Obama’s brain project could change everything

The Brain Activity Map is both exciting — and frightening — to consider


It’s not every day that potentially historic science news breaks, but it did happen this week with a report that U.S. President Barack Obama is set to unveil a big project to map the human brain.

According to the New York Times, Obama will announce the decade-long plan when he unveils his budget next month. The effort – akin to the Human Genome Project that mapped DNA – is likely to cost at least $3 billion, but will seek to answer some long-standing questions about how the brain works.

It’s hard to overstate just how important and ground-breaking such a project would be. As the newspaper puts it, the plan will bring together federal agencies, private foundations, 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.”

As with the Human Genome Project, the possibilities are endless. In his recent state of the union address, Obama noted how the genome effort has returned huge dividends with better understandings of illnesses and diseases, as well as the drugs and treatments that go with them. In financial terms, he said that each dollar spent has returned $140 to the economy. And the dividends are only starting to accrue.

The Brain Activity Map could be even more lucrative financially. More importantly, it could change everything. In his recent book The Neuro Revolution: How Brain Science is Changing Our World, author Zack Lynch goes so far as to say that understanding the mind will usher in a fourth age, to succeed the agricultural, industrial and information revolutions.

The first benefits will come in treatments for things like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and mental illnesses. But they’ll quickly spread to areas that are already being researched, such as neurolaw, neurofinance and neuromarketing. Big companies are already pumping lots of dollars into figuring out how to push neural buttons, while brain fingerprinting – or using an EEG to determine if particular information is in a person’s brain – has been ruled admissable in court. Lynch believes neuroscience will transform the legal system within the next 20 years, with precognition becoming a reality within 30.

A better understanding of the brain will also help create smarter artificial intelligences, bring about entirely new forms of art and entertainment and enable new mind-machine enhancements. All of that, however, means a whole host of new ethical and privacy concerns. Understandably, there are already protest groups such asMind Justice that are seeking to protect individuals’ rights from those who would pry into our most sacred and private places.

Of course, the brain is truly the final frontier because understanding it could bring us within reach of the ultimate goal: immortality. Futurists – notably Singulatarian Ray Kurzweil – have argued for some time that the human brain, with all of its personality, memories and processes, is simply just a machine that works off patterns. When those patterns are understood, they can be replicated, which will allow for the uploading and downloading of brains, or the effective copying of people.

By the time that technology arrives, we’re likely to have a choice of existences – either a biological body, a robot frame or a virtual reality. Or heck, why not all three? Yes indeed, we are on way to becoming Cylons (which is why Battlestar Galactica and Caprica were such relevant science-fiction shows.)

It sounds crazy and fantastical, but it’s important to remember that when scientists started the Human Genome Project, they didn’t expect to see it finished within their lifetimes. The effort went much faster than anyone expected thanks to exponential growth in computing power, data crunching and complementary technologies, wrapping up after only a decade. A brain-mapping effort, with ever better power and significant resources behind it, could go even more rapidly.

It’s tremendously exciting – and perhaps a little bit frightening – to consider.


Obama’s brain project could change everything

  1. You’d think we’d have done this a long time ago, wouldnja?

  2. I wonder who will benefit most from this project, anyone care to speak up?

    • Everyone.

  3. I love to see articles like this in Macleans. They tend to give a well researched take in a more attainable format than your typical scientific paper.

    Of course it does end up making things seem simpler than they really are, and it doesn’t really give a sense of how reasonable some of the expectations above really are, but still, good article to see here.

    • Shallow article. I’m not a big fan of throwing science under the shallowness bus. It does major damage to the structure of science in our societies.

      • I know what you’re driving at, but it’s a tough call in some ways.

        On one hand we need to make things accessible and generate interest, on the other hand the amount of “dumming down” required often leaves things either too general, or it creates the impression that scientists are pulling things from their posterior.

        • The concerns you state are minor. My concern is that the scientific community is well on its way to believing that shallow scientific practices are the way to go…………………. One reads about scientific fraud a bit too often now. It may be a trend but a trend I don’t particularly like or share. We will leave that up to the EmilyOne’s of this world.

          • I think that’s always been a concern and always will be. Essentially anything run by people is going to be that way to some degree, which is why safeguards are neccesary.

            That said, because of the overall culture I tend to find scientists to be mostly ethical, in so far as any group can actually be so.

            It doesn’t give them a pass on anything, and in some ways the importance of their work should require even more due diligence, but still, science has done fairly well so far as compared to our previous social attempts at understanding the universe.

