Saturday, September 30, 2006

Mind Drugs

For some years, I have had a book manuscript dealing with the consequences of possible technological changes over the next few decades up on the web collecting comments. I now have a publisher for it and am working on a revision for publication.

Most of the book is written, but there is still one missing chapter–on mind drugs. I expect it to divide into three categories:

1. Recreational drugs. These have a long history; the issues they raise are not new. Presumably progress in the relevant technologies, including understanding of how the mind works, will produce improved versions, drugs that give more pleasure with fewer risks.

2. Enhancement drugs. A few of these have existed in the past, with coffee and Coca leaves obvious examples. Currently some drugs, including Ritalin, are used by students taking exams to temporarily enhance their performance. I gather that modafinil drastically reduces the need for sleep and is said to be used by the military for that purpose. Physical enhancement drugs–steroids–have gotten quite a lot of negative attention, although I have not seen any thoughtful discussions of what, if anything, is wrong with using them.

It seems likely that over the next decade or two better such drugs will become available, for temporary and (perhaps) permanent improvement of mental performance. What interesting consequences are likely to result?

3. Control drugs. This is the interesting and scary category, so far mostly limited to fiction. What happens if there is a drug you can feed someone, perhaps without his knowledge, that will make him temporarily credulous, willing to believe what you tell him? A drug that will make him obedient? A drug that will make her fall in love with you or him feel loyal to you? All of these are real behavior patterns, presumably connected in part to brain chemistry–and we are becoming better chemists.

There are a few hints of such things already. Ecstasy is said to make users temporarily empathetic; empathy might make you more willing to believe someone's story of why he needs help, and provide it. Oxytocin seems to have some effects on trust, sexual bonding, maternal behavior; perhaps an engineered drug could provide similar results of a stronger and more controllable sort. Insects respond sexually to pheromones and there is now a little evidence of similar effects in humans; what perfume manufacturers have long claimed might turn out to be true. And of course knockout drugs from chloral hydrate to rohypnol–a very crude sort of behavior control—have a long and dishonorable history in fiction and fact.

The purpose of this post is to ask for help with my unwritten chapter. What facts don't I know that I should that are relevant to the development of mind drugs over the next few decades? What non-obvious consequences are worth thinking about and how might they be dealt with? Will we, for instance, expand the "absence of duress" requirement in contracts to make a contract unenforceable unless both parties submitted to suitable blood tests immediately before signing, to make sure that neither was acting under undue chemical influence?

Gift Economy x 2

No man is so wealthy that he objects to receiving
A gift in exchange for his gift

I was thinking recently about the idea of a gift economy, an idea that sometimes shows up in discussions of open source software, and it occurred to me that there are really two quite different things covered by the term, both familiar to most of us in our ordinary life.

You invite a friend and his wife over for dinner, enjoy their company, invite them again. Pretty soon they will feel an obligation to reciprocate, to invite you over for dinner or, if that isn't convenient, invite you to a restaurant and insist on paying the bill. It will never occur to them that they might balance the account by offering you twenty dollars instead, and you would be shocked and, probably, offended if they did.

That is a gift economy of just the sort described in the bit of Havamal quoted above, composed somewhat over a thousand years ago. The transactions are exchanges, value for value, but they take the form of nominally voluntary gifts rather than the bargained exchanges of ordinary trade. As an economist I do not have a satisfactory theory of why we do things that way—and would like to—but as a participant in such an economy I at least know how it feels from the inside.

The second kind of gift economy occurred to me in a discussion with a friend whose interests include the history of fencing and 19th century dancing. He routinely spends a week each year teaching the latter at Newport and has just been making arrangements to make his very extensive collection of source material on the former, distributed in past decades as photocopies, available on the web.

He does not expect to get any gifts directly in exchange. What he does get, in addition to his own enjoyment and the feeling of a useful job done, is status. People sharing his interest recognize his name, treat him as an important person. That too is a gift economy, but of a rather different sort—probably closer to the gift economy of open source software. You pour your gifts out to the world and the world, if you are lucky, repays you in a variety of indirect ways.

That second kind of gift economy is more relevant than the first to one of the interesting issues of the next few decades: How to get intellectual property produced if copyright law becomes, for technological reasons, unenforceable. If I can not prevent you from copying my book, I not only can not charge you for it, I also can not make my giving it to you implicitly conditional on your giving a voluntary gift to me. But I can still get credit for writing it and may be able to find ways of turning the resulting status into other things of value to me.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Some Folk Are Never Satisfied

Back when I was a college student, one of the world's great problems was third world poverty. According to the conventional wisdom, countries such as India could never develop by their own efforts within a market system, as the currently developed countries had done. The only alternatives were central planning plus massive foreign aid—the recommended course for India—or still more central planning ferociously enforced, the course that was supposedly turning the Soviet Union, and would turn China, into modern economies.

