The Un-American Dream
Finding Cognitive Enhancement in a South Punjab Village
Self aware Artificial Intelligence is inevitable.
I let the thought marinate in my head while I sat in my clinic. I understood the ramifications, that the muscle in my head, according to Nick Bostrom, the author of “Superintelligence,” was soon likely to be irrelevant.
Nasreen called me. She smiled and said the itching was happening. It was a sign everything with her treatment was in order. When I had seen her two weeks prior, she was suffering from clinical anxiety, unable to move and always on a generic alprazolam, the type of pill every doctor in Pakistan prescribed from the company that gave him the most commission.
In the last two weeks, we had treated many of the women in my village suffering from anxiety and panic attacks, along with experimenting with stroke rehabilitation.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. I had grown up visiting the village in Pakistan my father called home, occasionally even feeling nostalgic for it at night on my bed in American Suburbia. I was known as my father’s son there, expected to be a soul long gone from the simplicities of rural South Punjab life, expected to maintain an occasional remittance-based connection with it.
But instead here I was. Armed with a tDCS (transcranial direct current stimulation) device my co-founder and I had created at the Startup Shell incubator at the University of Maryland, we were effectively treating clinical anxiety in a small village in South Punjab.
The journey had begun years before, in American Suburbia, a theme that will arise throughout the saga because of its profound influence on us. We were obsessed with enhancement. From smoking weed out of a Gatorade bottle way earlier than a person should, to popping pills not prescribed to us, to drooling over the movie, “Limitless,” all we wanted was to be the best version of ourselves. A shortcut to being great.
Picking up and dropping off patients in the sweltering heat, on a 70cc motorcycle, proved what we did not desire to expect: the path to greatness was going to have more potholes than the roads denied care by a government recklessly focused on improving Lahore.
On the road to enhancing ourselves, these two immigrants had understood their roots. They had understood how poor they might have been had their fathers not made it to America. Maybe they would be eating once a day like their cousins. We had instilled in ourselves from this experience a commitment, a drive, to help the developing world in whatever capacity we could, to the extent possible.
This drive cemented itself when we read studies on this new technology. We had stumbled upon a gold mine. The research. It was there. Cost effectiveness. There. Scalability, results, safety, cosigns by some of the biggest institutions in the world, all there.
We began work at Startup Shell, combing the internet for information, learning electrical engineering and circuitry in what felt like a night. A microchip there, a resistor there, add one more here. And soon enough, with the help of 3D printing, we had created a world-class neurostimulation device. Being top students at top schools with SAT scores to be envious of didn’t hurt.
In a week, I was in Pakistan. We started a clinic in a practitioner’s office, marketing by word-of-mouth to the locals, testing the effectiveness and long-term viability of our treatment. It was very effective, to say the least. Nasreen went through two weeks of tDCS treatment for 15 minutes a day. Clinical anxiety gone, permanently. She doesn’t take medications anymore and lives a life free of mental illness. I voice message her nephew on WhatsApp every week, checking up on her. There are countless cases like this that we have treated in my village, a small one on the outskirts of Bahawalpur.
Our drive to make mental illness treatment in the developing world has just started. We’re planning to have multiple clinics by the end of 2016.
But that isn’t the point here. The point here is Fit Bits. The little strap you wear, a “wearable,” they say, that supposedly, as Lumosity did, makes you a better version of yourself. When you’re confronted with issues like mental illness in the developing world, or the insurgence of Artificial Intelligence, you tend to have a short temper when the geniuses of your generation are working on triviality.
Do I sound dismissive? I intend to. We live in an era where cognitive enhancement is not only for enhancement sake.
In the dawn of Artificial Intelligence, humans must stay relevant. If we keep building pedometers with apps and market it as revolutionary, we might as well throw ourselves into the fire before it consumes us.
As I read about Artificial Intelligence, I realized that it was not enough to treat patients with mental illness. This technology had much larger potential than just fixing what wasn’t right. It could shift paradigms in human progress.
We started to study its effect on cognitive enhancement, learning that the Department of Defense, the Air Force and many other secretive agencies were using tDCS for this purpose. There were even some companies out there using electrostimulation for things like increased focus or relaxation, comparing the effects to a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.
Our brainstorming began. We took a step back, as I hired employees at the clinic and flew back into Dulles Airport. I was checked for about two hours before getting the entry stamp, which is expected for a 19-year old kid with a slight beard, the first name “Muhammad,” and multiple visits to Pakistan.
For the next month, we observed everything. Read hundreds of studies. Analyzed ourselves, the environment. Talked to people we haven’t talked to in ages, to gauge their thoughts. Used Twitter polls for market research. We reached a conclusion.
No one wants to replace coffee. No one wants to replace wine, beer, Adderall. All of these enhancers do their function well. They make you more relaxed, more focused, more energized, and they do it well. Why would you replace their function with neurostimulation?
However, there was one function that was desired as the top quality in a business leader in a survey of 1500 CEOs by IBM. There was one function that no company claimed to enhance, because it was seen as unquantifiable. There was one human capability that may keep us relevant in the age of Artificial Intelligence. Creativity.
We started to meticulously digest as many studies on creativity as humanly possible. And finally, we stumbled on a few studies linking tDCS and creativity, showing statistically significant improvements upwards of 40% in individuals. The research was enough validation; our work ethic took over. In a few weeks we had tested our prototypes on ourselves, friends, family, and anyone willing.
Through rigorous experimentation, we developed a device that combines many of the facets of neuroscience and precise, medical-grade engineering to enhance creativity. It primes the user for creative focus, allowing her to seamlessly tackle any issues at hand, whether it be creating rockets to explore new frontiers for humanity, or designing clothes intended to shift culture for decades to come.
Through all of the research and all of the prototyping, we’ve come to realize that one thing is for sure. It will not be the well-funded corporations run by an MBA that will write the future. It will be a few foolish kids, working out the world’s problems in their heads, testing solutions tirelessly, and eventually solving the issues that plague humanity. It will be the underdogs that change the world. The Coco Chanels who learned stitching in orphanages. The high school dropout, Midwestern farm boy Wright Brothers. The adopted Syrian child raised in a blue collar home, Steve Jobs. It will be people like that, with the drive and passion to change how the world works, that will change it.
We created Lucid to help people that will change the world, change it more exponentially, and even change it faster, by unlocking their true creative potential.
We hope to be a part of your journey. Sign up for our limited beta.