If there was a drug that meant you never had to sleep again, would you take it? Would those who didn’t need to sleep have special advantages over those who did? All that and a side of zombies, in this week’s episode of Meanwhile in the Future.
This week, I talked to James Hughes and Nancy Kress. Hughes is the executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Kress is a science fiction author, who wrote the trilogy Beggars in Spain all about people who are genetically engineered to be incapable of sleeping.
Both Hughes and Kress would love forgo sleep themselves, but they’re also both realistic about how hard that is. Sleep, it turns out, is a really important thing. More and more research suggests that sleep is not simply wasted time, but rather a crucial period for our brains to cleanse themselves, for important hormones to be released, and for our bodies to recover from the day. So getting rid of it entirely is probably out of the question, for now.
Of course, there are lots of drugs that attempt to delay sleep. Some were developed to help those with conditions like narcolepsy. Some are being supported heavily by the military, which has a keen interest in keeping soldiers awake for longer. Modafinil is the most well known of these, and many of the studies done on the drug have been in military settings—fighter pilots, helicopter pilots, and so on. But it’s not just for soldiers. It’s also the drug of choice for investment bankers, and it’s becoming more popular among students.
The ethics of cognitive enhancement, or “smart drugs,” is a complicated field with a lot of competing opinions. But these are questions we’ll have to answer sooner than later. What happens when a workplace encourages, or even requires these kinds of enhancements for its employees? Who should have access to these kinds of drugs? Doctors? Truckers? Students? What happens if researchers crack sleep, and develop a way to be truly sleepless? Does productivity really increase? Does our increased energy use put us on a surefire path to global environmental destruction? Or are we all simply happier, because we have the time we want to spend with our families and make art and travel? What do you think?
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Illustration by Jim Cooke