Humans take psychedelics. Should robots?

Psychedelics are crude drugs. Could neuroscience and super-intelligent AI help us design something better?

BEN GOERTZEL: Psychedelic drugs, in my personal view, can be an amazing tool for gaining insight into one's own mind, to other people's minds, to the ecosystem and to the universe in general. So there's a tremendous amount of insight that can be plumbed using these various substances. There's also a lot of risk there, as with most valuable things. I mean, I've had friends and family members literally be pushed over the verge of insanity by excessive and poorly thought out use of psychedelics – it's a great potential benefit and a great potential risk. And I think it's generally a terrible thing that these substances are illegal in most modern governments because that means that we're not developing the right set of cultural institutions to guide people in really productive use of these substances.

When I was a teenager and first used psychedelics it was like at a Pink Floyd concert or something, it was all good fun, it didn't go awry, it certainly could have gone awry. I think these substances can give tremendous insight. I would say you can also get, even without a bad trip or some tragedy, you can get a lot of illusory insights using these things also. I mean, Terence McKenna, I loved reading his books. He had a lot of deep insights into how the mind works. I never really quite believed 2012 was the end of an era and the beginning of the dawn of the new age or something, so I think there's something that can happen where symbolic insights or metaphorical insights that are very meaningful in a certain domain you can access with psychedelics then when you bring them back into this logical and empirical domain where we spend our everyday lives, you don't want to take these metaphorical and symbolic insights that literally, necessarily. And many people can lose sight of that also so there's a mix of amazing reward and insight, some dangers and then just the risk of things that are meaningful in some sense but illusory and delusional with respect to the empirical and illogical world.

I think AIs are going to have it a lot easier in a lot of ways. So psychedelic drugs are just very, very crude instruments. LSD is sort of a serotonin mimetic; it looks a little bit like some neurotransmitters. It makes weird patterns appear before your eyes and it can give you some real and some fake insights into how your mind works. DMT is a naturally occurring substance in the brain. If you put a bunch more into your body than naturally occurs, many very interesting things are happening in your brain at that time, it can be a challenge to tell which of them are real insights or sort of rampant neural circuits generating meaningless entertaining movies. And I think for an AI, things can just be much more carefully engineered and thought out because it's not as though these drugs were designed by brilliant, insightful, enlightened scientists to direct the brain in the direction of maximum insight and creativity – you're just sort of tweaking things almost in a quasi-random way, then it's up to you to fish out the valuable things from the states of consciousness you get into. But with an AI that's engineered, its psychedelic experiences can also be engineered and you can make much more finely tuned modifications to the mind of the AI than we're able to do with the human brain.

I think the potential from hybridizing a human brain with an AI in an engineered mind is also quite fascinating because then this AI can read out the state of the human brain, understand the structure of the brain and mind and, again, with this kind of cyborg-type experience I think we can get much finer-grained and more interesting guidance of states of consciousness than we can with any drugs that we have right now. So I'm very much looking forward to all the new states of consciousness we can explore once we can jack our brains into the superhuman mind cloud and the AI mind matrix.

And I think the singularity is often thought of as a purely technological singularity – like machines will get smaller and faster, you know, people's jobs will be able to be done by machines, AI will have a higher IQ than people. But we should also be thinking about this as a singularity of consciousness and the tremendous flourishing of new and different states of consciousness that will be created once we've really mastered biology, neuropsychology, AI psychology, the creation of bio electronic cyborgs. We're going to be exploring states of consciousness that go way beyond anything we can imagine now and way beyond anything that the very crude psychedelic drugs that exist allow us access to.

  • The illegal status of psychedelic substances is a terrible thing, says Ben Goertzel. With everything happening behind closed doors, our societies are not developing the right set of cultural institutions to guide people in the productive use of psychedelics.
  • Once scientists have mastered artificial general intelligence (AGI), the psychedelic experience could be engineered for the modern world – it would be safer, less haphazard, and more meaningful. We would "trip" by jacking our brains into the superhuman AGI mind cloud.
  • "We're going to be exploring states of consciousness that go way beyond anything we can imagine now and way beyond anything that the very crude psychedelic drugs that exist allow us access to," Goertzel says.




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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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