          • I don’t know. I’ve been reading up a lot on suggested theories which seek to combine the classical Newtonian sense of understanding with that of quantum physics, and I would say that a lot of guess work is at play. And high paying jobs, of course, And the public speaking tours, of course. And all that’s considered ethical……………..of course. I don’t know, perhaps you and me have a different understanding of the word ‘ethical’. Interesting.

          • I suppose I just consider ethics to be somewhat a relative consideration in the sense that better ethics is always an improvement over lesser ethics even if not perfect.

            We should keep pushing and striving of course, call people out where neccesary and all that, but ultimately I subscribe to the notion that “perfect in the enemy of good” and would keep us from doing anything at all otherwise.

          • Oh, I am not suggesting that we should strive for perfection before attempting to prove anything (scientific or not).

            What I am suggesting is this: if we cannot reasonably agree on what the meaning of ‘ethics’ is, how then to consider when ethics is ‘better’ or ‘improved’?

            Ethically considered, I find any scientist who proclaims to have finished the Human Genome Project to be in the wrong. And I was wondering what you thought of that – ethically considered.

          • Oh I see. It’s amazing how the written word can sometimes lack the nuance of a real conversation. I’d probably have understood your point immediately if I’d heard the inflections.

            On topic, I think it depends on what someone means by saying “the Human Genome Project is finished”. If they mean the initial program that was funded and completed, then fine, though that’s a pretty limited statment in that case.

            At the time the project was “completed” we still thought the Y chromosome had a bunch of deadspots and useless genes that served no purpose. Now we know that’s wrong, and there are other things we’re discovering about genes and gene expression all the time, so in that sense of course the broader “project” is not “complete”.

            I’m not sure if that’s an ethics question or simply a question of nomenclature.

          • The ‘human’ project will never be completely understood. My point is that bragging about the fact that it can be completely understood is unethical behaviour because it takes an impossible as being potentially possible, thereby knowingly fooling the public.

            Thanks for the discussion. Gotta go. Real life is calling. :)

          • Oh well, if you’re talking about the massive egos that blot out the sun and form the center of the universe… yeah no shortage of those people in science, especially in theoretical physics. Prima donnas galore.
            I just blame their parents and call it a day. LOL
            Cheers brother,

  4. Regardless of the model of consciousness in question (of which there are many since honestly we know next to nothing about consciousness) most of the leading models today debate how realistic the “singularity” theory of computational consciousness really is.

    Loading your brain into a computer is unlikely to say the least. Based on our recent discoveries of quantum mechanisms in plants and animals that we thought were impossible due to the warm, wet environment of biology in general, it seems more and more likely that consciousness is somehow tied up in a field-like effect produced by the brain and governed somehow by quantum mechanical processes, ie. an emergent property of the brain, that could not be simply “down-loaded” in the manner suggested, or any manner at all really.

    In a truly profound sense, we may actually BE our brains. Barring any actual mystical hooha that is. LOL

    • You seem to have a good grasp on this field, so a question. Does the possible advent of quantum computing along side our better understanding of the brain change any of your thoughts from above?

      • Not really no. I suspect quantum computers may be able to mimic human thought behaviours in many ways, but in terms of actually TRANSFERRING consciousness, I tend to believe as the author of the story I cited above does. (Greg Egan’s “learning to be me”) In short, the computer might think its you, may act like you and even pass the turing test, but the feeling of consciousness you consider your “self” isn’t transerable in that way. At least I don’t believe it is, though I’m open to decent proof.

        Given our inability to even approach questions like free will, and given that we still don’t even know how things like anesthetics really work, I think it’s a huge over-reach to say we’re anywhere near even a basic understanding of consciousness. Christ, we can’t even really measure it in any reliable way. The best we’ve got is a correlate to EEGs.

        In fact I don’t even believe those computers in question will be “conscious” in any sense, just really good machines that will need some really good programming of some sort. I tend to be in line with Sir Roger Penrose on that in terms of the intrinsic incalculability of consciousness. He uses Godel’s incompleteness theorem to demonstrate that a purely mathematical approach can’t work, and I think he’s right. I’m just an amateur though, even if I’ve been following this stuff for decades, so that’s worth only so much.

        Now Penrose goes on from there, and I’m not saying I’m sold on it since it all comes off a bit crazy, but he is very convincing with his arguments concerning platonic values, the upshot of which is that consciousness exists as a basic universal property that we’ve evolved to make use of, rather than the other way around. It extends from his mathematical work in physics in terms of how he believes quantum probability waves collapse without direct observation.

