Issue #3: A Psychedelic Renaissance, Consciousness and A Love & Hate Relationship


Disclaimer: the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the newsletter belong solely to us, and not to our employers. @clemnt @ndebock

Obviously you all saw the news the past weeks around Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. The Surveillance Capitalism topic we decided to cover with this newsletter just made the headlines of all major daily and weekly news magazine in the western world, Mark Zuckerberg is awaited in front of several European governments, and Facebook stocks just lost 20% of its value in the last days. We believe this is just the beginning of a series of similar news and we are more bullish than ever on the Privacy and Surveillance topic. Just like massive companies have been built thanks to access to personal data we believe massive organisation will emerge from the anti surveillance trends. So we will obviously continue covering this subject in the coming months.

Clément also wrote a separate post on how he thinks the global environment will change (company culture, legal and tech) for companies which business model is to accumulate and leverage user data (which are not only the giant companies but also many AI powered startups).


Neurotech

Are we living a Psychedelic Renaissance ?

This month let’s talk about psychedelic drugs. I think we are supposed to put a legal mambo about the fact that you shouldn’t take drug, that we are not endorsing any illegal activities and, of course, opinions are our own and not our employers. OK? Now lets get high.

What?

Psychedelic drugs (psilocybin is the active molecule within the so called magic mushroom, MDMA, a.k.a ecstasy, and LSD) are making a come back as a tool to fight mental illnesses such as depression and PTSD, but also to enhance cognitive capacity and global well being. Numerous clinical trials involving LSD and MDMA are being conducted and those drugs are slowly moving form the “drugs are bad and destroying society” to the “maybe we should not put everything in the same basket, there might be some opportunities”. In several tech circles (see Mark Suster’s recent tweet) we read more and more about the psychedelic drugs being used not only for recreational purpose, but also for medical test, biohacking and better work capacities (sadly Hippies lost and they are probably not really happy that people now use drugs to enhance their productivity… but this is another debate). the main usecase we see outside the recreative world are :

  • Fight depression: Well I guess there are already a handful of drugs used to fight depression (according to OECD .5% to 1% of the population of developed countries are taking antidepressants) but researchers are finding that Ketamine, MDMA and Psilocybin could have strong effect on depression.
  • PTSD: It’s the first area where MDMA was used beyond recreational purpose, and it seems to make good progress. Two studies are currently going through FDA final trials.
  • Cognitive enhancement: one of the goals of taking psychedelic drugs is to help people think from a different perspective. This is why microdosing is on the rise (at least according to google trends, and the SubReddit on microdosing). Microdosing consists of taking small amounts of LSD or Psilocybin on a regular basis in order to be in a constant zone of sharp thinking (those terms are highly subjective in my opinion and I will let you try or read about it to make your own opinion).

How?

What do those drugs do the brain and how do they make its users think differently ? If on a pure chemistry level drugs usually boost some neurotransmitters such as serotonin or block some receptors, it seems that they also change the neural networks interaction. This article does a good job at explaining the effect of psilocybin on the brain. 

When researchers compared the brain of people who had received four injections of psilocybin with those of people who were given a placebo, they found that the drug changed how information was carried across the brain (subjects received 2 milligrams of psilocybin; the dose and concentration of the chemical in actual mushrooms — which are eaten, not injected — varies.) Typically, brain activity follows specific neural networks. But in the people given psilocybin injections, cross-brain activity seemed more erratic, as if it was freed from its normal framework. Source.

Why does it matter ?

First of all LSD and psilocybin are among the least dangerous drugs in terms of dependence potential and harm caused (we are all different and surely all of us have some relatives who have really bad experience and dependency with drugs, but in all the article and paper I read on the subject those 2 drugs are always at the bottom of both harmfulness and dependency level).


I believe we are going through a psychedelic renaissance, and after having been banned from society and public conversation for a while, psychedelic drugs will be part of our future.

We think that the brain is the next platform and a pure hardware/software approach won’t be enough to unlock its full potential. Our brain is a chemistry machine and drugs seem to be quite efficient at changing its behaviour. If we can find harmless ways to make people happier, more confident and open to new ideas (and not unease or afraid when facing different ideas) I do think it will benefit our society.

It clearly goes beyond tech, but from a VC perspective it will impact a lot of industries. And if you think this will never happen, think about this : would you have believed, ten years ago, that weed will be a legal drug in the USA under a president named Donald Trump? So why not a legal LSD under president Nakamoto in ten years?

Our must reads this month:

  • [Product] CompassWay is a startup working on the use of psilocybin to treat depression (Peter Thiel is an investor).
  • [Product] Nectome:Committed to the goal of archiving your mind. We’re building the next generation of tools to preserve the connectome. Keep your memories intact for the future.” side note : you have to die to use it… 
  • [Organisation]: MAPS is a non profit pushing for more studies and trials with psychedelic drugs. They are a great resource for research and they have done a great job at moving things forward in this field. Cool fact : the Pineapple Fund, run by an anonymous Bitcoin millionaire and financing with 80m$ non profit organisations has given $4M to Maps (biggest contribution so far from this fund).

