The REAL importance of brain mapping research

Both the Brain Activity Map (BAM) and the Human Brain Project (HBP) emphasize scientific results and medical applications, which of course are very important, but I hope that this race to the brain will produce real, game-changing breakthroughs and take the first steps toward whole brain emulation, new mentality substrates, and mind uploading.

This essay was first published on Transhumanity (February 27, 2013). There is an interesting discussion on the KurzweilAI Forums.

Last week the New York Times revealed that the Obama Administration may soon seek billions of dollars from Congress for a Brain Activity Map (BAM) project. The full details of the project are not known and will probably remain unknown until the official announcement, perhaps in March, but some factlets and hints are emerging. The project may be partly based on the paper “The Brain Activity Map Project and the Challenge of Functional Connectomics” (Neuron, June 2012) by six well-known neuroscientists. A more detailed open access version of the paper, with intriguing suggestions of fleets of nanobots swarming the living brain and recording the details of neural activity, is available online.

Science Insider has a preliminary FAQ with some more facts: “In September 2011, George Church, the molecular geneticist who leads the Personal Genome Project, and Rafael Yuste, a neuroscientist at the Kavli Foundation and Columbia University, made waves at a meeting in England cosponsored by the Kavli, Allen, and Gatsby foundations when they proposed a massive, coordinated effort to develop technologies that can track the activity of functional connections in a living human brain, ultimately measuring ‘every spike from every neuron.’”

“The essence of the BAM proposal is to create the technology [neuroscience, computer science, and bio/nanotechnology (imaging and manipulation of matter at the molecular scale)] over the coming decade to be able to record every spike from every neuron in the brain of a behaving organism,” says science blogger Bob Blum.

“The goal of the BAM Project is to elaborate the functional connectome of a live organism: that is, not only the static (axo-dendritic) connections but how they function in real-time as thinking and action unfold,” continues Blum. “Several efforts to elaborate an anatomic micro and macro connectome have received wide publicity — by eg Sebastian Seung, Stephen Smith, Randal Koene, Ken Hayworth, and Anders Sandberg. This proposal trumps even those ambitious projects in sheer bravado. Science fiction or science fact?”

In an interview with io9, Rafael Yuste, one of the authors of the Neuron paper, explained that the ultimate goal of the project is to create what he calls a functional map of the active human brain. “You could argue, in a very simplistic way, that everything that we are, our whole mental world, amounts to nothing more than neural circuits firing [in patterns] throughout the brain,” Yuste said.

“Humans are nothing but our brains,” Yuste said of the potential applications for technology produced in pursuit of a map of human brain activity. “Our whole culture, our personality, our minds, are a result of activity in the brain.”

The first step toward a BAM will be to develop tools that can actually record the individual activity of every neuron in a brain circuit. The second step will be to create tools that can influence the activity of individual neurons.

The rumors on the Brain Activity Map project follow by a few weeks the announcement that, in Europe, the Human Brain Project (HBP) has been chosen by the European Commission as one of its massively funded top science projects.

Switzerland will develop “a CERN for the brain,” with a new research campus called Neuropolis for in-silico life science, and centered around the HBP.

The goal of the HBP is to pull together all our existing knowledge about the human brain and to reconstruct the brain, piece by piece, in supercomputer-based models and simulations. The HBP offers the prospect of a new understanding of the human brain, and of completely new computing and robotic technologies.

In 2012, the Blue Brain Project at EPFL, which can be seen as an HBP precursor, accurately predicted connections between neurons, identifying key principles that determine synapse-scale connectivity by virtually reconstructing a cortical microcircuit and comparing it to a mammalian sample. These principles now make it possible to predict the locations of synapses in the brain.

A longer term goal is to build a detailed, functional simulation of the physiological processes in the human brain: “It is not impossible to build a human brain and we can do it in 10 years,” project leader Henry Markram said in 2009 at the TED conference in Oxford. In a BBC World Service interview he said: “If we build it correctly it should speak and have an intelligence and behave very much as a human does.”

The project will include testing brain-enabled robots. “Will we be able to — just by the fact that we can build a brain — build a human? Why not? What would stop you?” asks a robotics researcher and computer science professor at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, one of the 87 universities involved in the project. “[What] is wrong with building a human? We have been raised in a society that thinks this is wrong, that this is playing God. Subsequent generations could have a different view.”

