Obama’s brain project could change everything—including you and me

The possibilities are truly endless.


(Photo: Alejandro Zorrilal Cruz/Wikimedia)

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 US$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 admissible 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 as Mind 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.