February 13, 2013
The development of technologies to a future application often begins before the practical, economic, or, as is most relevant in this paper, ethical value and consequences can be fully considered. We live in a society that often proceeds to a capability before reaching, or occasionally regardless of, a conclusion on the ethics of that capability. Therefore, while considering whether or not this application is ethical, society must simultaneously consider which, if any, of the various technologies available to reach that end are ethical. This paper will discuss this situation in terms of memory enhancement. Essentially, society must ask: Assuming that memory enhancement will be developed, is one technological means of enabling this capability more ethical than the other? Only by doing this does society continue to stay current with new technologies. This enables society to achieve and sustain control and regulate new technologies in order to maximize benefits and minimize consequences, instead of trying to control them too late. This paper will assume the inevitability of the development of these technologies for the goal of memory enhancement, and therefore explore the ethics of these two developing technologies by considering the themes of access, safety, and societal impact, and compare the conclusions in order to determine the more ethical option. The two enabling technologies to be addressed in this paper are pharmaceuticals and neural implants. Neither has yet been applied to enhancing memory, but this application of these two technologies is being developed.
We live in a society that, despite proclamations over whether or not memory enhancement itself is or is not ethical, will inevitably force the development of memory enhancement. This is because people have a natural desire to improve and enhance themselves. Whether physically, such as through exercise, dieting, or cosmetic surgery, intellectually, such as through education or tutoring, or in any other way, people feel the need to improve upon many aspects of themselves (Downs). In the not-too-distant future, improving one’s memory will be another opportunity, and therefore its development is inevitable. Therefore, the key question of this paper is: given this inevitable outcome of memory enhancement, which technology is a more ethical option to pursue for achieving it?
It is first necessary to define memory enhancement: the application of various technologies to increase the human capacity of memory. Because of an increased focus on treating such memory-related conditions as Alzheimer’s and dementia due to the increasing age of the baby boomer generation, there has been an increased consideration of memory abilities in general (Downs). Therefore, while the focus is currently on developing this technology for therapeutic uses, scientists have already begun considering the current technologies that could be applied in the future. While there are already “natural” ways of enhancing ones memory, such as through “brain training” or vitamin supplements, it is predicted that, in the future, technology will exist that will allow people to boost their memories “artificially”.
Although this paper assumes the inevitability that this capability will develop, the discussion of whether memory enhancement is itself ethical is still important, and will also provide a context of the broader ethical issues to which these technologies will be applied. Therefore, I will briefly summarize key topics in the discussion of whether memory enhancement is, in and of itself, ethical, using the same considerations that I will use to evaluate the technologies: access, safety, and societal impact. While this is a brief overview of the discussion of the ethics of memory enhancement itself, many factors rest on what technology is used to achieve it, and these factors will be discussed in the body of this paper.
In terms of access, memory-improving options will be only available to those who have a demonstrated need for it as a therapy. As availability and knowledge of the effectiveness grows, memory enhancement will be in higher demand and therefore society will be forced to decide how to determine access. If access is controlled by price, some worry that this will lead to a widening of the divide between socioeconomic classes, as only the wealthy would be able to receive this enhancement. Additionally, to consider access, it is necessary to consider the idea of fair distribution. Is memory enhancement a right? If so, more effort should and would be put into creating as fair a distribution as possible. The final part of the consideration of access to address is the issue of whether access to memory enhancement should be regulated, and, if so, how it should be. On an individual scale, access to this capability should be regulated by the individual’s physician, in order to ensure the safety of the individual. On the societal scale is a different matter, and there will need to be some regulation of access to prevent the widening of socioeconomic divisions, to protect those who do need access to this capability for therapeutic reasons, and also to protect the safety of individuals.
