Why Real Smart Drugs (Probably) Won’t Exist

Today’s smart drugs weren’t created for cognitive enhancement. Drugs like modafinil and methylphenidate were created to treat real cognitive disorders. At best, these drugs have questionable effectiveness for enhancement. If the best option for smart drugs are drugs that were never intended for enhancement, when can we expect pharmaceutical companies to develop, test and market real smart drugs for cognitive enhancement?

Regulatory environment
The main blocker to targeted CED development, at least in the US and EU, are the regulations pharmaceutical companies must operate under. Regulations in these companies generally support the development of drugs to treat deficiencies or, as in the case of drugs like Viagra, restoring function. The development of drugs specifically to enhance a function, like cognition, is unlikely to get support from regulatory bodies. Without that support, there is little value in drugs companies allocating resources in drugs that won’t come to market.

Of course the EU and US aren’t the only regulatory environments. Brazil, China and especially Russia appear to have more lax regimes. CEDs developed there will certainly make their way into other markets, either legitimately or illegitimately. The safety of these drugs, particularly in the form of long-term side effects, will likely remain an open question. An all too likely outcome may look like this:

Brains are complicated
Putting aside the regulatory challenges, is it even possible to create CEDs that are both beneficial and lack side effects? Technologies like fMRI are improving the understanding of the brain, but that’s a long way from effectively influencing brain function.

It’s easy to dismiss how complicated it is to manipulate brain function. Don’t. Many of today’s therapeutic drugs have mechanisms that are only lightly understood. And this is for drugs used to treat deficiencies, when variations from the norm can be detected. There’s still little idea of what levers to pull to enhance already normally functioning brains.

That said, breakthroughs and insights occur regularly. New technologies may surpass what fMRI can tell us; or new substances may greatly improve working memory or executive function with little to no negative side effects. Our own sappho juice may be just around the corner.

 

Litigation Before Profits in Blockchain

On Oct 17th, a Delaware judge dismissed the $1B case R3 filed against Ripple. This isn’t the end of the litigation; the judge simply dismissed the case because it doesn’t fall under the Delaware court’s jurisdiction. The case will still be decided in either New York or California.

The lawsuit was triggered by Ripple terminating an options contract which gave R3 the option to purchase 5 billion units of Ripple’s cryptocurrency. As the value of Ripple’s currency surged 3000%, R3’s options allowed it to purchase $1.2B of Ripple’s currency for $42.5M. Ripple’s justification for terminating was nebulous, claiming that R3 had misrepresented its banking consortium.

What’s surprising isn’t the scale of the lawsuit, but that it’s occurring now. I can’t think of another technology that has generated these kinds of lawsuits this early in its lifecycle. Outside of bitcoin, blockchain technologies aren’t in production – anywhere. Yet there’s a billion dollar lawsuit of a make-believe asset? This speaks more to the bubble in cryptocurrencies than to the potentially transformative effects of blockchain on value networks.

 

Repost: Everything about Microdosing

By Carolyn Gregoire Long before microdosing was being touted as the Silicon Valley life hack du jour, Dr. James Fadiman was investigating the potential mind-enhancing effects of ingesting psychedelic drugs like LSD and psilocybin, more commonly known as magic mushrooms. In the 1960s, Fadiman conducted pioneering psychedelic research, including one study in which he gave […]

via Everything You Wanted To Know About Microdosing (But Were Afraid To Ask) — It’s Interesting

Improving Your Working Memory with Dual N-Back Training

The Journal of Cognitive Enhancement (which is excellent, btw) recently published an article on improving working memory that’s gotten quite a bit of attention over the last few days. It’s also generated a fair amount of hype. The short version is the dual n-back test improved the working memory of participants by 30% over the baseline. Training using the dual n-back test was twice as effective as a competing method, the complex span test.

Working memory is temporary storage for data requiring immediate retrieval. Like a memory cache on a computer, working memory comes into play when remembering a phone number, directions, or the names of the six people you just met at a cocktail party.

In the experiment, 136 young adults trained with their respective methods for 30 minutes a day, five days per week. In the complex span test, trainees have to remember the location of an item while being distracted by another task. Figure 1 gives an idea of what this test looks like:

Figure 1: Representation of the complex span test.

complex_span_test

Trainees using this method were less effective an improving working memory than those training with the dual n-back test. The dual n-back test consists of visual and auditory components (hence the “dual”) where the user has to remember both the letter spoken and the location of the square on the screen “n” spaces back. For example, if asked to recall the spoken letter and square location from two letters ago, that’s a 2-back test. Three letters ago, 3-back, and so on. Figure 2 depicts what the dual n-back test looks like.

Figure 2. Dual n-back test.

dual_n_back_illustration

Importantly, the researchers have no idea why this method works better than others. Researchers determined dual n-band trainees had an increase in alpha band brain activity, which correlates to attention, memory and executive functions.