Space/Time & Reality

Consciousness is the mind virtual reality software*

What?

The past 20 years the study of consciousness has progressed tremendously. It went from a field which was tackled mostly by psychologists and philosophers to a “hard science” which is tested in labs. Neuroscientists are now able to detect the signature of consciousness in the brain (the characteristics of a conscious thought) and they keep improving our knowledge of what consciousness really is and how it works. One of the many fascinating aspects is how our brain could actually be an “interpretation machine” and consciousness would be the virtual reality software of our mind.

How?

One of the current theories is that our unconscious continually receives data from our “sensors” (smell, vision, touch…) and constantly computes the probability of how the outside world looks like based on that data. Consciousness is the layer on top which cuts through all these probable scenarios to settle on the most likely one so that we can act. This is why you see the things around you as objects or people and not the atoms that make them. Your perception of the world is an interpretation built on probabilities, with consciousness as a virtual reality software to display it.

Why is it important?

First, making sense of unconscious and consciousness is changing our understanding of how we perceive “reality”. Some people say that we are living in a simulation, but when you think about it it’s already the case. What we think is our reality is actually a “virtual reality” produced by our mind.

Second, the progress made in this field leads to many practical applications. On the health side it enables doctors to interact better with patients suffering from locked-in syndrome or to explore new ways to treat mental disorders such as schizophrenia. But the impacts are felt beyond health with, for example, new software and hardware architectures inspired by the way consciousness and unconscious work together.

* I didn’t come up with this title, it’s taken from the awesome book “Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts” which I highly recommend if you’re interested in the topic.

 

Our must reads this month:


Surveillance & Privacy

States and Surveillance capitalism firms: a love & hate relationship

What?

In our data-powered society two trends are deeply linked: on one side the major surveillance capitalist firms (Google, Facebook etc.) keep getting more powerful and keep building strategic assets that States covet. On the other side, States are increasingly hungry for data (State Surveillance) and need the same state-of-the-art technology that these firms are building. Which results in a love & hate relationships.

How?

Love. Google sharing its AI technologies with the US military or mobile data with the Police, Alibaba providing the technology used by the Chinese State to build its citizen surveillance program, there are many reasons why States and SCF can find interest in collaborating. From access to unique data sets to political interest or just plain pressure.

Hate. But at the same time they are also clashing at many levels, like Apple refusing to unlock iPhones for the FBI, Europe creating GDPR to strengthen data protection and privacy for its citizen (as well as to control the transfer of data to the US), Google facing several lawsuits and investigations over their various “data collection” programs (Google Street View), the State of Washington which “has become the first state to enact its own net neutrality requirements” or more recently the US congress summoning Zuckerberg over Facebook data use.

Why it’s important?

The interplay between States and Surveillance Capitalist firms will be interesting to observe in the years to come:

  • This symbiosis between SCF and States will increasingly be important. The US and China have their own (Google, FB, Tencent, Baidu, Alibaba…) and many European States are pushing hard to have their national champions / Sovereign Cloud (with poor results so far, which is why they are setting up a pan European fund of $1.2B).
  • A consequence is that we should expect more frictions between States and foreign SCF. See how Europe starts to put various obstacles in front of the GAFA (GDPR), how China blocks them, how India rejected FB effort to bring “free” internet, more recently how Australia banned Wechat for their Defense Ministry employees or how the UK parliament summoned Zuckerberg to answer their questions.
  • Some even people even think that we should treat data as oil: “The solution is to take up the template of resource nationalism, and nationalize our data reserves. This isn’t as abstract as it sounds. It would begin with the recognition that all of the data extracted within a country is the common property of everyone who lives in that country.”
  • This symbiosis will grow much deeper in States like China at the expense of citizen privacy and freedom (and to the benefit of the SCF), while in regions like EU where there’s more regulation around citizen data protection, their relationship will be more a love & hate relationship.

Our must reads this month:

  • [Article] Facebook Really Is Spying on You, Just Not Through Your Phone’s Mic.
  • [Data points]: “Alibaba is already China’s biggest R&D spender, forking out $2.6 billion in 2017. DAMO will effectively triple its research budget, to more than $7 billion. That most likely means Alibaba will overtake IBM, Facebook, and Ford and will narrow the gap with the world’s leaders, Amazon and Alphabet, which spent $16.1 billion and $13.9 billion respectively on R&D in 2017.source.
  • [Product] Have i been pwned? “Check if you have an account that has been compromised in a data breach” (I tried it and it’s scary…).