The main question to ask when discussing safety is, logically: Is this safe for those who use it? The first item to discuss is what positive impact this enhancement will have on individuals’ mental, physical, emotional, and psychological health. The obvious benefits are the advantages in memory-related tasks, such as studying and networking, which will be physical and mental benefits. I believe there is an additional psychological health benefit to be gained, because society’s perception of one’s intellect will be increased. Society currently tends to consider intelligence as a function very based in memory, because it enables one to remember more information at any given time (Downs). Therefore, if one was to increase his or her memory, society’s perception of that person’s intellect would increase, which would then lead to further social benefits, such as more beneficial opportunities. However, there are possible personal physical, mental, emotional, or psychological consequences due to memory enhancement. One topic to consider here is whether there is such an idea as too much memory (Glannon). Is there a boundary on what the brain can handle? Scientists are still learning about the brain, and still have much to learn, so there is still no consensus on this topic. The next possible consequence is the inability to forget (Glannon). Do we, as humans, need to forget occasionally (Selinger)? What are the emotional consequences of being unable to forget grudges, injuries, or pain? Additionally, the inability to forget might lead to the practical problem of being unable to prioritize the important memories. Additionally, there may be the social consequence of strained relationships between enhanced and non-enhanced individuals, which may lead to emotional harm for individuals. The final area to discuss within the topic of safety is the idea of limiting this capability, or asking: How much memory enhancement can, and should, people have? It will therefore fall to doctors or the government to determine and enforce a safe and reasonable limit. The main question to be addressed is how to define the limit, as it could be by percentage (i.e. a maximum of a 50% increase), by amount, or up to a certain standard of memory. In summary, there are issues of safety related to the possible physical, emotional, mental, or psychological consequences and attempting to determine a safe limit and these issues will need to be weighed against the positive physical, emotional, mental, and psychological benefits.
The key question when examining the ethics of memory enhancement in terms of societal impact is: What will the impact of enhanced memory be on society? The first consideration is the impact on society of having some, or all, individuals with enhanced memory. Many fear several prospective negative consequences. Some speculate that this will cause a new division in society, i.e. “disabled” vs. “abled” vs. “super-abled”. Additionally, some worry that there will be an excessive amount of social pressure to get memory enhancement (Elliott). Many also believe it will widen the class divide, because of the difference in accessibility, even further. However, proponents argue that it will also have many positive societal impacts. One such would be better quality of public services (Rieland). Memory enhancement would certainly be very advantageous for doctors and law enforcement officials, for example. Another proposed positive societal impact is the ability to further advance society. Because it would enable students to move more quickly through memorization-based topics, it would enable schools to cover more material. Therefore, people would enter the workforce with more knowledge and could help to advance society further, faster. If society prepares for these impacts, it could minimize or avoid the negative impacts, such as societal division, while maximizing the positive societal benefits. One other societal impact may result, and whether it is positive or negative is yet to be seen. Memory enhancement will impact our standards of what a “good”, or even a “sufficient”, memory is, and may even come to change our definition and quantification of “intelligence”. One idea that might lessen the societal impact of this capability is a consideration of whether it is even necessary (Cabrera). With the internet increasingly at our fingertips, is there any value in improving our memory (Selinger)? Therefore, to consider the societal impact of memory enhancement, one must consider the negative societal consequences, primarily new division and increased social pressure, against the positive societal benefits, such as better public services and a more rapidly advancing society, in addition to the question of whether or not this capability is even necessary.
I personally believe memory enhancement could be a worthy and ethical goal if society, based on these discussions, plans and is therefore able to maximize the benefits and minimize the consequences. However, I also believe that, while this discussion of the ethics of memory enhancement are important, society will move forward, regardless of decisions about the ethics of this capability. Humanity continues to work to improve itself, and usually tries to do so in the easiest way, and if memory enhancement was developed, this would provide a quick and easy advantage. Therefore, because society will inevitably continue toward developing this capability, it should also begin to plan and prepare, particularly by deciding and supporting the more ethical technology for achieving memory enhancement.
Moving forward, this paper will first consider each of the three ethical considerations of access, safety, and societal impact, and compare each technology in each section, to determine if one is a more ethical option for achieving memory enhancement, under that consideration. In terms of access, the key themes I will consider for each technology are price, distribution, and regulation. To consider safety, I will examine the key question of whether each technology is safe for those who use it, by comparing the safeguards the technology offers to the potential negative mental, physical, emotional, and psychological consequences. In considering societal impact, I will discuss first the magnitude of the technology’s impact on society, by comparing the number of people who will implement it and the effectiveness of the technology, and then whether the impact is a positive or negative one, by considering other applications of this technology. Finally, I will compare the two technologies across these three considerations, to determine which is the more ethical option overall to pursue memory enhancement.
