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.

 

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

Should Cognitive Enhancement be Compulsory?

Research supporting the use of cognitive enhancement in healthy people is, at best, inconclusive. But it’s easy to imagine a scenario in which some type of cognitive enhancement is effective at maximizing executive function and working memory with little to no negative impact. This scenario is admittedly far-fetched, but it introduces interesting questions: If cognitive enhancement methods are effective, should certain professions be required to use them? This is the question posed in a 2014 research document.

As the authors point out, progress in science and technology has already impacted countless jobs and created new obligations to use practices and methods that improve outcomes. The counter argument is that these innovations, like antiseptics, are external. They don’t force a professional to alter his or her brain chemistry to possibly deliver better outcomes.

If cognitive enhancement were safe and effective, should those enhancements be used in every situation? Would you want a cognitively enhanced surgeon or pilot?