        Anyways, all the work in this field is highly theoretical at this point, so there are a lot of opinions, but basically no one I put any stock in truly believes you can transfer consciousness in the manner that the singularity people seem to.

        • One other quick question then.

          Computers based on BIOLOGICAL components. Do you suppose they could theoretically bridge the gap? In other words, perhaps it’s not so much that we might one day be able to build a computer into which your consciousness could be “downloaded” so much as that we could grow a new brain, the way we might grow a new heart, or lung. Exponentially more complicated, of course, but plausible?

          • Well first off, I have no doubt we’ll be able to grow brains. I mean we’re not too far away from cloning you pretty much any other mundane body part you need from your own adult stem cells as it is. We can already do it with ears, we’ve found a way to produce skin and cartelage with 3D printers etc. Brains and hearts are a lot more complicated of course, but still, I expect to see that in my lifetime for sure.

            The issue of course is the transference aspect. Can you replace the brain or parts of the brain and maintain the same sense of self, or at least a sense of self that still feels like you, to you?

            It all depends on whether or not the source of the “feeling” of consciousness is in the brain itself or tied to brain itself, versus the feeling being some sort of extrinsic thing secondary to its source.
            The singularity folks are betting on the latter. I for one think its wishful thinking.

            If the real issue here is immortality though, there are other avenues that are far more promising than this idea of building something to house our consciousness.

        • How could we ever know the difference? I don’t even really know that you are conscious and not just a very convincing automaton.

          • Well that is the classic argument isn’t it?

            However, we’re not talking about knowing whether others are conscious per se, but about whether you’d still be the same consciousness, if you’d still “feel” the same and still be aware of things, if you transferred your consciousness elsewhere.

            I mean I’m sure you don’t care one whit for making an automaton that no one would know wasn’t you right? You actually want to be around still eh? Doing your thing and living your life?

            We can’t know anything about that really until we have far far more understanding of consciousness. It’s one area in which we are no further ahead than a century ago when Einstein first published his relativity papers.

            That said, what I keep reading from people who really seem to have delved into the matter, is that we are nowhere near capable of doing any such thing. At this point there’s more reason to believe that our feeling of consciousness is tied to the inner workings of the brain, more than it is not.

            Frankly, I hope they’re wrong. LOL

          • I think whether a copy of yourself is (a) conscious and (b) your consciousness are unknowable. And even if a copy of you was conscious, it would still be a separate and distinct consciousness and not you.

          • That’s what I think too. Seems to me there is only one “you” and that any kind of clone would be exactly that, a copy, not actually you. In fact there’s reason to believe that “you” today aren’t even the same “you” from ten years ago. You just have the memories of that you. Similarily, a robot clone with your memories might think it’s “you” too! LOL

            If we actually want to be immortal (though god knows that’s probably the worst idea ever in terms of what is good for society and the planet) we’re going to have to look at genetic solutions to halt our unravelling DNA and the built-in mechanisms of aging, since so far as we can tell, aging isn’t accidental, but designed by evolutionary process.

          • Agreed about copying. Maybe we won’t be too fussed about it, if the technology ever becomes available.

          • Incidentally, on the matter of “how can we know the difference” there are a number of tests based off of Turing’s work, that do provide methods by which we can determine the difference between a complex program that is merely being executed, and the actual use of original thinking.
            Most turing tests rely on picking a topic matter to limit the inquiries and the computers are taught to lie and make mistakes in order to fool the judges.
            A test of original thinking requires the computer to engage in make-believe in which the rules and topic can’t be known ahead of time. If a computer can do THAT without a team of programmers for backup, then I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt. (I can’t remember what that test was called, but I’ll try and look it up.)
            Essentially, until we can produce a “consciousness” that demonstrates original thought and works independently of constant human tampering, then we can be very sure that it isn’t conscious in any meaningful sense.

  5. Pretty shallow write-up in general.

    For starters:theHuman Genome Project may have been declared ‘finished’ by some but such is a complete sham as we find out now: averaging genometic information does just that: creating an average which very few of us are in reality.

    The scientific community is running ahead of itself. Kinda like believing it can never be wrong.

  6. If you really want to creep yourself out with the notion of downloading your mind into a computer, Greg Egan wrote a particularly chilling story called “learning to be me” that ought to summarize for you people’s misgivings about such things.

  7. Lynch believes neuroscience will transform the legal system within the next 20 years, with precognition becoming a reality within 30.

    I think there will be astounding changes due to this type of research, and I won’t parse the notions of “downloading” our brains and achieving some form of “immortality”, which seems at least plausible to me.