There are two currently-developing technologies that scientists believe can and will be applied to memory enhancement in the future. These two options are pharmaceuticals and neural implants. Both of these technologies focus mostly on the enhancement of visual memory, which would improve our ability to remember facts we have read or faces we have seen (Newitz).
The class of pharmaceuticals that deals with memory is called ampakines. There are several different methods ampakines use to enhance memory. For example, some work by protecting brain cells from the negative effects of stress hormones, while others focus on boosting certain areas of the brain, and still others work to increase the users’ ability to focus and concentrate (Watts). As with most medicines, these ampakines are being created by pharmaceutical companies, and regulated on a social scale by the FDA and on an individual scale by individual doctors. The increased interest in developing this technology can be largely attributed to America’s aging population, particularly the baby-boomers. They are being developed to address therapeutic uses, such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. But, already, their usefulness in memory enhancement is being considered by scientists and researchers (Downs). Studies so far have shown that they tend to have long-lasting positive benefits, but without long-term negative side effects, which is positive news.
In contrast, neural implants are electronic devices implanted into the brain. So far, neural implants have been developed mostly for recovering stroke patients and as a treatment for Parkinson’s. The theory behind neural implants first began in the early 1800s, when researchers found that electricity stimulated and affected brain activity. This led to increased research of the brain, beginning mostly in the 1900s (Sabbatini). They are small electronics located directly on the brain, and are permanent once implanted. Most neural implants for memory enhancement are being developed to work similarly to current therapeutic ones, such as those for Parkinson’s sufferers. Hypothetically, these would use electricity to stimulate certain areas of your brain to boost memory, as opposed to increased control over movement. There are also some neural implants being developed that work by attempting to mimic the hippocampus, the region of the brain which controls memory (Sandhana).
In the following sections, this paper will compare and contrast these two technologies in terms of the conditions of access, safely, and societal impact to determine which is a more ethical option.
The issue of access is a crucial one to consider for enhancements. The question of which people receive the limited quantities of enhancements affects everyone in a society. The consideration of access also includes questions about how populations will receive the enhancement and whether the access a population has should be regulated, and, if so, how. One must take into account price, and demand, for therapeutic and/or enhancement purposes, and availability, as they relate to price, distribution, and regulation. In this section, I will first discuss the issue of access as it relates to the pharmaceutical option and then as it relates to the neural implant option. Finally, I will compare and contrast these two technologies in terms of this consideration, and draw a conclusion on which, if either, is a more ethical option, based on the issue of access.
Pharmaceuticals are very prevalent in society today. From cold medicines to anti-depressants, pharmaceutical companies have worked to create drugs that will address a wide variety of human concerns. Memory is a current focus of many pharmaceutical companies, with the aging baby boomer generation and the resulting increase in Alzheimer’s and dementia cases. In the future, the solutions they create to address these issues will be able to be applied to memory enhancement, which will give people the opportunity to easily enhance this part of themselves. However, pharmaceutical companies are also, first and foremost, businesses. They are, as are all companies, motivated by profit. Because their profit relies on their ability to respond to the next demand for a pharmaceutical technology, they pour a large portion of their budgets into research and development. The goal of this action is to be the first company to find a very effective and safe option that responds to a popular demand. Once they achieve this, they can begin selling it to make revenue. This leads to the discussion of price. For companies, several factors are relevant in the cost, and two key ones are cost recovery and scalability. Cost recovery relates to cost of developing the pharmaceuticals; because pharmaceutical companies put a large portion of their budget into the research and development departments in order to create this product, they initially must use the price of the product to recover some of those costs. Scalability relates to the manufacturing of the product, as larger quantities are manufactured, the cost of this process goes down. Therefore, the price is initially higher because the cost of manufacturing is higher. Because of these and other factors, the prices of new pharmaceuticals are generally quite high. However, as the need for cost recovery is lessened and the manufacturing takes place on a larger scale, the prices of pharmaceuticals can decrease. Therefore, although the original price would make the pharmaceuticals less accessible, the eventual decrease of price would make it more accessible to the general public. Price is also driven by the concept of supply and demand. Demand for these products would be very high, which would be a factor to drive the price higher. This would be a controlling factor while the availability of the product was low; however, when the pharmaceuticals began manufactured on a larger scale basis, the higher supply would help to lower the price equilibrium. Finally, the creation of competition, for example, non-brand, generic drugs, additionally helps to drive down the cost. For example, as this process happens to attention-disease drugs, which are relatively similar to the proposed pharmaceuticals for memory enhancement, the price per month of the medication can range from $15 to over $500, depending on how recently the medication was developed and whether competition exists (Consumer Reports). Therefore, I believe that pharmaceuticals will be considered relatively accessible, in terms of price.
