Salvador Dali once said, “I don’t do drugs, I am drugs.” Today, this could either be the premise of a terrible arthouse film, a tedious critique of modern lifestyles, or a prophetic description for technologically enhanced forms of drug use (legitimate or not), drug manufacturing, and drug trafficking. Tech forecasting 101 usually involves examining how new technologies are used illegally, which, in turn, usually triggers complicated chain reactions between angry people in the information security business, grey-hat hackers, makerspace communities, litigious lawyers, pragmatic designers, neurotic luddites, and so on. In short, future trends often orient themselves according to how someone adapts an emerging technology to address some other unsanctioned need. The real kicker is that startup tech culture is known as a community rife with recreational drug use. This includes a brash amalgamation of programmers, consumers, Silly Valley suits, engineers, venture capitalists, and peripheral sort of people who laugh at that idiotic coke-railing iPhone app. Lots of these people smoke weed. Vaporizer parties are the next big thing in Seattle, where the young and wealthy can mingle over new types of vapes and different sample strains. This may even describe an average Friday night in your own apartment.
In short, weed is not a big deal, and it is becoming less and less of a big deal as time goes on. Soft drug culture is experiencing a wonderfully progressive, quasi-psychological palette drift as it becomes mainstream, as society formally acknowledges something that’s been going on for centuries. It’s incredibly limiting to speculate on the future of drugs through a moral lens that categorizes regular human beans as jailable delinquents. So, while weed comes out of the closet and rebrands itself as a naughty “natural remedy” that your parents probably smoked all through your childhood anyway, Dazed turns its attention to the symbiotic future of recreational drugs and the technology that will inspire them.
IT'S A BLACK MARKET RENAISSANCE
In the wake of Silk Road’s demise (and subsequent eye-rolley resurrection), a bunch of replacement online black markets have sprung up, including Agora, Pandora (nice job messing with SEO, there, guys), and Evolution Marketplace.
Some of these sites are hosted by small, nondescript companies such as JTAN, which the FBI thinks ran a backup server for the Silk Road. JTAN offers “privacy services” which don’t require clients to provide a name or address, and is one of many small hosting firms thriving off the pro-anonymity zeitgeist. In short, it’s easier than ever to get involved in an online black market, as long as you know what you’re doing. Future drug markets could also rely heavily on cloud-based browsers, which offer a more secure browsing experience because they don’t store users’ browsing data, and are less likely to get infect computers with malware. The downside is that these don’t offer the multilayered browsing experience we’re so accustomed to in regular internet life, but it’ll be interesting to see how forward-thinking entrepreneurs integrate cloud browsing and existing darknet tools into an entirely new method of doing black market business.
CROWDSOURCING A SYNTHETIC FUTURE
It seems only appropriate for ridiculous future-drug hypotheses to begin with altruistic medical research. Flashback to 1999, when aesthetically-driven personal computer enthusiasts went nuts over Scott Draves’ Electric Sheep screensaver project, which used idling computers to generate unique “android dreams” or sheep that users could vote for or against. The more popular sheep had longer “lives” and used a genetic algorithm to evolve into the most pleasing, popular forms for its audience. Now, scientists have used the same approach to map a critical cancer protein. Folding@home is a Stanford University-run program that used the idle processing time of 200,000 computers to simulate a cancer protein in a tetchy transitional state, which now allows researchers to study its structure and design drugs to fight a specific type of cancer. This same approach could be used to create a manner of synthetic drugs, whether via the combined power of insidious malware or totally legal researchers studying how hallucinogens and other ‘softer’ drugs can be re-employed for medical uses. For instance, a new study has shown that LSD can lessen our fear of death – a weakened, stable version, engineered by this form of crowdsourcing and immediate feedback, could break ground in new anxiety medication and pre-op care.
NEW ETHICS FOR NEW SENSORS
Biosensors are great for keeping an eye on our environment, our bodies, our pets. But they’re also a slippery slope to a ‘who watches the watchmen’ situation where surveillance dynamics can become painfully complicated for medical patients and commercial consumers. DARPA is funding research on an advanced type of biosensor that will continuously monitor U.S. water supplies for toxins and poisons. The idea here is to design a low-cost, constantly vigilant system that can address biological problems faster and more efficiently, hopefully using nanotechnology to build tinier, more intricate nanostructures. Scientists are developing a biosensor that tracks how people metabolize drugs so that more effective doses and concentrations can be tested. On the commercial front, Apple continues to add more fuel to its iWatch fire with its ongoing bioware/biosensor hiring frenzy. Across the pond, Spanish scientists are developing a FRET-based biosensor that screens new analgesics to test their potential as effective painkillers. If the future of drug tests had a magic eight-ball, all signs point to a future in ethics are going to play a massive role in noninvasive medical monitoring devices.
