Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Map My Brain

I basically never pay more than the very slightest attention to the State of the Union address, but this time, something jumped out at me:

Obama to Back Brain Mapping (NYT)

    The Obama administration is planning a decade-long scientific effort to examine the workings of the human brain and build a comprehensive map of its activity, seeking to do for the brain what the Human Genome Project did for genetics.

    The project, which the administration has been looking to unveil as early as March, will include federal agencies, private foundations and teams of neuroscientists and nanoscientists in a concerted effort to advance the knowledge of the brain’s billions of neurons and gain greater insights into perception, actions and, ultimately, consciousness.

    Scientists with the highest hopes for the project also see it as a way to develop the technology essential to understanding diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, as well as to find new therapies for a variety of mental illnesses.

    Moreover, the project holds the potential of paving the way for advances in artificial intelligence.

    The advent of new technology that allows scientists to identify firing neurons in the brain has led to numerous brain research projects around the world. Yet the brain remains one of the greatest scientific mysteries.

    Composed of roughly 100 billion neurons that each electrically “spike” in response to outside stimuli, as well as in vast ensembles based on conscious and unconscious activity, the human brain is so complex that scientists have not yet found a way to record the activity of more than a small number of neurons at once, and in most cases that is done invasively with physical probes.

    But a group of nanotechnologists and neuroscientists say they believe that technologies are at hand to make it possible to observe and gain a more complete understanding of the brain, and to do it less intrusively.

My first thought upon hearing about this was that Obama's more knee-jerk opponents are going to have seizures. "Prezzint Hussein's gon' impose Sharia socialist law inside our skulls! He's gon' turn us all into homosexual tair-rists an' make us buy Priuses!" I'm not even going to bother looking for example web articles and news site comments, because (A) I'm that certain that they exist, or will soon, and (B) I don't need to read shit like that this week.

More to the point, though, I see this news as, in the long run, potentially as major—maybe even more major—than Kennedy's moonshot initiative. Figuring out the human brain is one of those "future techs" (to use Sid Meier terminology) that I always come back to when I muse idly about "Why not this" or "How come that." Just consider how many different aspects of human existence could be profoundly impacted if we were to attain and apply full understanding of how the brain works. Permit me to spin out some fantastic imaginings along those lines.

Every branch of medicine would change, some fundamentally. Education as we know it would splinter apart and reform in an unknowable configuration. Psychology would become an actual science, heh. Information technology would leap beyond Star Trek; the notion of physical input, already beginning to show wrinkles right now, would become a source of comedy. Political philosophy would be shaken to its core—entire theoretical frameworks could face extinction. Legal trials would take on an entirely new and likely more clinical look and feel; lawyers and juries could become unnecessary. Artificial intelligence could become reality, affecting all of science and quite a bit of our everyday lives (e.g. hyperefficient resource distribution). Advertising would become even scarier than it already is. We might learn to conquer or control unreasonable fear, which among other things would impact a few major world religions (and definitely advertising). The effective/ineffective divide in the worlds of entertainment would widen—excellent entertainment would become transcendent and half-assed entertainment would seem quantum-assed by comparison to its competition. And that's not even getting into the limitless possibilities of virtual reality.

Why, far enough out, one can even imagine much of the Internet losing its utility. We could see the diminishing or even extinction of writing as the dominant form of knowledge transmission. I'm speaking here of technologically-mediated telepathy. It sounds far-fetched until you think about it.

I guess my point is twofold: one, I view this brain-mapping project, if it succeeds, as a potentially epochal shift for the human species. And as we all know, with such shifts come considerable anxiety about the consequences. For my part, though—and this is my second point—I welcome and encourage the shift.

How often have we as a species reflected—through our profoundest art, or through spiritual searching—that our greatest enemy is ourselves? How often have we wished we could transcend all those human flaws that are so universally understood as to be downright banal to discuss? This could be a start.

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