The next issue of access to discuss for pharmaceuticals is the issue of distribution. This involves the practical discussion of how the pharmaceuticals will be distributed, but also the more significant question of whether the distribution will be fair. The first question is, generally, settled. As are most medicines, these pharmaceuticals will be distributed most likely by individuals’ physicians. The question of whether this distribution is fair is more nuanced. The first key factor, the issue of individual access to health care, is very important, but the entirety of this topic is beyond the scope of this paper. Therefore, with the knowledge that access to health care is itself not necessarily fairly distributed, the other two issues to consider when deciding if distribution itself is fair are price and availability. As discussed above, the price generally makes pharmaceuticals relatively accessible. While availability tends to play a part in price, it is also a separate consideration when it comes to fair distribution. The larger the quantity of the medication, the more available it is, and therefore the more accessible. However, if only small quantities are available at a time, they will be accessible to only certain populations, generally the wealthy of society. I believe that, because scale of manufacturing plays a large part into the price, by the time these pharmaceuticals are accessible by price, they will also be accessible by availability. Additionally, these pharmaceuticals would also be able to be more fairly distributed globally, because they do not require specialists or technology. Therefore, I believe pharmaceuticals for memory enhancement will experience relatively fair distribution.
The final matter for the discussion of access of pharmaceuticals for memory enhancement is the matter of regulation. The key questions are whether access to these pharmaceuticals should be regulated and, if so, how they should be regulated. The question of whether pharmaceuticals should be regulated has been relatively settled by society, with the decision that access should be regulated so as to protect users from harmful side effects and to prevent misuse. Similarly, the question of how to regulate these technologies has also been decided. For each individual’s safety, access has been regulated by physicians. On a societal scale, it has generally fallen to government regulatory agencies, for example, the United States’ Food and Drug Administration (FDA), to regulate access to pharmaceuticals, in the interest of public safety. While these regulations are for the safety of the individuals who use such technology, they also limit access. While this raises the ethical debate of safety and paternalism versus individual rights to access, this question is largely beyond the scope of this paper. In the case of access to pharmaceuticals, the interest of preserving safety has generally been determined to be of higher value than the individual right to unlimited access, as evidenced by the existence of the FDA. Therefore, while these regulations limit access, every medical technology is subject to them, thereby making them moot in the discussion of the ethics when considering access.
Therefore, in considering access in terms of price, distribution, and regulation, I believe that pharmaceuticals to reach memory enhancement are a relatively accessible and ethical option.
I will now consider these three concerns of access, price, distribution, and regulations, as they relate to neural implants for memory enhancement. The issue of price is more nuanced for neural implants than for pharmaceuticals. All of the same ideas above apply, but far more factors are also involved. Not only is the price of the technology a factor, but also the price of the surgery to have the device implanted, the specialists needed to implant it, and countless other costs. For example, the price of the brain surgery alone can be over $43,000 total, when the cost of the surgeon, hospital stay, and anesthesia services are totaled (Healthcare Blue Book). Therefore, the price of this technology will be quite high, and is not likely to lower as much, as the costs of surgery and specialists will not be influenced by the market forces. Additionally, as scalability and availability play into price, both of these will most likely be relatively low, and therefore drive the price higher. This technology, depending on how it is created, may be more difficult to manufacture, especially at high volumes. Because of this, it will have a low ability to be scaled to higher production to help lessen manufacture costs, which means that scalability will not help to drive the price lower. Additionally, the availability, also affected by scalability, will be lower if the technology is harder to produce, which changes the supply/demand relationship to drive the price higher. Because of these factors, the low scalability, low availability, and additional costs, the neural implants would have a high price and therefore would be less accessible.
