That freaky looking thing inside of your skull. via.
On April 2nd, Obama unveiled the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) initiative, a long-term multimillion project that aims to map the human brain at the resolution of individual brain cells. The U.S. government and key private sector partners have committed to invest a yearly amount of $100 million and $120 million respectively in the project over roughly a decade. While the projected goals remain to be refined, the BRAIN initiative sets out to measure the activity of single brain cells within milliseconds and, by doing so, hopes to obtain a detailed picture of how the human brain is wired. What could possibly go wrong, right? The development of new technologies necessary for this highly ambitious project is expected to push scientific progress, stimulate the economy, and further our understanding of mental diseases. While many scientists have hailed the BRAIN initiative as a potential crowning achievement of 21st century science, others are concerned with the nature of the project and its long-term ethical, societal, and economical implications.
Biologically speaking, a very detailed map of how our brain is wired should illuminate humanity’s understanding of the neuronal pathways that control our emotions, thoughts, hunger etc. According to Obama, this knowledge should demystify mental diseases and help treat them. While this may be true in the long run, we have experimental evidence of how complex and unpredictable these diseases are. Mapping the brain is unlikely to result in immediate cures—rather it might establish a framework that scientists can then use to dissect these diseases and develop treatments. These possible long-term outcomes are arguably worth the effort, but are there more short-term outcomes that can generate a fast return on investment financially? In most cases, these massive science projects are not only motivated by problem solving, but first and foremost by making money and boosting the economy. In a decade, who will really profit from the fruits of the BRAIN initiative should it reach its objectives?
It is no secret that big corporations are very interested in the BRAIN initiative. In fact representatives from Google, Microsoft and Qualcomm have attended seminal BRAIN meetings and have expressed enthusiasm and support for the initiative. All these companies are fully invested in artificial intelligence (AI). For example, the Brain Corporation (Qualcomm partner) has “designing specialized hardware to market the next generation of smart consumer products utilizing artificial nervous systems” right on its website.
A full map of the human brain is crucial for these companies, and being part of the initiative will allow them to develop new technologies that will aim to interact directly with the human brain, and patent them before anyone else. Additionally, a detailed brain map would almost certainly accelerate targeted advertising—by allowing corporations to launch campaigns that are more intricately designed—in order to cause reactions in consumers they were previously unable to achieve. It’s hard to say exactly how advertising could be made more effective, but putting an intensely detailed understanding of the human brain in the hands of the advertising industry would almost certainly result in some freakily pinpointed marketing. With that in mind, it’s really no wonder that corporate money is being funneled into the BRAIN initiative.
As if the consequences for the advertising industry weren’t scary enough, it’s important to remember that the BRAIN initiative’s largest funder is the American Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Obama argues that reversing traumatic brain injury for veterans would be an achievable goal, which could potentially justify DARPA’s interest in the BRAIN initiative. While this may be true, it is also conceivable that DARPA may use the findings of the BRAIN project to tamper with soldiers’ memories and humane feelings on the battleground to desensitize them in such a way that would increase their killing power. If you can make a solider lose their fear of killing, you can make them more effective and less likely to suffer from PTSD. Additionally, the initiative could help build war machines that “think” like humans—and would therefore lessen human casualties in warfare. The ethical implications of such measures are serious and would hopefully be taken into consideration by the administration, as Obama promised.
The American BRAIN initiative is not the first effort of its kind, in fact a European project that aims at simulating the human brain in silico using computer simulations is already ahead of the brain research curve, having recently obtained a $1.3 billion grant. The project has more tangible objectives than the American BRAIN initiative’s and differs in its collaborative nature: 80 institutes and companies will collaborate—including some leading American and Canadian universities. Canada hosts some of the finest neuroscience institutes and researchers in the world. It remains unclear, at the moment, whether the Canadian government will fund research on the U.S. lead BRAIN initiative—but there is speculation that Canadian neuroscientists will be invited to collaborate with American teams when the initiative kicks off in 2014. It will be interesting to see whether the American and European efforts are going to work collaboratively or competitively, and along those lines, how many findings will be made public and how many will be kept as private property of the companies that fund the research.
Mapping the human brain is a scientific inevitability under a capitalist regime. Advertisers want greater access to the biological circuitry of humanity, and our militaries would like to make humans as efficient and unemotional as possible. The world’s biggest corporations have evolved in such a way that investing in artificial intelligence is necessary for them to thrive and maintain a healthy economy. In a way, mapping the human brain could indeed be a crowning achievement for science, medicine, nanophysics and more. That said, this kind of technology has a lot of crazy potential for powerful people to do terrible things—and it’s our responsibility to, at the very least, keep an eye on what they’re up to.
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