The researchers also tested intelligence before and after the training period, hypothesizing that training would improve overall intelligence. Unfortunately, no such improvement was found. Today’s brain training is narrowly focused on improving a specific skill set rather than improving general intelligence.

However, this memory training method gives me hope that I’ll finally be able to remember names the next time I’m at a cocktail party.

Mastering Presentation Rehearsal

When I started my gig as an industry analyst, I was comfortable with the writing and client interaction parts of the job. The last part, getting on stage and talking for 30-45 minutes, was completely foreign to me. I had to learn how to create and deliver compelling stories to international audiences, often with different expectations. Making things worse, sometimes I’m required give presentations that I didn’t create.

Books on developing presentation skills and creating content often talk about the importance of practicing and rehearsing your presentations. But they rarely talk about how and what to practice. After a few years of experience presenting to diverse audiences, here’s what I’ve learned about presentation rehearsal.

Rehearse your content in sections

When I first started, I would rehearse my presentations from start to finish – or at least that was the intent. I’d start with my intro and move quickly into the first few slides. Then I’d get distracted by something, usually minor, on an early slide. Or I’d stumble over a story and keep working on it. The end result was that I didn’t spend as much, if any, time practicing the content in the middle and end.

Divide your rehearsal sessions into blocks to rehearse specific content. You might have an three core topics you want to discuss in your pitch. Schedule time rehearse each section independent of the other sections. This gives you a chance to work on isolated parts and refine them, without being distracted by the whole.

Nail the open and close

The opening was never much of a problem for me. I’d rehearse my opening probably 80-100 times (see above about rehearsing in sections). Then I’d bleed out during the close. Put additional emphasis on your opening and closing sections and schedule that rehearsal time separately.

Practice content transitions

Another trap I fell into was practicing just the talk track for the slide content, not how I would get to the next element or slide. How you arrive at a slide, whether it’s a data-centric transition or story-led transition, practice the transitions from one slide to another. Once I started rehearsing transitions, my delivery was much more fluid and my scores went up. My on-stage anxiety also dropped.

Rehearse on your feet and seated

You must rehearse your content while standing since that’s how you’ll deliver it – out loud and walking around a stage. You can’t just walk through the content in your head. That doesn’t create the necessary muscle memory for a successful delivery. You can also rehearse in front of people, but that’s often not an option for me.

This last tip will seem counterintuitive, but rehearsing my content out loud while seated allows me to focus on just the content. When I rehearse while seated, I focus on keeping my hands and body still and solely on delivering the content. For me, this translates into less random movement on stage. Instead, movements are more planned and (hopefully) more impactful to the audience.

Suggested reading

  • Richard Butterfield’s Power of Persuasion – I’ve had an opportunity to work with Mr. Butterfield on my presentation style and effectiveness. If you can take one of his workshops, I highly recommend it. If you can’t, his book is one of the best I’ve read on communication and presentation skills.
  • Confessions of a Public Speaker – Scott Berkun’s book was one of the first I read when I realized a significant portion of my job would be delivering presentations. Scott offers practical advice on both the mechanics of public speaking and storytelling.

Why Smart Drugs Will Start in IT

Note: This was originally published on my work blog.

After seven months of work, my research on cognitive enhancement drugs (CEDs) in IT finally published. It published as part of Gartner’s annual Maverick project, which is a bit like an incubator for fringe research topics. Even publishing as Maverick, there are bound to be questions about the real likelihood of CEDs entering the IT department. That’s not unreasonable, and there are some interesting indicators. I’ll refer to two.

The first is a quote from an engineer at Uber. The context is a Buzzfeed article about the impact of Uber’s culture on employees: “If you’ve been woken up at 3 a.m. for the last five days, and you’re only sleeping three to four hours a day, and you make a mistake, how much at fault are you, really?”

It’s a good question. The reality is, in most companies, the engineer is at fault.

The second example is much more recent. Deeplearning.ai, a startup in the AI space recently posted a job description stating the employee would be expected to regularly work 70-90 hours per week:

Deeplearning job posting

Are those working hours sustainable? Can you reliably produce high quality work when working 11-12 hours per day? (Although with 24 hours in a day, working just 12 hours could be considered only working half days.) It’s not unreasonable to assume that, with these expectations for working hours, some form of cognitive enhancement is expected, if not demanded.

Don’t dismiss this as some Silicon Valley anomaly. Every company feels the pressure to digitalize, probably because of the work of some Silicon Valley startups. This increases pressure everywhere, especially in IT as it bears the brunt of the transformation effort.

Work pressures are only one reason people take smart drugs. Others include interested experimenters, who I call “pharmanauts” in my research, as well as others. But the people taking prescription drugs for cognitive deficiencies they may not have just to survive punitive work culture is the most dangerous scenario for both the employees and the employer.

If you’re working in tech and are either taking CEDs or thinking about it, I’d like to hear from you. Please respond in the comments and I’ll respond to you privately.

And if you’re a Gartner client interested in this research, you can find it here: Maverick* Research: Cognitive Enhancement Drugs Are Changing Your Business