Humans: The Next Platform

Editor’s note: Geoffrey Woo and Michael Brandt are cofounders of Nootrobox, an e-commerce nootropics company. 

Biohacking and transhumanist advances (including nootropics, extended longevity, cybernetic implants, better behavioral and genetic self-understanding) will materially advance our quality of life and productivity in the coming decade, but we need to be thoughtful about the potential social and ethical pitfalls as we transform. Google Trends shows a marked uptick in searches for “nootropics” and related biohacking fields, so now is the time to have the conversation about the direction we’re headed.

Digital products and companies are not just changing the way we live our lives, but also playing larger and more influential roles in public policy and governance. This trend of the technology industry driving broader social policy will perhaps be even greater with biohacking companies as their product innovations begin to alter and transform what it means to be human.

An equalizer

Biohacking is simply the next frontier in the drive to better ourselves. People will enhance themselves physically to have better bones, better eyes and better resilience to disease, as well as attain an overall better standard of living. More people will have access to their full potential. However from an ethics perspective, there’s already worrying concerns about the widening socio-economic gap around the world today; there’s an argument that when only the wealthy have access, it further separates the haves from the have-nots.

Bill McKibben, a prominent critic of a hyper-segregated, Gattaca-esque version of the future, cautions that biohacking technologies like genetic enhancement “would take the gap in power, wealth, and education that currently divides both our society and the world at large, and write that division into our very biology.”

From a technology perspective, this bifurcation story just hasn’t played out. Over and over again, we’ve seen new technologies popularize and achieve economies of scale, and then quickly drop in price and diffuse across all levels of society. Increasing market demand leads to new research and production techniques that in the long run drive down the price of fundamentally useful new devices and technologies. 23andMe initially provided genetic reports for $299, and within several years were able to cut its price by two-thirds.

Research into nootropics and other biometric and bio-enhancement technologies requires significant R&D investment and innovative new methods of production and distribution. The cutting edge of any tech is expensive, but prices come down with time. Biohacking companies should follow the examples of Google Loon and Facebook’s, bringing basic technologies to the world as a service to society, democratizing access and encouraging participation in the commerce of the future.

If a tool or technology provides a positive return for society at large, government subsidy may be a viable option, similar to how national and local governments provide baseline health and vision care, free education, computers in libraries, and Internet access in public spaces.

More value per person

New forms of functional ingestables, including meal replacement products like Soylent and nootropic stacks produced by Nootrobox and DIY resources like Longecity and Peak Nootropics, as well as quantified self-tracking tools like Fitbit, Android Wear and the Apple Watch are already enabling us to better quantify and manage the way we spend our 24 hours each day.

Technological advancement is expanding beyond our current digital sensors and interfaces, and as we apply the hacker ethos to our own bodies and minds to develop safe, cheap and accessible technologies, we will see this value-per-worker ratio continue to rise.

New waves of technology, like the Industrial Revolution, or the ubiquity of PCs and the Internet, have unlocked massive increases in per-person productivity, and we will see this again with biohacking. Groups of a dozen will be able to achieve feats that today would take much larger groups and much longer timelines.

In a world with enhanced classmates and colleagues, the coercion to participate in biohacking enhancement is a valid concern. Bioethics researchers from Stanford and Harvard have cautioned that “appropriate policy should prohibit coercion except in specific circumstances for specific occupations, justified by substantial gains in safety.”

If done responsibly, future enhancements will be viewed much the same as past enhancements like literacy, flu shots and eyeglasses. While there is indeed pressure to obtain eyeglasses if you have subpar sight and want to function within normal society, it’s less coercion and more opting-in.

Solving unknown unknowns

There are classes of problems we’re unable to solve or even identify today due to our limited view of the world. What if you could hear color? What if we live long enough for several careers across myriad disciplines? What if cognitive enhancement technology enables more people to become engineers, researchers, doctors and other highly valuable specialists?

J. Hughes of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies cautions that biohacking will cause us to lose our sense of authentic self, that we’ll have no “discrete, persistent selves, no ‘real me’,” and that we’ll come out on the other side of biohacking as some homogenized, bland and sterile form of humanity.

On the contrary, biohacking in practice is highly personalized. Take SCUBA gear as an analogy. SCUBA allows us to navigate outside our natural limitations, yet not everyone wants or will want SCUBA gear. Others will want rear-facing ocular implants, augmented memory capacities or other enhancement depending on their personal disposition. Differences from one individual to the next will be more pronounced than ever. We see this future promising a more authentic life with more expression and a greater breadth of experience.

Human progress is taking advancement into our own hands rather than leave it up to natural selection and random mutations of our genome. Technology is a reflection of that desire and ability to understand and manipulate our surroundings beyond our biology. But it’s only in recent years that our science, sensors and data processing are able to directly interface into our minds and bodies. If the networked computer (mainframe, PC, and mobile) were the dominant platform of innovation in the 20th century, the human will be that platform in the 21st.