There are, of course, important differences between the Brain Activity Map proposal, mainly focused on mapping the brain to find out what it does, and the Human Brain Project, mainly focused on modeling the brain to build a synthetic one. But of course there are also important overlaps between the two projects, and similar technologies will be developed and used by both. This is a race to the brain, like the space race of the 60s, this time between the U.S. and Europe (but I would be surprised if the Chinese will not decide to participate in the race).

The space race of the 60s between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union produced very significant advances in many fields, and resulted in the 1969 Moon landing. If the BAM project is approved for funding, competitors including the U.S. and Europe will be in a race to the brain, which may produce really science-fictional results. Who will win the race? I couldn’t care less, and let the best team win.

After the “magic decades” of the 60s (space) and 90s (Internet), all seems to indicate that the next decade, the 20s, will be the magic decade of the brain, with amazing science but also amazing applications. With the development of high speed, two-way Brain-Computer interfaces (BCI), by the end of the next decade we may have our iPhones implanted in our brains.

Both BAM and HBP emphasize scientific results and medical applications, which of course are very important, but I hope that this race to the brain will produce real, game-changing breakthroughs and take the first steps toward whole brain emulation, new mentality substrates, and mind uploading.

YES, mind uploading. The respected neuroscientists behind BAM and HBP could never say that the ultimate goal of brain research is to upload our minds to new and better substrates, not without jeopardizing their careers. But I am not a respected neuroscientist and I say, loud and clear, that the REAL goal of modern neuroscience, of breathtaking importance, is to enable our forthcoming evolution to a post-biological species of potentially immortal uploads.

Of course conspiracy theorists and luddites are beginning to scream. BoingBoing reports that “Esquire has published one of the clickbaitiest neuroscience articles in the history of all ZOMG-dom: ‘President Obama’s proposed Brain Activity Map Project might also provide the first viable means of remotely controlling the human mind.’ What a load of irresponsible, fear-mongering crap.” But the Esquire conspiracy theories are nothing compared to Prison Planet‘s “This is your brain on neuroscience.” I guess luddites and conspiracy theorists sense that something big, Big, BIG is coming, perhaps more clearly than the scientists themselves. A comment on my favorite luddite blog says that “Today’s NY Times article sounded very Kurzweilian, though — suggesting that DNA-based “nanobots” will be used to map brain activity from inside.” Very Kurzweilian, indeed!

I don’t really see mind uploading happening before the end of the century, but perhaps I am too pessimist and at least some preliminary, limited forms of uploading, may be developed much sooner. “Sideloading,” proposed by Greg Egan in Zendegi, consists of tweaking, fine-tuning and training a generic “me-program” produced by human brain mapping studies similar to BAM and HBP, until it behaves (and perhaps feels) like a specific person.

Zendegi is a good popular introduction to the kind of things that neuroscientists study in brain mapping and modeling projects, and a very good novel. Don’t expect a happy end though: Egan knows that the development of disruptive technologies is never easy, never linear, and always troubled, with unexpected problems and major setbacks. But the novel ends with a positive thought: “Maybe [the next] generation would be the first to live without the old kind of death. Whether or not that proved to be possible, it was a noble aspiration.”

I hope we will reach out to the stars and colonize other planets. But this will be done, Stephen Hawking believes, with intelligent machines based on mechanical and electronic components, rather than macromolecules, which could eventually replace DNA based life, just as DNA may have replaced an earlier form of life.

“The time window during which detectable alien intelligence is biological is very, very short,” says Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer at the SETI Institute, in Mountain View, California. “Machine intelligence — which could be durable and long-lasting far beyond the limits of a biological species — will dominate the universe.”

I agree with Hawking and Shostak, but I think mind uploading will permit a fusion of organic and machine intelligences. Once uploading technology is developed humans and artificial intelligences will co-evolve, merging and blending so tightly that it will be impossible to say which is which, and nobody will care. Mind uploading will give us the means to join our mind children, our artificial successors, in their — our — journey to the stars. I am happy to be alive at this turning point in the history of our species.

Tools developed via the Brain Activity Map may monitor vast ensembles of neurons as they fire — bringing static maps of neural circuits to life (shown above). Credit: Thomas Schultz/Creative Commons


  • Walter Hehl

    I appreciate this rationally written article on a delicate subject ( mind uploading) very much.
    While I see ” genuine minduploading” not feasible, I see very well growing “me – programs” as a side effect of the reverse brain engineering work, later probably main stream): starting with a personalized raw model to become more and more sophisticated. Please note that you could have this me-program equipped with sensors and streaming processing – and it can be distributed over a wide network.