October 16, 2003


I foresee a greater focus in our future:

Brain Waves: Neurocompetitive Advantage: By enabling a higher level of productivity, neurotechnology represents the next form of competitive advantage beyond information technology.  I call this neurocompetitive advantage.  As I mentioned recently, innovation is one ubiquitous organizational process that will be impacted.  Just as workers today leverage information technologies for competitive purposes, workers in the neurotechnology wave (2010-2060) will turn to neuroceuticals to enhance their competitive performance.

As Randall Parker surmises, financial organizations will be the first to leverage neuroceuticals to boost productivity.  He is right on target.  In her seminal work, Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital, Carlota Perez details how financial institutions have been at the forefront of adopting, testing and disseminating the latest cluster of technologies that have driven each of the previous five techno-economic waves.  This goes all the way back to the water mechanization wave (1770-1820) where banks were among the first organizations to extensively use the penny post.

As more people live longer and global competition intensifies, many people will turn to regulated neuroceuticals as the next set of tools they will adopt to help them survive and succeed. Using cogniceuticals to increase memory retention, emoticeuticals to decrease stress and sensoceuticals to add a meaningful pleasure gradient, neuroceuticals will allow people to compete without being constrained by their neurochemistry. 

An important point: the type of effective neuroceuticals to which I am referring are still at least 10 years away as we still need to break the brain imaging bottleneck and develop inexpensive biochips for DNA, RNA and protein analysis. Only then will neurotechnology have matured enough to begin influencing all parts of society.

Posted by DeLong at October 16, 2003 01:26 PM | TrackBack


Terrific. Steroid use for Chess matches. I can't wait for THAT vision of the future.

Posted by: Barry Ritholtz on October 16, 2003 01:34 PM

Where is Timothy Leary when we really need him?

Posted by: Jonathan Goldberg on October 16, 2003 02:01 PM

Good grief.

Posted by: john c. halasz on October 16, 2003 02:25 PM

The problem with the timescale of his neurotechnology wave is that it naturally overlaps with the wave of artificially intelligent computers. If we know enough to tinker with the brain at such low levels we won't need to bother with brains.

Also it is a mistake to think that something like increased memory retention or increased focus are clear benefits. Brains benefit by keeping much information out and relaxed thinking is important for making long term optimizations of the creative type. So while it's very tempting to turn a few dials and increase short run performance we have to be careful to make sure we know exactly what it is we're giving up.

Besides, perfect memory and absolute focus are already attributes of the computers we employ to asist us. They remember anything you ask them to, don't need sleep, feel no stress, and are 100% focused on whatever their task is. Humans are mostly needed for their high order reasoning and sometimes even their daydreaming (and currently humans are used for their agility... package delivery for example). We pass off the boring stuff or the tiring stuff to machinery which we interact with at a high level.

It's almost like saying before machines and robots were invented that someday we will learn how to make people more productive by making their muscles stronger.

Posted by: snsterling on October 16, 2003 02:27 PM

Ritilin nation.

Posted by: bakho on October 16, 2003 02:48 PM

Sigh. I remember when these 'neuroceuticals' used to be called 'drugs' (in the clinical sense, at least). A bit like 'cognitive economics' I suppose...

Seems like the article is stating the obvious - i.e. people will increasingly start using drugs to enhance cognitive functions in the coming decades, but in order to make truly effective drugs we'll need significant advances in our understanding of the brain, fuelled by new tools.

Incidentally, we already use 'neuroceuticals' every day. The fashionable one at the moment is provigil, aka modafinil. The unfashionable one is called caffeine.

Posted by: Adrian on October 16, 2003 02:49 PM

Provigil? What's provigil? (I know what caffeine is.)

Posted by: Brad DeLong on October 16, 2003 03:18 PM

You're only supposed to feel like this in the northern states. It's fall and the days are getting shorter- you're SUPPOSED to be depressed. It prepares you for hibernation. Until you have to get out and snow blow that driveway.

Posted by: northernLights on October 16, 2003 03:22 PM

Some people up here find that exposure to more light is necessary in fall and winter, and they have special lights just for that, and if they need more exposure they may take them to work, too.

Posted by: northernLights on October 16, 2003 03:33 PM

In the 80s and 90s, World Chess Champion Karpov (the one between Fischer and Kasparov) was accused of using amphetamines to improve his concentration and stamina at the chessboard, during matches for the World Championship. Other unknown substances were also alleged, but noone was tested and nothing was proved.

