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One of the most compelling applications for AI would be in augmenting human biological intelligence. What are some of the currently proposed methods for doing this aside from vague notions such as "nanobots swimming around our brains and bodies" or "electrodes connected to our skulls"?

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  • $\begingroup$ By augmenting Intelligence, do you mean actual knowledge, or just improving humans overall? $\endgroup$ – baranskistad Aug 3 '16 at 15:04
  • $\begingroup$ The question is specific to intelligence, though that is unfortunately an ill-defined notion. So, it is focused on such things as knowledge and mental aptitude, not other areas of human biology. $\endgroup$ – David Vogel Aug 3 '16 at 15:07
  • $\begingroup$ I see, nanobots are honestly the only thing I can think of. For things of non-intelligence though there are prosthetic limbs that react to your brain waves. $\endgroup$ – baranskistad Aug 3 '16 at 15:09
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'Direct augmentation' of human intelligence, of the sort that you would see in science fiction, looks to be very hard. Most of our promising approaches deal with avoiding damage rather than adding capabilities--there's no drug that you can take now that will make you smarter to the degree that missing a night of sleep can make you dumber.

The most informative area of current practice is probably game-playing, where 'centaurs,' or humans working with computers, outcompete human players or computer players.

But a centaur player doesn't have a wire jutting out of their skull to jack into the computer; they're looking at a laptop screen. One of the reasons to be pessimistic about cyborg augmentation is because current I/O technology is already so good. Why install a new wire to put information into your visual cortex, when you come already equipped with two?

If you could think code directly onto the screen, how much better would that be than typing code through a keyboard? Probably some, but I find it difficult to imagine that it'll be more than twice as good. So most human-computer intelligence augmentation will look like people using software, and software using human inputs, rather than humans and computers evolving together.


Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (TDCS) and similar approaches cause temporary changes in mental abilities by raising or lowering the activation potentials of neurons in particular regions of the brain. (I've done it myself, a few years ago, and what weak effects I noticed were probably negative. Not too much surprise for a DIY setup!)

It looks like it has a number of useful implications. One article about TDCS that I found particularly striking was the journalist who tried it gushing about how their anxiety disappeared for a few days, presumably because the part of their brain behind the anxiety was dampened. One could imagine it being useful for the treatment of many different mental disorders.

That said, I'm pessimistic that it will translate into superior peak performance, and I think that's the sort of thing that's more relevant for discussions of augmentation. (Is there TDCS that we could do that would make Terrence Tao better at doing mathematics?)

Where improved AI methods will come into play is by improving our models of the brain, allowing us to better target interventions, much in the way that AI methods are improving our treatment of cancer (through superior diagnosis and targeting of radiotherapy, as two easy examples). These effects will all be indirect--for example, AI empowering an app or gadget that helps you sleep better won't directly augment your intelligence, but will cause population-level increases in effective intelligence through reducing sleep deprivation.

I haven't talked yet about nootropics, chemicals that increase intelligence, but it's reasonable to expect that AI will improve drug discovery there like it improves drug discovery for anything else. But the same caveats apply--the effect of nootropics seem to be negatively correlated with intelligence (that is, the smarter someone already is, the harder it is to increase their intelligence further).

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  • $\begingroup$ This is not really what I'm looking for. There are already neuroprosthetics being used for incapacitated people which allow them to surf the internet and write email. There is tons of other research for psychiatric applications. There are also brain-machine-interfaces (BMIs). Also, there are studies being conducted which can induce savant capabilities for short amounts of time. How can these applications benefit from AI or how could AI be used in different approaches? $\endgroup$ – David Vogel Aug 3 '16 at 15:45
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidVogel I'd be interested in the savant capabilities studies you're referring to, because that sounds like it would change my impression of what's possible. As is, I don't think modifying I/O (that is, building synthetic eyes or hands or so on) reflect intelligence boosts; most productive typing, for example, is limited by speed of thought instead of by speed of fingers, and so unless we're able to intervene at speed of thought we won't see any significant improvements. $\endgroup$ – Matthew Graves Aug 3 '16 at 15:55
  • $\begingroup$ Well, to show you how old this is, here is a NYT article from 2003: nytimes.com/2003/06/22/magazine/22SAVANT.html?pagewanted=all $\endgroup$ – David Vogel Aug 3 '16 at 15:59
  • $\begingroup$ Gotcha. I'll add a paragraph to talk about that sort of thing. $\endgroup$ – Matthew Graves Aug 3 '16 at 16:01
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidVogel Added. It's mostly an elaboration of the first paragraph; I think that most of our approaches to augment existing intelligence boil down to avoiding damage (through things like sleep deprivation or nutritional deficiencies), and so while AI can improve those existing approaches, it'll do it in 'boring' ways. $\endgroup$ – Matthew Graves Aug 3 '16 at 16:13

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