A quick note for readers in New York City—Tomorrow, Tuesday, April 4th, Liz Friedland’s Orbit Productions is hosting me and Greg Kubin of Psymed Ventures & The Business Trip Podcast for a presentation and discussion:
Psychedelics: Deconstructing the Headlines
Greg and I will discuss the complexities, nuance, and bigger picture behind mainstream media headlines about psychedelics in this live, interactive event.
The event will be held at the Ludlow House in Nomad—to RSVP, please email me at Zach@beckleywaves.com
Psychedelics and AI: Part II
I’ve spent the last two weeks deciding whether I am a techno-optimist or a techno-pessimist.
Of course, this exercise was in response to the new technological epoch that has been foisted upon us as a result of the recent groundbreaking developments from OpenAI, particularly the ChatGPT and new plugin capacity that will allow users to interact with any website, database, or application on the internet in the ChatGPT interface.
At some point in this deliberation, it occurred to me that I am not equipped for an opinion, nor does it matter what I think.
This was freeing as it allowed me to move on from uninformed speculation and side-choosing and focus on more productive elements.
But I do sense there is something to learn from comparing and contrasting the respective social, economic, and regulatory milieu in which psychedelics and Artificial Intelligence are emerging.
Picking up where we left off last time—we posited that both psychedelics and AI have had influential subcultures for several decades and are now emerging from relative dormancy simultaneously—both are also subject to the same two dominant narratives: Utopia and Dystopia.
The Psychedelic Landscape
The most crucial aspect to consider to understand the psychedelic industry is the following phenomenon.
The commercial, scientific, and policy developments that have been building for the last few years—and that may ultimately lead to FDA-approved psychedelics, rescheduling, and legalization—are already galvanizing consumer demand that they cannot capture because of antiquated drug policy.
This dynamic is funneling people into ‘underground’ settings (for better or worse.) And unlike cannabis—the most often cited comparison—the psychedelic market includes sitters, guides, therapists, shamans, clinicians, etc. In other words, services, not just products.
This market is opaque, resistant to centralization, challenging to study, and difficult to establish trust and accountability.
With this in mind, let’s see if there are any worthwhile comparisons between psychedelics and Artificial Intelligence.
Different Proprietary and Regulatory Landscapes
The first thing that strikes me about these two potentially paradigm-shifting technologies is that they are diametric opposites in ownership and regulatory barriers.
The most common Psychedelics are naturally produced from plants and fungi that, frankly, anyone can grow with minimal effort; they are in the public domain and dirt cheap.
The possession, cultivation, consumption, and distribution of psychedelics is a felony in almost the entire world. This legal landscape stymies research, makes their use more dangerous than they need to be and is, more broadly, a public health disaster.
To develop psychedelics as pharmaceuticals, these near-freely available molecules must be shown to be safe and effective to get government approval.
This regulation also makes developing supportive therapeutic and wrap-around services challenging to implement, study and iterate on.
By comparison, the most transformative AI to date is the product of a commercial lab that owns the technology, required billions of dollars, and decades of research to develop, and in the case of OpenAI’s ChatGPT and GPT plugins, they can choose how to disseminate it without government oversight (for better or worse).
OpenAI is (mostly) unrestrained in distributing and disseminating its core technology, thus allowing them to study, refine and iterate on its offering in response to how people use it—externalities and all.
This is all perhaps navel gazing and armchair quarterbacking but, to me, highlights an overlooked area of the psychedelic space—that is, the opportunities for value and knowledge creation outside of the drug development process— namely in decriminalized settings aided by practices like citizen research, peer-to-peer support and networks of accountability and trust.
As more and more jurisdictions decriminalize, there is an opportunity for entrepreneurial citizen science that affords the chance to study, learn and iterate in the same way that OpenAI can study, learn and iterate based on the data from their products being available to the public.
Shared Narratives: Utopia & Dystopia
With the recent explosion of paradigm-shifting AI tools released in just the last two weeks, the discourse about AI's pros, cons, benefits, and risks—and AGI in particular—has reached a fever pitch.
For those of us closely monitoring the psychedelic field, the discourse about how to “do this right” will suddenly seem quaint—if not outright dull—compared to the immediacy of the world-changing, unpredictable technology that was just released.
But, as with most polarizing topics, Psychedelics and AI are often discussed in hyperbolic terms.
The utopic vision posits that both are potent tools for human progress. They will eventually help humanity solve our most significant challenges by allowing us to overcome inherent limitations.
Psychedelics will dispel the illusion of separateness and allow people to break free from entrenched patterns of thought, behavior, and emotion, thus allowing the common humanity to emerge as the bond that will end war, racism, and strife.
AI affords us unlimited intelligence and computational power to accelerate humanity out of the industrial era, solve the pressing issues in healthcare, environmental degradation, and education, and create an abundance we cannot possibly imagine.
The dystopic psychedelic vision includes a host of negative consequences aided by enhanced suggestibility—like cults, sexual and financial exploitation, and lesser-studied side effects like psychosis, Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder (HPPD), and challenging psychospiritual phenomena like Dark Night of the Soul.
The dystopic AI future is: best case, we all lose our jobs; worst case, humanity is wiped out, and we’re all turned into paper clips.
Regulation and Guardrails
Despite the potential for both upside and downside, the regulation and guardrails of each technology are radically different—and perhaps mismatched—especially when considering the relative speeds of adoption and scalability.
Consider that by possessing certain naturally occurring plant material, which humans have consumed for thousands of years, one is subject to harsh, internationally agreed-upon penalties.
This regulatory scheme—The Controlled Substances Act—stymies research and leads to entirely more harm than protection (across all manner of illegal substances, not just psychedelics).
At the same time, the creation and dissemination of a novel, never-seen-before information technology capable of near-sentient human interaction, with access to nearly all the world’s information, is entirely unregulated.
Unlike previous technological revolutions—farming, money, electricity, the internet, etc.—AI is thought to have the unique property to evade the bounds set by its creators and replicate and spawn new, unimaginable, and uncontrollable outputs.
Introducing AI to the world is like introducing an invasive species into a new ecosystem without understanding how it will interact with the natural flora and fauna, but ultimately drastically alters the landscape in unpredictable ways.
This exercise highlights that a more just regulatory environment would be really incredible. One that affords more naturalistic research, knowledge sharing, and the establishment of best practices in various settings.
The challenge the psychedelic field has right now is that commercial, scientific, and policy efforts are generating media attention, thereby piquing the public’s interest and driving demand that can only be captured in illegal or international settings.
If, on the other hand, there was no fear of legal repercussions, it would allow for more local, small scale and risk-averse therapists, clinicians, guides, and coaches more capacity to create safe spaces and services to meet the growing demand adequately.
Thanks for reading—
And for all you Huxley stans—I see you:
Zach - thanks for your laser sharp narrative regarding this unprecedented time for both psychedelics and AI. I am a (mostly) underground psychedelic therapist in Vancouver Canada, and we are desperately in need of open dialogue as more and more people reach out to us for help. We need collaboration and support in this space. Underground or above-ground. I am growing weary of speaking in whispers and hushed tones about all of this. These medicines are becoming more freely available everywhere now let's find our courage and speak up about it all. These medicines are saving lives. I witness it constantly in my personal and professional psychedelic practice. There is no denying the healing power of these substances. So let's please start talking openly about when, how, who and where to access them safely and optimally. Naomi (Vancouver, B.C.)