Many chess players have used caffeine and nicotine, and claimed improvement to their concentration, but these improvements are difficult to test.

There is a movement now to introduce drug testing in chess, but this is because the powers that run chess want the game to be recognized by the Olympic movement, which requires drug testing. A Dutch player, and some others, refuse such tests and it is thought that they use marijuana, not during the games but during home analysis, to improve creativity. Again, hard to prove that this or any drug helps, but if people *believe* it helps, then it can be a self-fulfilling prophesy, because self-confidence counts for a lot in chess. Unlike computers, humans undergo major emotional ups and downs during their chessplaying, and steadiness and confidence counts for a lot.


Posted by: tjallen on October 16, 2003 04:35 PM

Vernor Vinge's "A Deepness in the Sky" gives a dystopian view of technological control of concentration. - the google found reviews are a bit
spooler happy.

Posted by: rdb on October 16, 2003 10:29 PM

Well, yes, it does, doesn't it...


Posted by: Brad DeLong on October 16, 2003 11:36 PM

I think I'd rather have a Lotos-eater life with the work being done by intelligent robots than be turn into one myself to survive the cubicle day.

Posted by: James on October 17, 2003 12:13 AM

You'll think differently after you have had your meds properly adjusted...

Posted by: Brad DeLong on October 17, 2003 07:34 AM

This is a joke. It is an unintended joke which...

Posted by: John Stein on October 17, 2003 08:55 AM


Thanks for catching this. Carlota Perez, Brian Arthur, Paul Zak and Colin Camerer (Caltech), are some of the economists who have also responded positively to this piece.

To answer your to Provigil:



Posted by: Zack Lynch on October 17, 2003 09:20 AM

This would depend on our intelligence being a limiting factor in our economy.
Which may be true in some applications...
But my experience in the workplace suggests that laziness and office politics are an order of magnitude more damaging to efficiency.

What we need is a pill that forcibly ejects peoples' heads from their asses. :)


Posted by: Carleton Wu on October 17, 2003 09:32 AM

This would depend on our intelligence being a limiting factor in our economy.
Which may be true in some applications...
But my experience in the workplace suggests that laziness and office politics are an order of magnitude more damaging to efficiency.

What we need is a pill that forcibly ejects peoples' heads from their asses. :)


Posted by: Carleton Wu on October 17, 2003 09:33 AM

Neuroceuticals might just be the next great advance in Americans' quest to be better than who we are, so that we can outcompete our neighbors, so that we can earn more money than they do, so that we can consume more goods and services than they do and send subtle or not-so-subtle signals to them indicating our level of comsumption(and ,indirectly, our biological fitness), even if this somewhat primitive and ridiculous series of activities diminishes our happiness in the long- or even medium-term and we wind up wasting our lives in ultimately self-destructive and socially harmful activities that we never would have engaged in if we had had the non-neuroceutical-induced wisdom to avoid them.

Posted by: J Rossi on October 17, 2003 09:39 AM

For everyone who is stuck on enhancing cognition, think again. As Carleton points out, the real productivity drag is due to poor emotional efficiency. Read today:


Posted by: Zack Lynch on October 17, 2003 09:41 AM

I'm surprised Brave New World was not mentioned. In that books there were also stupidity enhancers for people whose jobs didn't require intelligence. Being a smart guy on a dumb job is no fun. Been there.

Discussions of this type always suppose a single-factor intelligence enhancer with no side effects. I suspect that any powerful drug will have multiple effects, as does even caffeine.

Counterpunch had a scare story awhile back about the Army working on genetically-engineered human killing machines who could be controlled by electrodes in their brain (two different technologies there, yeah). They referenced a piece on remore control of rats by electrode. A recent monkey experiment allowed monkeys to remote-control a robot arm.

The Counterpunch story, BTW, seemed highly, highly speculative, almost science fiction, but wasn't labelled as such.

Posted by: Zizka on October 17, 2003 12:41 PM

"They referenced a piece on remore control of rats by electrode. A recent monkey experiment allowed monkeys to remote-control a robot arm"

Both of these are true, at least assuming the New Scientist is still reliable.

Posted by: Paul on October 18, 2003 12:45 AM

The science-fiction part was the Pentagon working on engineering human killing machines. No evidence was given for that. The rat science was well-attested.

Posted by: Zizka on October 18, 2003 08:02 AM
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