As for the next topic of the access discussion, distribution, I will continue to look at the practical matter of distribution methods and the question of whether distribution will be fair. Because of the lower availability of this technology and the more elaborate process necessary to receive it, I expect that distribution will be much more difficult. In order to get access to this technology, one would need to find a surgeon who handles elective surgeries, and because these would be themselves less accessible, that affects the distribution of this technology. Therefore, to look at the question of whether distribution is fair, it seems less likely. Because of the higher price and lower supply of this product, the distribution of the limited quantity would be slanted toward the wealthy and elite of society. Additionally, when there are a fewer surgeons capable, these surgeons tend to focus on certain cities and areas where they have the highest number of potential customers. Globally, for example, more doctors and specialists capable of doing this surgery will be located in developed nations rather than developing nations, which will increase the gap between these two groups. Therefore, geographically, distribution is also made less fair. In the distribution area of access, the neural implants are more inaccessible and therefore less ethical.
The final theme of access is regulation. The same questions apply: should access to neural implants be regulated and, if so, how? Many of the same issues apply here as in pharmaceuticals, such as doctors regulating individual access and government regulatory agencies monitoring societal access, and the debate of whether safety ranks higher than individual right to access. However, given that society has agreed that maintaining public safety is more important, the neural implants will be more harshly considered. In the United States, neural implants would fall into the FDA’s jurisdiction, the same as pharmaceuticals, because they qualify as medical devices. Because they are more invasive and require a more involved implementation process, they would likely warrant more regulation. The additional steps lead to more inherent risks; therefore the government agencies would have to consider each step to verify that each is safe and should be available to the public. However, neural implants for therapeutic purposes already exist and are in use, therefore, the process has been successful before. The most important factor would be how the government regulatory agency tests the device. As a result, regulations would still limit access to this technology, and this technology will be under even more scrutiny as a more invasive device. This further scrutiny might lead to neural implants being even less accessible.
To conclude, because of higher cost, conditions for unfair distribution, and more regulation, I predict that neural implants will be far less accessible, and therefore are a more unethical option for society to continue to develop for memory enhancement.
Access is a broad issue, so I have evaluated it in terms of price, distribution, and regulation. Based on these themes of access, I evaluated the two technologies of pharmaceuticals and neural implants as they are applied to memory enhancement. Based on all three themes of access, pharmaceuticals seem to be the more ethical option, by having a lower price, more fair distribution, and less regulation, than neural implants.
Safety, as compared to the ethical consideration of access, is much simpler to evaluate. Really, the question is: is this technology safe for those who use it? To consider this question, I will first consider the safeguards the option offers, and then the possible physical, emotional, mental, and/or psychological consequences. One thing to note first is that both technologies would be regulated for safety: for individuals by their doctors, and for society by government agencies such as the FDA. Therefore, I will not further discuss regulation for safety in this section, as this applies to both and, additionally, has been discussed in the prior section. Also, the discussion of the issues of safety for memory enhancement itself, such as the concern about “too much” memory, have already been discussed, so this section will focus solely on the safety of the technologies alone.
