As part of the Global Risks 2013 report, the World Economic Forum’s Risk Response Network has identified five “X Factor” risks in partnership with Nature. These look beyond mainstream risks to five emerging potential game-changers.

Once the preserve of science fiction, superhuman abilities are fast approaching the horizon of plausibility. Will it be ethically accepted for the world to divide into the cognitively-enhanced and unenhanced? What might be the military implications?

Scientists are working hard to develop the medicines and therapies needed to heal mental illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia. Although progress has been slow, it is conceivable that in the not too distant future researchers will identify compounds that improve existing cognitive pharmaceutical enhancers (e.g. Ritalin, modafinil). Although they will be prescribed for significant neurological disease, effective new compounds which appear to enhance intelligence or cognition are sure to be used off-label by healthy people looking for an edge at work or school.

Enhancement could come from hardware as well as drugs. A handful of studies in people show that electrical stimulation – either directly via implanted electrodes, or through the scalp with transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) – can boost memory. Cochlear implants are already standard treatment for the deaf, and motor implants for controlling neural prosthetics and devices are developing fast and will likely become more widely available in coming years. Retinal implants for the blind are a bit further behind, but the field is booming and it seems likely that they will be worked out soon.

The best interfaces still rely on invasive brain electrodes (non-invasive techniques do work, but are slow and inefficient), which is the major barrier to these being adopted by healthy people. But it seems conceivable that within 10 years either we will have a new method for recording brain activity or the non-invasive signals will be decoded more efficiently. Direct brain interfaces of devices and sensors within our lifetimes are not out of the question, opening a new realm of enhanced neurobiology for those who can afford it.

This will pose ethical issues in many walks of life akin to those which surround “doping” in the world of professional sports. Will we accept the idea that significant cognitive enhancement should be available to purchase on the open market? Or will there be, as there is with performance enhancers in competitive sports, a push for legislation to maintain a more level playing field?

There is, in addition, a significant risk of cognitive enhancement going very wrong. Cognitive enhancement pharmaceuticals work by targeting particular neurotransmitter systems, and, therefore, will most likely have a wide-ranging action. There is a significant possibility of unintended effects on other systems – for example, drugs to enhance learning may lead to a greater willingness to take risks; drugs to enhance working memory may lead to increased impulsive behaviour. Recent research suggests that, in addition to boosting memory, TMS could be used to manipulate a person’s beliefs of right versus wrong or to suspend moral judgement altogether. It could also be used to “erase” memory and deliberately cause permanent brain damage without the use of invasive procedure or blunt force trauma.

Both the intended and unintended effects of such new technologies would open whole new categories of potential dual-use dilemmas. (Dual-use describes technologies which can be used for good as well as for substantial harm.) It is not difficult to see how such drugs could find applications in armed forces and law enforcement contexts, or conversely by criminal organizations and terrorist groups. They could spark an arms race in the neural enhancement of combat troops.

Such advancements could have profound impacts in 20 to 50 years on societal norms affecting how we approach issues including education and training, disparity between groups in society, informed consent and exploitation, and international laws on warfare.

Author: RRN Team
Image: Image of the human brain taken through scanning technology REUTERS/Handout