All it took was a few jolts of electricity to turn ordinary rats into roborats and for pundits to leap to the conclusion that ordinary humans will soon be transformed into Robo-Humans. Scientists at the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn sparked a media frenzy when they demonstrated that rats with electrodes implanted in their brains could be steered like remote-controlled toy cars through an obstacle course. Using a laptop equipped with a wireless transmitter, a researcher stimulated cortical cells governing whisker sensations and reinforced those signals by zapping the rats’ pleasure centers. Presto! With this simple setup, the team had created living robots.
Publications around the world proclaimed the imminence of those familiar science-fiction staples, surgically implanted devices that electronically monitor and manipulate our minds. The Economist warned that neurotechnology may be on the verge of “overturning the essential nature of humanity,” and The New York Times columnist William Safire brooded that neural implants might allow a “controlling organization” to hack into our brains. In a more positive vein, MIT’s artificial-intelligence maven Rodney Brooks predicted in Technology Review that by 2020 implants will let us carry out “thought-activated Google searches.”
Hollywood’s remake of The Manchurian Candidate raises the specter of a remote- controlled soldier turned politician. In fact, officials at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which funds the roborat team, have suggested that cyborg soldiers could control weapons systems—or be controlled—via brain chips.
Of course, that begs the question: Just how realistic are these futuristic scenarios? To achieve truly precise mind reading and control, neuroscientists must master the syntax or set of rules that transform electrochemical pulses coursing through the brain into perceptions, memories, emotions, and decisions. Deciphering neural code—think of it as the brain’s software—it is the ultimate goal of many scientists tinkering with brain-machine interfaces. “If you’re a real neuroscientist, that’s the game you want to play,” says John Chapin, a co-leader of the Robo Rat research team.
Chapin ranks the neural code right up there with two other great scientific mysteries: the origin of the universe and of life on Earth. The neural code is arguably the most consequential of the three. The solution could, in principle, vastly expand our power to treat ailing brains and to augment healthy ones. It could allow us to program computers with human capabilities, helping them become more clever than HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey and C-3PO in Star Wars. The neural code could also represent the key to the deepest of all philosophical conundrums—the mind-body problem. We would finally understand how this wrinkled lump of jelly in our skulls generates a unique, conscious self with a sense of personal identity and autonomy.
Thought controlled system
The big new Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, to which Barack Obama has committed $300 million and most likely billions over the next decade, may be premature.
There is an important reason to look askance at the initiative: its biggest funder is the Pentagon ($300 million), more specifically the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. According to the White House, Darpa is putting up more than $50 million, more than the National Institutes of Health ($46 million) and National Science Foundation ($20 million).
There’s nothing new about the militarization of brain science. Ten years ago, in an article on how information is encoded in the brain, Darpa was already a major funder of research on neural coding and neural prosthetics. Darpa program manager Alan Rudolph told me back then that the agency was interested in a wide range of potential applications, including “performance enhancement” of soldiers via either implanted or external electrodes linked to electronic devices.
One specific possibility, Rudolph told me, was a brain-machine interface that would allow soldiers to control a jet or other weapon system through thought alone, as in the 1982 Clint Eastwood film Firefox. In the film, the thought-control device utilizes external electrodes, but Rudolph said that electrodes could also be implanted in the brain.
So what’s changed over the past decade? Several things come to mind: First, major media have become less concerned about the militarization of brain science. A decade ago, science might allow powerful institutions to “hack into the wetware between our ears.” Today, few prominent journalists question Darpa’s role in the BRAIN Initiative. The best critique I’ve read is by physician/blogger Peter Freed, who asserts that Pentagon funding of the BRAIN Initiative fulfills President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1961 warning about the growing power of the “military-industrial complex.”
Second, as pointed out previously, neuroscientists are pursuing military funding much more eagerly and openly, as evidenced both by the BRAIN Initiative and by this publication of the National Research Council, Opportunities in Neuroscience for Future Army Applications. Overseen by leading neuroscientists, including Floyd Bloom and Michael Gazzaniga, the report advises researchers how to tap into military funding. The report advocates “collaborating with pharmaceutical companies to employ neuropharmaceuticals for general sustainment or enhancement of soldier performance, and improving cognitive and behavioral performance using interdisciplinary approaches and technological investments.”
The third change over the last decade is that the Pentagon has become much cagier about its motives in supporting brain research. Darpa now claims that its primary interest in brain science is treatment of injured soldiers. As the White House put it, Darpa hopes that brain science will “dramatically improve the way we diagnose and treat warfighters suffering from post-traumatic stress, brain injury and memory loss.”
For a more candid look at the Pentagon’s long-standing interest in neuroscience, see Mind Wars by respected bioethicist Jonathan Moreno of the University of Pennsylvania. Originally published in 2006, the book was re-released last year with updated information. As pointed out , Moreno documents the Pentagon’s interest in neurotechnologies that can enhance soldiers’ capabilities as well as disabling and monitoring the minds of enemies.
Barack Obama has asked his Commission for the Study of Bio-ethical Issues to explore the “ethical, legal, and societal implications raised by [the BRAIN] initiative and other recent advances in neuroscience.” Let’s not leave it up to government officials and appointees—and neuroscientists–to weigh the pros and cons of neuroweapons. As William Safire, writing not just about neurotechnologies but biotechnology in general, warned more than a decade ago, we need “to get this far-reaching, soul-searching debate out of the ivory tower, onto the floor, onto the tube and into print until it penetrates every sentient being’s consciousness.”
Scholarly articles for Deciphering neural code Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies
|Inventors||Edward W. Moll|
|Original Assignee||Moll Edward W|
|Export Citation||BiBTeX, EndNote, RefMan|
|Patent Citations (21), Non-Patent Citations (33), Referenced by (2), Classifications (6)|
|External Links: USPTO, USPTO Assignment, Espacenet|