I will first discuss the safety of pharmaceutical options. Current studies have shown them to tend to have long-lasting positive benefits without long-term negative side effects. This bodes well for their future as research develops. Additionally, they tend to offer many safeguards. First, Pharmaceuticals seem more natural, as they are taken orally and work within our bodies’ natural processes. While this does not necessarily prove them to be safer, it lessens concern about extreme negative side effects caused by the body’s negative reaction. Also, pharmaceuticals are impermanent; they must be taken again after a specified length of time to remain effective. Therefore, they offer the advantage that they are easily stopped if they are found to be harmful to an individual. As far as possible consequences, not many are expected. So far, research has shown them to be safe. Because many people take pharmaceuticals for many varied reasons, the technology of pharmaceuticals in general is known to be relatively safe. The only concern would be if these specific pharmaceuticals offer a negative side effect, which has not yet been found. Individuals must be wary of what combinations of medicines they are taking, in order to avoid a bad reaction due to a combination. Therefore, pharmaceuticals have been demonstrated to be relatively safe, and therefore ethical.
Neural implants offer much fewer safeguards than do pharmaceuticals. The main one of these is that they only require one surgery. Instead of having to remember to take a medicine periodically, after one surgery and its follow-ups, the procedure would be complete. This removes the risk of bad side effects as a result of missing a scheduled dose for medication. However, there are more potential consequences of neural implants. First, is that they are much more invasive, as they require brain surgery, which introduces many risks. Second, they are also less natural, in the sense that they do not directly work within our bodies’ natural processes, but rather interfere with them. Finally, they are permanent, which means that, if they do cause harm, they cannot be removed to prevent further harm. They also could lead to very dramatic side effects, as they are implanted directly into the brain. However, these all depend on how the research progresses and many will not be true once this technology reaches the market. Additionally, therapeutic neural implants are already used, so the safety of these products is already being tested and will continue to improve. That said, currently neural implants are a more unsafe option, and therefore less ethical in this consideration.
Although this discussion seems brief, it is crucially important. These technologies will all be regulated for safety by government agencies like the FDA, but there are usually additional side effects even in technologies that are approved. One must understand the safety of two options in order to make an educated decision about which is better. Many of these potential side effects are not yet known, as these technologies are still in development, and some may yet be proven more safe. Therefore, based on only the current research and understanding, pharmaceuticals are a safer option because they offer more safeguards with fewer negative consequences.
In order to make a determination about the ethics of a technology, one should also consider the impact of that technology on society. One should understand how it will impact society at large and not just individuals, which is the focus of the consideration of safety. Without considering this, one has neglected to predict what will happen with this technology, and will be ill-prepared to prepare for the spread of this technology. Additionally, considering the societal impact is crucial in determining the ethics of a technology because society greatly impacts individuals, and vice versa, so one should not consider one without also evaluating the other. However, there are infinite perspectives to take in order to attempt to evaluate the impact a technology will have on society, and even then, it is impossible to predict with complete confidence what will happen in the future. Therefore, in order to judge the impact these technologies will have on society, I will judge the magnitude of each given technology’s impact on society based on two factors that drive the societal impact: the effectiveness of the technology, which also plays into the second factor, the number of people who choose to implement it (Rieland). Then, in order to judge whether that impact will be positive or negative, I will also consider the other applications, positive and negative, of these technologies. The societal impact of memory enhancement itself has already been discussed in the introduction section; therefore this section will focus only on the societal impact of these technologies they are applied to memory enhancement.
The societal impact of pharmaceuticals is relatively easy to judge, because their use is already widespread in society. It is not a huge assumption to believe that pharmaceuticals for memory enhancement will follow established patterns. Society is already trending towards “medicalization”, or the use of medicine to treat what wasn’t always considered a disadvantage or disease. Memory is likely to simply be another step along this path. Society tends to take the medicine when it is available, in the interest of self-improvement. Also, these pharmaceuticals are not very different from attention disorder medicines, which are used to increase focus and concentration (Watts). These medications are frequently misused as academic stimulants (Rieland). This has laid a foundation for the creation of memory-enhancing pharmaceuticals, so it is relatively clear that they will appeal to a large number of people.
The effectiveness of the pharmaceuticals is another aspect to consider when judging the degree of societal impact that this technology will cause. From current research, I believe that pharmaceuticals will be slightly effective in memory enhancement. The methods currently are more focused on boosting the memory one currently has by preventing the impact of negative influences, like stress hormones. They aren’t yet developing a pharmaceutical option that can truly add to one’s ability, rather just making what one has more efficient. Also, because pharmaceutical companies are aware there is already a market for a less effective, though also less expensive and safer, product, they will be less motivated to push for a more effective product.
