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Tech for Autonomous Systems – Advanced Interaction Capabilities X

Life expectancy has increased significantly in the last hundred years thanks to water purification, better food and life saving drugs, like antibiotics. In the chart the life expectancy in several Countries. It is possible to get the data from several other Countries. Credit: Our World in Data

Drugs and Noortropics

Augmentation of humans has been achieved in the last 100 years and accelerating in the last decades, through the use of drugs. Antibiotics have changed the outcome of bacterial diseases and have significantly extended life expectancy. Purification of water has been probably the most significant factor in decreasing children mortality, fertilisers and insecticides have boosted agriculture and food availability to billion of people resulting in better nourishment and in life extensions. Although seldom considered when talking about human augmentation, all these factors have greatly improved human condition, extended our life span and evolved our species to be more resilient, stronger (taller!) and, indirectly, smarter (because of the increased wealth and time available that can both foster education).

Augmentation through better drugs, both for us and for the environment, resulting in a better ambient will continue in the coming decades.

More specific drugs have been created to augment human performance, like the ones to increase muscle mass (steroids). They have been so effective that bans have been imposed to avoid unfair advantage in sporting competition. Some of these drugs have shown undesired effect that in the medium long term affect that person health, so ban has also been imposed for that reason.

It may be expected that more drugs will be created in the coming years to improve physical capabilities (including fatigue endurance) and that ways will be found to decrease (or even nullify) undesired effects.

Researches have gone beyond the creation of drugs for augmenting physical performances, stepping into the area of emotional improvement (drugs fighting depression), alertness (caffeine is an obvious example but there are a variety of drugs – most leading to undesired effects like amphetamines) and sharper thinking.

Brain processing depends on electrical transmission among neurones and on the chemical environment around the neurones. Both can be influenced by drugs. Hallucinogens are a clear example of how drugs can influence the processing of the brain, altering sensations and thoughts.

In the last decades a number of specific drugs have been found to “augment” the processing capacity of the brain, although studies are insufficient both in verifying their efficacy and, more important, in assessing side effects. Caffeine, as mentioned, has been known, also empirically, to increase alertness and in some way to make the person feeling sharp (how much, actually sharper is yet to be demonstrated); however it is also known that caffeine has some drawback, leaving a sense of fatigue once its alertness effects fades and keeping drinking coffee to replenish the caffeine content in the body is not  a good idea.

In general it seems that what a drug can offer in terms of making a brain “smarter” will be taken back once the effect fades away. However, there is the possibility that new drugs may indeed make the brain to work better, augmenting its thinking capability. These drugs are known as “noortropics” and researchers are at work to find them.

The general issues with noortropics is that it is extremely difficult to target specific neural circuits and their effect are pervasive. This is also the case for natural chemicals produced by the brain, like serotonin: they affect the whole brain, not just one part although their effects may be more visible in relation to a specific aspects (like mood change, loss of sleep…).

Compounds like cholinergic and racetams have been shown to have brain enhancement properties and are part of the noortropic family.  There is too little scientific (and clinical) testing so far to take a stand but given the complexity of the brain in terms of finely balanced environment extreme caution is advised by medical doctors.

It is clear, however, that noortropics will evolve, also thanks to better understanding of the brain and to the possibility of closer monitoring the effects of these substances and they will play a role in brain augmentation in the future decades. Implanted brain dispensers may provide both the right dose and the best delivery place and also ensure the monitoring for a continuous precise and customised dosage. This may happen in the fourth decade in this century (since it will be dependent of the maturation of brain implant technology). The implants may be required not just because of the problems in crossing the blood brain barrier that is stopping most substance to impact the brain but also to allow a more targeted delivery.

Delivery may be synchronised with the arise of specific needs and this synchronisation may be the effect of interaction with other autonomous systems leading to a truly symbiotic relation.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. He's currently the Chair of the Symbiotic Autonomous Systems Initiative of IEEE-FDC. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and up to September 2018 he was the Head of the EIT Digital Industrial Doctoral School. Previously, up to December 2011, he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books. He writes a daily blog,  http://sites.ieee.org/futuredirections/category/blog/, with commentary on innovation in various technology and market areas.

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