    That said, PRECOGNITION??? Does Lynch really claim to believe that precognition will become a reality within 30 years? ‘Cause I’m pretty sure that there’s no scientific consensus that seeing into the future is even metaphysically possible, let alone that we might be able to do it within my lifetime! I certainly think that this type of research will be revolutionary, but when it comes to the notion of human beings being able to perceive events that HAVEN’T HAPPENED YET it seems to me that the limiting factor isn’t biology, or our understanding of biology, it’s physics. Call me a skeptic, but I’ll be shocked if 30 years from now human beings are able to use some form of ESP to see into the future.

    • I thought he meant that in the legal sense of being able to tell if someone had previous knowledge of something related to a legal case that is being tried.

      If it means what you’re saying, then yeah, that’s total bunk.

      • The “brain fingerprinting” bit seems to be about that, which is cool, but precognition is something else entirely, I think. I don’t think there’s a legal meaning of the term “precognition”.

        • Yeah, I just assumed he was using a word that sounded like it meant what he wanted to say, because frankly, precognition as you and I are referring to is poorly supported scientifically.

          There is some limited case for it in certain studies, but the effect is always measured in fractions of seconds and minute flaws in the methodologies employed can’t neccesarily be ruled out.

          Then again, when a guy like Stephen Hawking starts claiming that scientific inquiries into the universe today can collapse probability waves and produce changes in the far past… then I’m not sure what to think. Maybe the old guy’s losing it? LOL

          Check out “the grand design” sometime if that sounds interesting to you. Just try to ignore the parts where Hawking jabs at religion for no good reason. LOL

  8. This comment section…right here…. is the reason why we need to have university free and available to everyone.

    Everything runs on science, and it’s vital for people to understand it in their daily lives and in questions of governance and direction. And it’s rather obvious that people have no idea what it’s even about.

    Reading comprehension doesn’t work if people don’t know what the words mean.

    • Everything runs on science… is science a super fuel or something?

      • Yes, science is knowledge….and everything around you is composed of knowledge.

    • I like your horse…but can you even see us from all the way up there?

      • The world…and the future, boyo.

  9. I totally agree with you. With the knowledge we possess at a certain point in time we can go as far as this knowledge leads us to. We can map the brain, discover/uncover how it functions, but there will always be new frontiers that come with too many unknown questions, as there is an infinite depth in everything in universe, for that matter, in our grey matter, too.

    I find it impossible to be able to identify the source of consciousness.Computers will always be machines, no matter how advanced they will become in 20 years from now.

    • “Inventions have long since reached their
      limit, and I see no hope for further developments,” Roman engineer Julius
      Sextus Frontinus, A.D. 10.

      Irish scientist, Dr. Dionysius Lardner (1793 – 1859) didn’t believe that trains
      could contribute much in speedy transport. He wrote: “Rail travel at high
      speed is not possible, because passengers ‘ would die of asphyxia’ .”

      In 1894, the president of the Royal Society, Lord Kelvin, predicted that radio had
      no future. The first radio factory was opened five years later. He also
      predicted that heavier-than-air flying machines were impossible. Today, there
      are more than one billion radio sets in the world, tuned to more than 33,000
      radio stations.

      In 1894, A.A. Michelson, who with E.W. Morley seven years earlier
      experimentally demonstrated the constancy of the speed of light, said that the
      future of science would consist of “adding a few decimal places to the
      results already obtained.

      “I confess that in 1901, I said to my brother Orville that man would not fly for
      fifty years … Ever since, I have distrusted myself and avoided all
      predictions.” Wilbur Wright, 1908

      Admiral William Leahy, U.S. Atomic Bomb Project.
      The bomb will never go off. I speak as an expert in explosives.

      Albert Einstein, 1932
      There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be
      obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will.

      U.S. Secretary of Navy, December 4, 1941
      No matter what happens, the U.S. Navy is not going to be caught napping.

      • It’s one thing to predict the future of mechanical things and completely another thing to explain mental processes that have been shrouded in mystery for centuries. My point in my comment was not related to the possibility or impossibility of brain mapping, which , in fact, will be realized even before 2023. The physical source of individual  personality in humans is what baffles me and makes me sceptical about the chances of discovering its roots. Maybe I rely too much on Carl Jung’s  work. Thanks for your quotations. They’re very interesting.

        • No, both are difficult. One is the result of the other after all.

          Things haven’t been ‘shrouded in mystery’….we have lots of things on record. We just haven’t studied them. Busy doing other things.

        • Can’t get the web site.