“If we keep taking bold steps … I’m confident America will continue to lead the world into that next frontier of human understanding.”
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) April 2, 2013
President Barack Obama is betting that the brain is the “next frontier” of human innovation: He announced a massive $100 million initiative to map the mind. As the seed of mankind’s world, a more advanced understanding of the mind could create hyper-intelligent computers, cure debilitating disorders, and simplify the complexities of nature. But some scientists worry that brute-force government intervention could derail the scientific process into a boondoggle of bureaucratic quicksand.
Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative (BRAIN) is a risky, expensive bet. Here’s how it could revolutionize society or just plain fizzle out.
The Fascinating Brain
The brain is arguably the most complex structure in the known universe. It consists of an estimated 125 trillion synapses, or the number of stars in 1,500 Milky Way galaxies. Unlike a hard drive that stores data on static, physical addresses, the brain embeds them in sophisticated paths between neurons. The remarkably resilient data storage technique allows us to remember our name, even if one pathway is destroyed or dies.
In the video below, see an interview with a nine-year-old girl who had half her brain removed at the tender age of three and now functions on par with her whole-brained classmates:
The brain itself has a storage capacity of roughly 2.5 petabyes (a million gigabytes), or roughly 3 million hours of recorded TV. The human brain is nothing short of marvelous computer.
Artificial intelligence holds the promise to free us from the time-sucking drudgery of everyday errands and beam on-demand geniuses into every school, hospital and business. IBM’s artificial brain, Watson, performs computations in the very network-like structure as the human brain and, in early tests, is 40 percent better at diagnosing lung cancer than its overwhelmed human counterparts.
Google’s new Director of Engineering and noted futurist Ray Kurzweil told TechCrunch he’s leveraging the search giant’s warehouse of information to build users a “cybernetic friend.” “I envision in some years that the majority of search queries will be answered without you actually asking,” he told me. Indeed, the brain’s structure inspired Google’s voice-command algorithm, which powers technology to schedule appointments, give users the best route to work, and suggest the best sights to see on vacation.
At least since Karl Marx, sociologists have predicted that hyper-intelligent machines would lead humanity into a golden age of abundant resources and free time. So, in the short term, better doctors and free assistants. In the long term, utopia.
Disease, Search And Rescue, and Prosthetics
The most immediate applications of brain mapping is the alleviation of human suffering.
For instance, brain tumor surgeries, which can be painful, personality-robbing procedures, have been aided by brain maps that permit doctors to make strategic extractions that preserve vital mental functions. The same hope is held for healing Alzheimer’s disease, strokes and post-traumatic stress disorder.
During the White House live chat today, a representative from the government’s mad-scientist outfit, DARPA, noted that brain mapping will also improve their agency’s competition for a search-and-rescue robot. If we want robots to navigate the crumbled aftermath of an earthquake to pull out survivors, they need to be able to process images and and understand human-designed layouts.
Finally, just for super-futuristic kicks, disabled veterans would much rather have a limb that functions normally, rather than a clunky manual hook. In order for limbs to operate mentally, they have to be connected to the motor portions of the brain. Check out a video of a woman eating a chocolate bar via a prosthetic limb with nothing but the power of her mind:
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Not Everyone Is Thrilled
“Many wonder whether the NIH is making a mistake,” reported Nature on a similar brain-mapping initiative in 2012, the Human Connectome Project, noting that force-feeding ambitious-sounding ideas could hinder more fundamental research.
The Atlantic Wire nicely curated the angry tweets of science critics, who worry the project will divert funds from other important areas and derail ongoing research:
someone has to go to congress and explain why basic research is so important, not pander to them with big science crap— Michael Eisen (@mbeisen) February 18, 2013
Baffled by the NIH Brain Activity Map Project. We don't understand the fly brain yet. How will this come to anything? http://t.co/SpI8dyB6— Leslie Vosshall (@pollyp1) February 18, 2013
During the live chat, NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins didn’t ease these concerns with some dodgy, ambiguous responses to users wondering why neuroscience should be a priority, especially in the face of a $1.5 billion budget cut thanks to sequestration. Collins, who shed more light on the still-forming initiative, said that an initial $40 million would come from a panel of experts that regularly decides NIH priorities, with added financial assistance from nonprofit partners. By the summer of 2014, he wants a roadmap asking a team “to make their goals bold, maybe even audacious but not crazy.”
Obama is partly basing BRAIN on the success of the Human Genome Project to map humanities DNA. “Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy — every dollar,” he said during the State of the Union.
However, even one of the scientists working with the BRAIN project, Ralph J. Greenspan of the University of California, San Diego, admits that “It was very easy to define what the genome project’s goal was. In this case, we have a more difficult and fascinating question of what are brainwide activity patterns and ultimately how do they make things happen?”
The government has been the source of truly revolutionary science in the past, from the space race to the foundations of the Internet. Whether BRAIN is the “next frontier” of innovation or a spectacular failure depends on whether one believes that brain research needs a government kick in the pants.