Pill of Knowledge

Pill of Knowledge

Vishal Saxena explores a futuristic technology that would be tough to swallow

In a few decades, it is predicted that we will be able to go to the pharmacy and buy knowledge. Literally, we will be able to pop over to the local drug store, and physically consume knowledge, using knowledge pills – we could take a pill of Mandarin, and we would know Mandarin. We could take a pill of Shakespeare, and then know Shakespeare. Or Chemistry. Or Quantum Physics.

Nicholas Negroponte is the man behind this prediction. He is the founder of Massachusetts’s Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Media Lab, and One Laptop per Child, an association that aims to provide low-cost laptops for children in developing countries. Despite the skeptics, he truly believes that there will come a time when we will be able to ingest information: the pill along with the information contained would dissolve into our bloodstream, where it would travel to the brain and then deposit itself into the appropriate regions.

Negroponte’s suggestions are not to be taken lightly, given that the predictions he made in the first ever TED talk in 1984 have more or less come about – he believed that we would move away from the computer mouse to using our fingers to control interfaces. In his talk, he described people’s concerns that “fingers were low-resolution, the hand would occlude what you want to see, and that the finger would get the screen dirty”- well … have you heard of an iPad?

At the time he also said that we would one day be able to buy books and newspapers over the Internet. Not to mention one of his own students at the MIT lab trying to patent the “Backseat Driver” that would give audio directions to the driver, essentially the modern day GPS system we have in cars … the patent was rejected at the time because, as Negroponte put it, “people don’t really look at what’s already happening”.

Nicholas Negroponte by Gin Kai, U.S. Naval Academy, Photographic Studio

Negroponte is, more often than not, correct in his thinking and his predictions do come true. Yes, he could be wrong. But what if he isn’t? What if he is again correct in his thinking that we will be able to ingest information in 30 years?

Ethics would be the deciding factor to this innovation, I believe. Once the multitude of pills have been made, will it be fair to be able to ingest so much knowledge? Surely there has to be some sort of limit to this? And where does this leave human intelligence and talent? The magic and power of the human brain is extraordinary. Our thought processes, our beliefs, and our knowledge define who we are. And what of schools and universities, and the need to study, to learn and to develop – will these pills create human artificial intelligence?

Then again, we still know very little about the brain, and more so to how memory works. For example, to be able to learn any language to a reasonable fluency requires a lot of time and practice, which thus mediates into our long term memory. How will the pills enable these language skills to be transferred directly into our long term memory? Will the deposits erode with time, just as actual memory does, or will they thrive with longevity due to their artificial nature?

Perhaps the only way to stop the misuse of the pills will be to curb them, and restrict when they can be used – after the age of 21, so that school, and university aren’t affected, for example. This gives everyone an equal platform to find and nurture their latent talents.

The science isn’t quite there yet – a lot of work would need to be done, and several extremely delicate questions addressed – the closest thing we have so far is research that is being carried out on the drug Valporate. Studies have shown that this drug can facilitate a critical learning period in the adult human brain, which may eventually lead to a safe way to reopen neural plasticity, and thus take us another step closer to acknowledging Negroponte yet again, provided the research continues at this pace.

I am convinced that this could soon become a very genuine concept, but I fear for society as we know it and the natural course of human life. I truly believe that science is more than capable of achieving this phenomenon. If it does, well, just remember that, as Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “to be a master of any branch of knowledge, you must master those which lie next to it; and thus to know anything you must know all”.

Featured image credit: Candy

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