President Barack Obama wants to pick your brain. Literally.
The POTUS has announced an audacious new endeavor — to map the human mind. Like scientists map the human genome, the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative will seek to unlock the mysteries of what makes people tick by uncovering precisely what goes into our cerebral make-up. The endeavor is ambitious. And considering the $100 million price tag, it’s one with high stakes.
At the heart of the BRAIN Initiative is a set of rather lofty goals, made even more so when you consider the specs involved. Yes, that’s right specs. The human brain may very well be the most intricate, complicated and sophisticated system in existence, but like any piece of hardware — organic or manufactured — it has components.
Did you know that the human brain…
… has a storage capacity? Generally speaking, it’s about 2.5 petabyes (a million gigabytes). In today’s terms, that would be enough to hold approximately 3 million hours of recorded television.
… consists of 125 trillion synapses? That’s the same number of stars in 1,500 Milky Way galaxies. … doesn’t store data in one place, but rather, it retains information along the highly sophisticated pathways that exist between neurons? This is extremely efficient and remarkably flexible structure enables people to recall their name, even if one pathway gets destroyed.
What the initiative aims to do is map all of those individual cells and circuits “to study the brain at a large scale to see how lots of neurons work together to produce high-level functions like learning, memory and creativity,” explains neuroscientist John Donoghue of Brown University. In doing so, it may yield discoveries that transform everything from our understanding of illness and disease to medical treatments and other bold new technologies.
Imagine seamless prosthetics that directly connect to the motor functions of the brain, or hyper-intelligent supercomputers capable of running artificial intelligence that is so advanced, we can’t even conceive of it yet. And that could just be the tip of the iceberg.
This isn’t going to easy, but the potential outcomes could be immensely beneficial — not just to us or our country, but to mankind as a species. While that won’t come cheap, the President is convinced that it’s a worthy investment, particularly since human genome mapping proved to be such a huge success. “Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy — every dollar,” he said, in his State of the Union address.
If he’s right, the country could come out ahead. But the real question is, even if it doesn’t, is the undertaking still worthwhile if we can eradicate diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, finally understand what causes autism or provide near-perfect prosthetics — all diagnosed and treated by technologies that can never be overworked, get sick or make sloppy mistakes? Some say no. But others — particularly futurists in the tech community — disagree.
For technologists and their geeky fanbases, it’s hard not to be enthusiastic about the massive potential here. The White House infographic (below) says it all: This could result in real-world breakthroughs in “how computers interface with human thought.”
Computers interfacing more directly with our actual thoughts? Consider our minds blown.