Like last summer, I purposely tried to find books over the holiday break that would not be related to my day-job. Based on a recommendation from a friend (and yes a techie friend) on Facebook I ended up ordering Ramez Naam’s Nexus, the first book of his Nexus Trilogy.
Without giving too much away, the story unfolds in the near-future (2040 although as I will explain below, I think it will happen much sooner). Nexus is a drug that implants nanotech into the brain and allows users to connect with each other. At the core of the story is based both on tech (brain-computer interfaces — BCI) and some of the moral and ethical dilemmas society will face as “humans” as we see ourselves today evolve with the aid of technology into Transhuman or Posthuman form. (spoiler alert: skip rest of this paragraph) In the books the US makes the Nexus drug (and other enhancing technology) illegal, and creates a government entity to spy on, find and if needed slow down this evolution. The ethical debate centers on whether humans can declare trans- or post- humans to be a different race and therefore not bound by international laws and human rights. In the book the debate also frames the Nexus technology as a fault line between developed nations (who mainly oppose it) and developing nations (who see it as a step-change in development).
Ramez is first of all a technologist (he used to work at Microsoft) and manages to bring in close-to-reality tech into a science fiction novel. He even has a non sci-fi book on the potentials of biological enhancement.
As a technologist the idea and the potential of millions of brains (and the combined computational power but also interconnectedness that could enable fascinated me). The “ambient” connections that social media has enabled could be amplified… The understanding of perspectives, of experiences, of differences, could be resolved… The world’s brightest minds could work not as one, but as many.
Needless to say, I devoured Nexus, emergency Prime ordered the second book Crux and then Apex. They were super quick to read Crichton-style thrillers with the obligatory gun fights and drama with some underlying real-world deep tech behind them.
In each of the books Ramez ends by outlining some of the current technology in labs backing his science fiction future and making us realize how likely the whole scenario actually is.
-Ray Kurzweil has been talking for some time about the near-future possibility of our brain being connected to “the cloud” and the benefits of joined pattern recognition and computation.
-A DARPA funded project has unveiled a prosthetic (non-biological) limb that connects to the nervous system and relays “feelings” to the brain
And the scientific advances carry on and on! Brain — Computer interfaces are being actively funded by DARPA (and probably other governments around the world) and by leading scientific institutes. And that research is all happening around us now.
Bringing it back to today’s reality there was a recent set of press coverage around research on Modafinil (aka Provigil) a drug that had been developed for Narcolepsy which I often heard mentioned by friends in tech as the “smart drug” as it allowed them to focus more, produce more, succeed “more” in the intellectual meritocracy that is the Valley. The recent coverage was tied to research stating that the scientists had found “no” side effects to taking the drug.
I draw the same parallel to Provigil in today’s world and the Nexus series ties to the Nexus drug: If there were limited side effects (and you could afford it), would you take a drug that increased your performance? What if the increase in performance was a 10x or 1000x greater? If so, would you still take it even if society (or at least your society) deemed it illegal? What then happens if the drug (or tech) can be afforded by some but not by others? What is the implication of a sub-segment of humans being “enhanced” and others not?
The above are questions that I believe we will begin to face sooner rather than later. Ramez bases his books in 2040, Ray Kurzwell sets that future at 2030 but as the recent hype around Provigil proves, hacking the brain will happen and while it might lead to amazing advances it will also lead to a moral and bioethical debate on what it means to be “human.”