If pharmaceuticals were developed to enhance memory, these could lead to future developments of pharmaceuticals to control other aspects of the brain. Perhaps the next application would be using the technology of these pharmaceuticals and applying them to the ability to make connections faster, or increase the basic ability to learn new information. The development process of these pharmaceuticals for memory enhancement would help researchers to further understand the brain, and this could open many future possibilities for therapeutic or enhancement technology. However, it is also possible that negative applications will be discovered for this technology. For example, this technology could be used to cheat in memory competitions or games, or, more drastically, as a method to increase the impact of torture by enhancing the subject’s ability to recall the experience. Also, attention disorder medication is already misused for a similar purpose as memory enhancement pharmaceuticals would accomplish. The high availability of this medication makes this misuse more possible. Therefore, memory enhancement might face the same situation due to its projected higher availability. It seems possible that the potential misuse outweighs the potential beneficial applications of this technology.
Through these three perspectives, the impact on society as judged by the effectiveness and the number of people who use it and the future applications it might lead to, pharmaceuticals will clearly impact society. With the increasing desire to self-improve, and an established use of doing this for memory through pharmaceuticals, there is already a large market for this technology. Therefore, even though this technology will be less effective, it will still impact society greatly. It is difficult to determine whether the impact will be positive or negative. One positive societal impact it will bring is increased understanding of the brain, and the possibility of future developments. However, as with every developing technology, there is the possibility of misuse. The pharmaceuticals could easily be misused for anything from cheating to torture, and these misuses would lead to a strongly negative societal impact. Currently, due to a prevalence of misuse of attention disorder medication (due to high availability), for purposes similar to memory enhancement, it seems possible that future misuse might outweigh good applications. Therefore, this technology will greatly impact society, in some positive and some negative ways, and it may be possible that those negative ways outnumber the positive. Therefore, pharmaceuticals may be a slightly less ethical option in terms of societal impact, because of this higher potential for misuse and greater societal impact.
To analyze the societal impact of neural implants, one must hypothesize more because, even though some assumptions can be made based on the current use of neural implants for therapeutic purposes, not even these are widespread. But, to first consider the number of people who will use this product, we will look back at the conclusions of the first two sections. First, this technology is less accessible due to price, distribution, and regulations. Second, this technology also has more safety risks. Therefore, I believe this will lower the number of people who will use this technology, because of these factors. Therefore, this will make neural implants have less of an impact on society.
However, the developers of neural implants will be aware of these risks, and, therefore, they will improve the effectiveness of this technology in order to combat these negative factors. In order to make this technology appeal to more people, the effectiveness of this technology must be worth the negatives of low accessibility and low safety. If this technology is developed to where the effectiveness can be deemed sufficient to be worth these factors, this will cause a larger group of people to be willing to implement this technology, and therefore this technology have a greater societal impact. Also, because a higher effectiveness itself will cause a greater societal impact, because there will be more internal and external pressure to receive this technology in order to enhance oneself. Therefore, this technology, with a higher effectiveness, will have a larger societal impact.
Additionally, the technology of neural implants for memory enhancement could have other applications. The process of developing this technology, as in developing the technology of pharmaceuticals, will help scientists to better understand the brain, which could itself lead to further developments. Also, this technology could be developed further in the future. For a futuristic and hypothetical example, perhaps the technology of neural implants for memory enhancement will lead to the ability to store memories as data and save them on a computer. However, this technology could also lead to misuse. For example, people might push their brains too much and receive more implants, which could have dangerous health consequences and also give them even more of an advantage. There are both positive and negative societal impacts of neural implants for memory enhancement in terms of their other potential uses and misuses. However, because of its lower availability, the potential for misuse is also lower, because it will be more regulated and controlled.
