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The coming Golden Age of neurotech

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 nanoscale neural probes and high speed, two-way Brain-Computer interfaces (BCI), by the end of the next decade we may have our iPhones implanted in our brains and become a telepathic species. Ramez Naam’s great sci-fi novel NEXUS  is a fascinating preview.

Last month 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.

A new paper “The Brain Activity Map” (Science, March 2013), written as an executive summary by the same six neuroscientists and five more, is more explicit: “The Brain Activity Map (BAM), could put neuroscientists in a position to understand how the brain produces perception, action, memories, thoughts, and consciousness… Within 5 years, it should be possible to monitor and/or to control tens of thousands of neurons, and by year 10 that number will increase at least 10-fold. By year 15, observing 1 million neurons with markedly reduced invasiveness should be possible. With 1 million neurons, scientists will be able to evaluate the function of the entire brain of the zebrafish or several areas from the cerebral cortex of the mouse. In parallel, we envision developing nanoscale neural probes that can locally acquire, process, and store accumulated data. Networks of “intelligent” nanosystems would be capable of providing specific responses to externally applied signals, or to their own readings of brain activity.”

Zebrafish, mouse… and then of course humans. It is only too evident.

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.

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 nanoscale neural probes and high speed, two-way Brain-Computer interfaces (BCI), by the end of the next decade we may have our iPhones implanted in our brains and become a telepathic species. Soon after, we may learn how to upload our minds to high performance engineered substrates and become a post-biological species of potentially immortal software minds.

The coming golden age of neurotech is becoming more and more evident. “Last month, researchers created an electronic link between the brains of two rats separated by thousands of miles. This was just another reminder that technology will one day make us telepaths. But how far will this transformation go? And how long will it take before humans evolve into a fully-fledged hive mind? We spoke to the experts to find out,” George Dvorsky writes on io9. “I spoke to three different experts, all of whom have given this subject considerable thought: Kevin Warwick, a British scientist and professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading; Ramez Naam, an American futurist and author of NEXUS (a scifi novel addressing this topic); and Anders Sandberg, a Swedish neuroscientist from the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford. They all told me that the possibility of a telepathic noosphere is very real — and it’s closer to reality than we might think. And not surprisingly, this would change the very fabric of the human condition.”

In Ramez Naam‘s NEXUS, the awesome and breathtaking first novel of the author of More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement, set in 2040, neuroscientists build a software layer on top of the drinkable, neuroactive, and very illegal street drug Nexus. The software permits programming the nanobots in Nexus, capable of wireless communications with other Nexus nodes in the same or another brain, to permit telepathic communications and the fusion of individual minds in group minds.

Everyone wants Nexus, the consumers (you can write Nexus programs to fight like a pro, not to mention sex), the U.S. and Chinese military forces, the drug cartels, and Buddhist monks (they use Nexus for enhanced group meditation and, even more interesting, learn how to program Nexus via meditation techniques). The United Luddites of the world fight against this technology, but unsuccessfully, and at the end the specs of the enhanced Nexus are posted to the P2P networks.

I cannot recommend this novel highly enough, and I am very happy to see that it has been optioned by Paramount for film. I especially appreciate that the transhumanist hackers are portrayed as the good guys in a fight for freedom against the military and the luddite bureaucrats (OK, Ramez does try to present also the point of view of the bad guys fairly, but it is clear where his heart is).

The books ends with an appendix on the science described in NEXUS, which according to the author is fully accurate, and precursors of that technology are here today.

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