Obama has announced his latest project, the BRAIN Initiative. BRAIN is short for Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies. Hinting at this $100 million project (to start) in his State of the Union address, Obama pronounced:
“If we want to make the best products, we also have to invest in the best ideas… Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy… Today, our scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer’s… Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation. Now is the time to reach a level of research and development not seen since the height of the Space Race.”
This “Next Great American Project” seeks to map the activity of the human brain. Not a small endeavor, which means there is no projected end. We know practically nothing about how the human brain works. As neurobiologist Lesile Vosshall tweeted when she heard about Obama’s plans, “Baffled by the NIH Brain Activity Map Project. We don’t understand the fly brain yet.”
Initially the project will focus on improving technologies to study the brain. What we have now simply cannot give us a picture of how the brain’s 100 billion neurons work together.
Putting the wisdom of spending money on such research in a time of sweeping budget cuts aside, this initiative may give us a better understanding of devastating conditions like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and schizophrenia. (I say “may” because some scientists are skeptical that big government initiatives are the best way to forward progress. Some believe that such big interventions hurt rather than help. UC Berkeley biologist Michael Eisen wrote on his blog. “I think it is now clear that big biology is not a boon for individual discovery-driven science. Ironically, and tragically, it is emerging as the greatest threat to its continued existence.”)
Beyond budget and possible therapeutic discoveries, there are a couple of red flags with BRAIN. Big, shiny, flashing ones.
The first one that caught my eye was on the BRAIN web page. The largest contributor to the $100 million fund is DARPA, short for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a division of the Department of Defense. DARPA was founded shortly after Sputnik was launched. You know, the time when the U.S. was caught with our pants down and the Space Race ensued. DARPA’s mission, displayed in huge font on its website, is “Creating and Preventing Strategic Surprise.”
Call me paranoid but I don’t think “creating strategic surprise” has much to do with curing Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and schizophrenia.
Next, under the “possible long term outcomes” section, along with the laudable goals of treating Parkinson’s and creating jobs, I spotted this outcome: “Reduce language barriers through technical advances in how computers interface with human thought.”
What?!? It does not say “in how computers mimic or understand human thought.” It says “interface.” This smacks of Ray Kurzweil’s dream of the Singularity where we can connect the human brain to computers and possibly upload our conscious into the digital realm. Trust me when I say that “reducing language barriers” is not the end game there.
Thinking that I might just be reading into things, I did some digging and I am not alone. In Esquire, Luke Dittrich wrote about what he suspects is the “template” for the BRAIN Initiative published in the journal Neuron. There BRAIN is called “The Brain Activity Map Project.” Dittrich found references to “small wireless microcircuits, untethered in living brains, for direct monitoring of neuronal activity.” The authors mention that these microcircuits would join with our neurons for “recording and possibly programmable stimulation.”
Dittrich connects the dots:
Let’s be clear about what that means: These probes they envision injecting into human brains will not only be able to record the firing of vast networks of individual neurons, but will possibly be able to control the firing of those individual neurons as well….
The Brain Activity Map Project wants to understand how our brains do what it is that they do, but it just so happens that the technology the project will develop to gain this understanding could also be used to make our brains do whatever they want. Wirelessly. From a distance. The truth is, most major scientific breakthroughs, like the human minds that give birth to them, have light and dark sides. And some of those dark sides are darker than others.
This whole thing makes me nervous, but not because Obama is trying to find out more about the brain. I am nervous because our society does not understand the distinction between therapeutic and non-therapeutic interventions on the human person.
It is laudable to try and understand how our brain works to cure disease. But I am certain that discovering therapeutic advances is not the only aim of BRAIN.
The Catholic Church has clearly drawn a line between therapy and non-therapy in genetic engineering and I think the same would apply here. Drawing and sticking to that line allows for pursuing medical advances without the threat of the “darker sides.” The health and integrity of the human person should always be the goal. Technologies that could be used to go beyond therapy to enhance (or control) the person should be limited to therapeutic uses only.
We can make that distinction, embracing the good and eschewing the bad. It is time to pray that BRAIN does as well.
Rebecca Taylor blogs at Mary Meets Dolly