iPlant – the motivational implant

Via good friend-o’-the-site Justin Pickard, here’s a device that’s straight off the pages of a number of science fiction stories. The iPlant is a simple remote-controlled deep-brain implant that stimulates dopamine production, the idea being that by using the brain’s natural reward chemical one could encourage healthy and/or virtuous behaviour that is otherwise dismissed as being too difficult.

The neuroanatomy of reward is very well known. A small group of nerve cells in the midbrain, when stimulated, release dopamine throughout the entire prefrontal cortex, which is our decision generator. Deep brain stimulation to control reward would be very similar to its application against Parkinson’s disease, in which dopamine signalling is impaired, leading to symptoms of the motor system. Thus, the technology is tried and tested in humans.

The human motivational system has been shaped over millions of years of evolution to a degree of robustness, which is why we find it so difficult to change. Sweet food is an instant reward for most people, as are alcohol and many drugs. The modern society has developed spectacular shortcuts to dopamine release, with the unfortunate effect of making many people’s lives less functional. Obesity and addiction are long-term scourges caused by the inability to resist short-term dopamine stimulation. Here is a technology that could change all that.

Now, the problem here should be obvious, even to someone who isn’t prone to thinking in science-fictional ways: who controls the reward system? What behaviour gets rewarded? Sure, you could use the iPlant to help people with dietary problems or to encourage excercise… but you could just as easily reward cruelty, violence, sloth, or any other behaviour. You could easily make people into something akin to zombies, steering them to do your bidding with Pavlovian pokes.

Maybe it would be safer to give people control of their own iPlants… but as any athelete will tell you, dopamine is highly addictive. How much willpower would you need to avoid become a self-stimulating blob, sat motionless but for your thumb pressing the trigger at ever-decreasing intervals, riding an eternal and baseless high?

Ethical questions aplenty, then. This is one of the rare situations in which I find myself thinking that technological short-cuts are the wrong idea, and that’s a feeling based very much on personal experience. I’m inherently lazy; there are many things that I’d like to motivate myself to do more regularly, from exercising and getting up early in the mornings to sitting down and cranking out a daily wordcount of fiction. But I also have an addictive personality – and observation of people who achieve the things I want to achieve suggests that not only is it possible to achieve the same effects by applying willpower alone (possible, though difficult), but that the satisfaction of doing so is part of the reward. If I don’t have the will to make myself work for what I want, how would I muster the will to resist the allure of the joy-button?

6 thoughts on “iPlant – the motivational implant”

  1. Zombies yes, cruel and violent yes but isn’t it more likely that someone would just rig it so that everything they did released vast amount of dopamine?

    This would effectively work like the drug glands in the Culture. Have an iPlant fitted, spend the rest of your days in a state of orgasmic bliss.

  2. As a 37 yr living with early onset PD this is science fascinating. However the issue of over use or incorrect usage is something we as a society do have an issue with, however I think that the iPLANT should not give enough dopamine to get one high nor be used without proper medical following. Also if you study PD one issue that we have is the on/off timing off meds. This device could be set to issue at regular intervals and should it have the self initiating “joy button” that should issue very limited amounts within a predetermined time period. Humans will always choose the reward but if we did not then we would never have developed as a species.

  3. Christopher: no clinic worth its license would do so, no. But there’s a long-established aphorism in science fiction: “the street finds its own use for things”. This is, as you point out, a fairly simple technology – and simple technologies are the easiest to hack, duplicate and misuse for quasi-legal or illegal purposes. Assuming that no one would ever do such a thing is a recipe for disaster; humans are lazy, and they’re prone to addiction. The former means there’d be a black market desire strong enough to make bootleg iPlants a financially attractive option in those countries or cities where such an operation could hide itself from the eyes of authority; the latter means that even those fitted with the devices legally may well be tempted to find a way around the restrictions placed on them by their medical consultants. I’m not knocking the idea, nor its practical applications – I’m playing the “what if?” game that is the foundation of critical futurist thinking, and the risks are obvious enough that they need to be considered early on. 🙂

    Lawrence: “Humans will always choose the reward but if we did not then we would never have developed as a species.”

    Oh, very true – but you’ve got to concede it’s a double-edged sword, no? Think how easily we might have solved the climate change problem if we were better at deferring gratification, for example; yes, dopamine motivation made us who we are, but that includes many of our flaws as well as our successes. It’s important to consider both sides of the coin.

  4. The entire project seems to me to be a precursor to mind control. It reminds me of “clicker” training for dogs, where every time your dog does something good, you give them a treat and click the clicker. Eventually the clicking sound itself triggers a positive feeling in the dog through conditioning. I doubt anyone would actually agree to have this done to them, except perhaps heroin/cocaine addicts or people with terminal diseases who are in agony.

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