Therefore, it is again difficult to judge the magnitude of neural implants’ impact on society, and whether this impact is a positive or negative one. There are both positive and negative potential further applications of this technology. Which of these outweighs the other is yet to be seen, although, the lower availability of neural implants acts as a safeguard against some potential misuse. However, the magnitude of the societal impact is somewhat limited by the factors of this technology, namely the lower accessibility and lower safety, because fewer people will implement it. If the technology develops to become effective enough to be worth these risks, this will still lead to this technology having at least a somewhat higher societal impact. To conclude, neural implants may have a slightly smaller impact on society, due to the fact that fewer people will use them and this will have to be overcome by the appeal of the effectiveness. However, they will possibly also have a more positive societal impact, because their low accessibility safeguards against some potential for misuse.
Overall, neural implants are, based on current research and future predictions, a more ethical option in terms of societal impact, because they will have less of a societal impact, but it will be a more positive one. However, this could be easily changed if the potential of misuse of pharmaceuticals was limited, which would therefore enable the pharmaceuticals to have a large, and more positive, impact on society. But, through current evaluations, neural implants are the more ethical option when considering societal impact.
The development of the ability to enhance memory is inevitable, and two current technologies, pharmaceuticals and neural implants, are being researched as options to be the method for achieving this goal. Because this goal is inevitable, due to the unending natural human desire to enhance oneself, society should take the opportunity to evaluate these two options and choose to develop the one which is more ethical. I chose to do this by considering these technologies in terms of access, safety, and societal impact. When considering access, I found pharmaceuticals to be the more ethical option because they are more accessible, due to their lower price, more fair distribution, and less regulation. Similarly, when considering safety, I focused on the safeguards the technology offered, as well as the possible physical, mental, emotional, and psychological consequences of the treatment. In these areas, I found pharmaceuticals to be the more ethical option because they offer more safeguards with fewer potential consequences. Finally, I considered the ethical issue of societal impact in terms of the magnitude of the impact, judged by the number of people who would implement this technology and the projected effectiveness of the technology, and the positive or negative aspects of that impact, measured by the potential other uses and misuses of the technology. I found that neural implants would be the more ethical option, because they would have a smaller impact on society, due to their lower accessibility, and the risks and costs involved due to that low accessibility and low safety, unless the development of this technology made it sufficiently more effective as to be worth disregarding those factors. However, the impact of this technology would be a largely positive one, as its potential misuses would be very limited by the low accessibility of this technology. But, if the pharmaceutical option could limit its own potential for misuse, that would make its impact also largely positive, and it would additionally have a greater impact on society, because of its high accessibility and ready market. Therefore, currently, pharmaceuticals are the more ethical option to develop for the capability of memory enhancement, when evaluated in the considerations of access, safety, and societal impact, because it is more accessible, safer, and could easily be made to have a greater and more positive impact on society. However, while this is the current conclusion, as both of these technologies are in development, many of these factors could yet change. Therefore, while I believe the pharmaceutical option is the more ethical option, based on the current research, research on the neural implants should not be ended completely. The more ethical option, once both are fully developed, should be decided and then supported by society. The discussion involved in choosing the more ethical option allows for society to fully consider both, and, once they have decided, to begin planning for the implementation of that option, so as to be prepared for when it joins the market. In this way, society can even further minimize the unethical possible consequences of whichever is the chosen technology, and maximize the benefits. Therefore, while a discussion of whether memory enhancement itself is a worthy question and discussion, having a simultaneous discussion on which is the more ethical option to achieve it, regardless of whether the goal is determined ethical or not, can at least enable society to make the inevitable development and execution of the enhancement as ethical as possible. This framework could ideally be applied to other technologies, in order to attempt to make the most ethical decisions possible throughout the development and implementation of even an inevitable unethical capability, so as to maximize the ethical benefits and minimize the consequences.
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Anna Fountain is a senior at Kent Place, which she has been attending since 5th grade. Anna was attracted to the study of bioethics because it is a field that combines two areas she is passionate about, science and ethics. Her topic, the ethics of the technologies used to achieve memory enhancement, was interesting to her as an opportunity to research and learn about future technologies. She has really valued the chance to have fantastic and thought-provoking discussions with her Bioethics Project 2013: The Medically-Modified Human classmates, and has gained valuable skills that she will take with her into college next year and beyond.