Riddle me this, Batman – when is a device really a medication?

Sometimes, I also get a shudder down my spine when I read about a certain new technology. The following article speaks of a new trend in technology that significantly affects how our minds work. Last Wednesday, tech startup Thync, founded by a postgraduate fellow from Harvard and an MIT graduate, announced it has raised $13 million for technology that can modify your brain’s activities. What is of particular interest is that the developers of this technology are applying for FDA clearance. The point of this, is that the device will be treated as a medication. This will not be a toy or a soft music player to relax you. The power of this device will be to modify brain function in a way that is equivalent to medications like those for ADHD or for mood problems.

I have to admit that such technologies beg the question – how close are we to a point when we can dramatically change brain function from, even a remote, device. Perhaps in 20 years from now, wars will effectively end, because it will be possible to broadcast a signal which causes every enemy combatant to drop their weapons. Of course, just like with Magneto (from X-men fame), it might be that blocking technologies will already have been developed so that the soldiers will be fine as long as they always wear their specialized helmets.

The moment we began modifying brain activity/chemistry, we crossed a line. And once such a line is crossed, it becomes very difficult for a person to know if what they are seeing or feeling or sensing, in any other way, is real. The truth is that since the first time a person became drunk, or used a mushroom to hallucinate, we were already experimenting with thought modification. So, one could say that this whole area of research is thousands of years old. Nevertheless, the key difference will be the degree to which and the subtlety with which these modifications are made.

The fact that the FDA is involved is a good thing. Hopefully the appropriate people will decide whether to allow such technologies, and if allowed, how or to limit them. Do not forget that successful brain modifications could cure depression or psychosis or other debilitating psychiatric disorders. As usual, every technological advancement is a two-sided coin.

I apologize for my endless, and frequently repeated, references to Marvel comics. But they are the source of all knowledge. “With great power, comes great responsibility”. The day will come when a small group of people will be able to use technology to dramatically affect us in ways that we are not even aware of. There is no way to avoid this. Technology will always advance, and even if you block one stream of development, another path will break through and create the same or farther endpoint.

If we cannot fight these potentially dangerous technologies, then we need to learn about them, understand them and decide on an appropriate (if necessary) reaction. Only in this way will we be able to make informed decisions rather than react out of panic. Such direct brain manipulations may make it possible to teach a whole new subject in a very short time. Imagine educating all of the young people in the developing world, in the areas that interest them, in a week. Suddenly, you will have all the engineers and healthcare workers and city planners and agronomists and financial specialists that you need to rebuild war torn countries. As I said, such a technology is a two sided coin.

I keep coming back to the question of the future role of physicians. While much of what doctors do today will be doable, and far better, with the help of computerization, the new role of doctors may be to judge the appropriateness of technology, at least in the medical sphere. Doctors may once again find themselves needing to become expert in philosophy, ethics and even theology in order to decide whether it is correct to use certain technologies for treating other humans.

These doctors will definitely need to know all that doctors know today. But they will need to know a great deal more. Perhaps medical school will break through the four-year limit that is nearly universal today, and will require of the physician to study for 10 or more years, before being qualified to make what will be society-changing decisions. To properly perform such a future role, I hope that the selection process for becoming a doctor will become based on much more than a simple Bell curve, with the top 5% being considered “the right stuff”. The candidates’ character and problem solving skills will become much more important than being able to memorize anatomy.

Technological advancement is inevitable. Fighting or resisting what is inevitable, is futile. We need to embrace these technologies and guide them. And all of the change in the way that doctors train and work will likely happen so quickly, that there will be great confusion in the streets. This is the pain that comes with the birth of a new world. But in the end, the prize that you hold in your hands will make it all worthwhile.

Thanks for listening

About the Author
Dr. Nahum Kovalski received his bachelor's of science in computer science and his medical degree in Canada. He came to Israel in 1991 and married his wife of 22 years in 1992. He has 3 amazing children and has lived in Jerusalem since making Aliyah. Dr. Kovalski was with TEREM Emergency Medical Services for 21 years until June of 2014, and is now a private consultant on medicine and technology.
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