INSTANT DIAGNOSIS, CONSTANT SURVEILLANCE
Self-diagnostic smartphone software (plus cheap lens attachment) is a technological breakthrough with several possible outcomes: we could be on the cusp of affordable medical tool to relieve a sagging healthcare system. We could usher in an unprecedented wave of hysterical self-induced hypochondria, or we could be getting way too smart for our own good. We’re going with a mix of all three. The basic setup behind the University of Houston’s diagnostic brainchild sounds pretty simple – it involves a “simple glass slide and a thin film of gold with thousands of holes poked in it,” which sounds almost alchemic in nature. Slides are prepared and analyzed using modified smartphones as a microscope, and said phones perform a basic readout of whether a slide’s sample contains a specific type of bacteria or virus (or really, any kind of foreign pathogen). Since the future smells a lot like synthetic drugs, immediate point-of-care diagnostics mean that you can’t hide whatever it is you’ve got in your bloodstream, no matter how weird and illegal. Thin, wearable displays could make pariahs and walking medical readouts out of recovering drug addicts, creating a sort of sociological rift along the lines of “therapied” and “untherapied” people in the Greg Bear novel, Slant. More drug monitoring means more surveillance, and this universal nightmare: a smoking-cessation device that delivers negative feedback every time nicotine enters our bodies.
SUPERMASSIVE SPACE DRUGS
Everything is better in space. Sometimes, this rule can apply to drugs. Dr. Lawrence DeLucas, a former astronaut, is currently researching the effect of microgravity on protein crystallization techniques, and even performed his own experiments in space during his two-week stint on the STS-50 in 1992. Dr. DeLucas will be sending almost 100 proteins to the International Space Station via the SpaceX-3 rocket launch on March 16, and expects to compare the space proteins with earth-side proteins in a double-blind experiment. Right now, these 100 protein crystals have performed badly on earth, and the hope here is that zero gravity will encourage them to grow bigger and clearer, making them easier for scientists to analyze. The desired outcome: for microgravity to improve the protein crystal’s quality/potency, which could have landmark effects on the future of structure-based drug design.
3D PRINTED LIVERS: THE NEW GUINEA PIGS
This sounds like the kind of pipe dream a Heisenberg-type perfectionist would have – actual “live” access to a human heart (or basically the next best thing to one) without the ethical repercussions of killing someone in the name of science. Researchers are already using 3D printers to make mini livers, and even working on a composite system of heart, lungs, blood and liver as a “body on a chip.” The world’s first fully 3D-printed organ, a liver, is supposed to hit the news some time this year.
(DON'T) FOLLOW ME AROUND
Now that we pretty much live in a global surveillance state, it’s becoming harder to do illicit business without worrying about being seen. Enter Placemeter, a somewhat-creepy streaming service that lets you see how busy a given place is in New York. Yes, it taps into video feeds across the city. Yes, Placemeter actually has access to 500 cameras, and yes, of course they claim that they can’t store any video after the data has been analyzed. The idea behind the tech is to let people make better, more time-efficient plans or simply to avoid congested areas. Placemeter even encourages users to position their old smartphones at a street-facing window, so that even obsolete old phones can be repurposed into vigilant eyes in the name of convenience. Nonetheless, this (hopefully) well-intentioned video service could be a boon for New York’s weed delivery dispatchers, as well as the obvious: Johnny Law. Combine this with homemade analytic tools like this installation project, and it’s really no surprise why a large number of discerning drug users think that online exchanges are far safer than meatspace dealings…
…so it only makes sense that A.I. (and automation wherever possible) makes sense when it comes to the world of drug trafficking, even (and especially?) for law enforcement.
American border control officers are using boxy, retro-looking patrolbots to trawl through drug tunnels that run between its southern border and Mexico. Last month, they discovered the largest one yet – a massive 481-foot long tunnel “aired by fans and lit by lamps hanging from wires.” Not only are they faster, more expendable, and better-equipped, well, they’re robots. Given that the tunnels are invaluable parts of the US-Mexico drug economy, developments in tunnel warfare technology (what is this the 70s?) and the cartels’ response could spell doom or delight for a highly lucrative, extremely bloody industry.
DON'T FORGET BOOZE!
Everyone’s favorite drug-that-isn’t-a-drug, alcohol, is perfectly legal in most places. It’s also probably the most interesting intoxicant to watch precisely because of its legality. Private data bankers are now selling alcoholics’ personal information to the highest bidder, which means that booze, viewed by some people as the most insidious vice of all, will only become easier to access for those who need it least. Also, extrapolating this situation to weed-based services like Leaf.ly, who’s to say weed smokers won’t be targeted next?
It’s really great to see that despite all the advancements in science and tech, at the end of the day, people still just want to get super high on paint thinner and lighter fluid (yes, we’re talking about krokodil). Sometimes, low-tech is the best tech.
Follow Alexis Ong on Twitter here @steppinlazer