I’m in agreement with you on this. Is pluralistic somehow different from elite? They can be the same of course.


  3. Adam Says:

    Philosophy aside, I feel that this entire argument comes down to the degree of education in society. Certainly people reading this blog will consider themselves the educated few, but from my experience people don’t know about nanotechnology and simply aren’t interested in learning any more.

    I believe government “should” be making these kind of decisions in the best interests of the people, in this case, when the people really don’t know what they are making decisions about.

    So while it would be reasonable to, in the case of nano-dot readers, ascribe to laissez-faire, I think it would be ultimately irresponsible to allow an uneducated populace to make decisions like this one for itself. What do you all think, is the level of educating required for such free decision making really feasible? I think we all know how coffee works by now.

  4. Anonymous Says:

    Im doing research for FLL (First Lego League) and would like to get more facts on this subject. Is this just a cup of coffee on a nano scale? I’ve heard of a parasite that infects ants in Africa and acts as the intelligence for the ant for a period of time while the parasite slowly consumes the ant. Is this what you are talking about in terms of brainwashing?

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