Time passed, a handful of small poor countries in Asia became not-poor countries through market processes—further from laissez-faire than I would have recommended, but further still from the prescriptions of the conventional wisdom—and it was noticed that the Soviet Union, despite all its forced sacrifices, was still, for most of its population, a third world country. India and China got the message, shifted away from centralized planning in the direction of markets, and began to get less poor.

Problem solved? Not exactly.

As poor and hungry people get less poor, they get less hungry. With enough food to survive no longer a problem, some of them get fat. Voila—the growth of global obesity. It was brought to my attention by a radio interview with an expert who attributed the problem to increased consumption of vegetable oils and sugars. For some reason he didn't mention the obvious relation between increasing real income and increasing consumption, or that some of the increased calories whose consumption he deplored were being consumed by people who needed them.

Nor is that the only problem. As the Chinese get richer they, naturally enough, want more stuff—consume more raw materials, oil, power. Voila—new worries for those who are afraid we are about to run out of everything, either just before or just after we roast or drown. I have not yet heard any of them wishing aloud that the Chinese and Indians would go back to poverty and starvation, but that seems at least a muted subtext to the complaints.

Some of the concern may be legitimate, although it requires a serious effort to see the problems of too much food as comparable to those of too little. More can be attributed to ideological hostility to capitalism—people unwilling to recognize its striking success in dealing with old problems and so eager to focus on new problems created by that success.

And some is just the human taste for gloom.

Commitment Strategies vs Highjacking

I've just been doing a good deal of travel by air—one reason I haven't posted recently—and so have been thinking a bit about security issues.

On the face of it, almost all of the precautions to keep passsengers from highjacking an airplane are unnecessary—all it takes is a reasonably sturdy locked door between pilots and passengers. One possible response is that highjackers might persuade pilots to open such a door by threatening to kill off crew and passengers one by one until they do. In the post 9/11 world I'm not sure that would work—but suppose it would.

There is a simple solution: Provide the pilots with a second lock that can only be unlocked by someone on the ground. At the first sign of a highjacking they lock it and are now immune to threats. It would be prudent to make sure that potential highjackers know about the second lock, and perhaps to have a lighted sign or prerecorded announcement to signal that it has been activated.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Visual Processing and the Immortality of the Soul

Life after death is a very implausible idea, yet many people, in many different cultures, believe in it. For those of us who do not share that belief and are puzzled by all the reasonable and intelligent people who do, the obvious explanation is wishful thinking. But many of the same people also believe in some version of Hell—and, however useful that may be for threatening misbehaving children, it is not what wishful thinking would suggest as a possible future fate for oneself. I have an entirely different explanation to offer. I propose that the belief in the immortality of the soul is a consequence of the way in which our visual system processes information.

Looking around me, what I see is a collection of recognizable objects—a computer screen, a plastic cup half full of diet coke, a telephone and, in my very messy office, a lot of other things. But none of that is in the information feeding from my retinas to my optic nerves. That information consists of a visual field--a flat plane of various colored regions (actually two, one for each eye). Somehow the software in my brain is converting that very uninformative body of data into a reasonably accurate model of the bit of the world I am looking at.

As with many other things the brain does, it only became clear how hard it was when people started trying to write software to duplicate it and discovered that they couldn't—the information coming in was not adequate to generate the information going out. The explanation they came up with was that the brain cheats. In addition to using the information coming in through the retina, it also uses a body of information, generated by some combination of evolution and experience, about what the world is like, information that lets it discard most of the possible explanations of what it gets from the retina in favor of a small number of likely ones.

One such piece of information is persistance of objects. Having recognized the oddly shaped green region to the right of my visual field as the top half of a plastic cup (the bottom half is dark because of the diet coke showing through), my software does not have to redo the analysis three seconds later—even though the region is no longer in the same part of the visual field, my head having turned a little in the meanwhile. Part of the hardwired information is that if the cup was there recently, it is probably still there, or close. Being a rigid object, it is probably still about the same shape, even if a change in the angle at which I am observing it makes it look different.

Some things violate the rules—soap bubbles, for example. That is one of the reasons why soap bubbles seem like odd, almost magical, objects. And there are optical illusions that take advantage of the rules to trick us into seeing what isn't there. But, on the whole, our image processing rules and the software containing them work very well, much better than any software we can ourselves write.

Things persist. People are things, but things of a special sort; when you talk with a friend over the phone it is not his body you are aware of but the person inside. When he dies the body is still there but the person is not—which is intuitively impossible, since the knowledge of the persistence of things is hardwired into your brain.

Which might explain why so many people believe in life after death.