iPlant – the motivational implant

Paul Raven @ 05-06-2009

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?