Lab wants to capture minds... Literally!

June 03 2008 / by futuretalk / In association with Future
Category: Other   Year: General   Rating: 11 Hot

By Dick Pelletier

The mega-billion dollar Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) recently developed a new state-of-the-art facility – Janelia Farm Research Campus – to learn how brain cells store and process information.

Today, biologists can only observe a cell’s activity by indirectly analyzing chemicals it produces in response to stimulus. But what if you could take a picture of a brain cell at the very moment it recorded a thought? HHMI researchers believe this worthy goal can be achieved and they are rounding up some of the top researchers in the world to make it happen.

Janelia Farm will provide its world-class science team with near unlimited funds in a mostly unsupervised environment. “The Institute’s core belief is that scientists who demonstrate creativity and imagination make lasting contributions to benefit humanity when they are given flexible, long-term support and the freedom to explore,” said former HHMI President Thomas Cech.

Attempts to capture memories, personality, and feelings – elements that describe the mind – are not new. Researchers have successfully transplanted worm brains, and a proposal is underway to implant a trained mouse brain into a new mouse to see if habits and traits can be transferred. But the host body is destroyed in these experiments. (cont.)

HHMI researchers plan to develop non-invasive techniques that will scan the brain’s neuronal pattern and retrieve each memory, emotional feeling, and thought process stored in that brain – which, conceivably, could then be transferred onto a chip.

Scientists believe this wonder technology will someday cure Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and many other diseases of the mind; it could even restore mobility to the disabled. In a recent Technology Review interview, NASA bioethics Professor Paul Wolpe says that advances in brain research will soon enable people to control electronic devices with just their thoughts.

Forward-thinkers believe that by 2030 or before, this “mind on a chip” technology will enable scientists to copy and upload complete minds into a newly-cloned human body or robot – consciousness and all. Bloggers at the Mind Uploading Research Group (MURG) website have recently grabbed this concept and are voicing concerns over how the technology might unfold.

Who will “own” this clone – or clones, if multiple copies are made, some ask? Will they belong to the person, whose mind was cloned; or the company that performed the cloning; or will we consider clones equal to us and grant them all of our human rights?

And here’s another issue – understanding a person’s neuro-technology is far more important than genetics. “If I had your genome”, Wolpe says. “What could I tell about you aside from your disease profile? Not much”. “But brain scans will tell me if you’re shy or aggressive, and will reveal all your intimate thoughts.”

What if the Department of Homeland Security wants to scan our brains at airports, on the freeway, or even in our homes; in their search for terrorists?

Clearly the road to mind-capturing presents many challenges; but most agree – the rewards are far too great to ignore. This writer hopes public discussions will drive this research forward safely and we will all reap its benefits when we reach that “magical future.” Comments welcome.

What are your thoughts on this futuristic technology?

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Comment Thread (4 Responses)

  1. Great post, Dick. re: controlling electronic devices with our brains, we’ve already enabled paraplegic to control computer mouses with their thoughts and monkeys to control robotic arms (as I’m sure you are aware). With affordable BCI’s- such as the Emotiv headset hitting the market as early as this year, I bet we’ll see basic iPhone and mouse thought-control by 2011 – 2012, certainly as demos.

    re: personality transfer, I wonder how compatible brains/patterns/behaviors that develop in one body will be with other bodies. In a debate with Ray Kurzweil, Yale computer scientist David Gelertner points out / argues that the body serves as part of the brain:

    It’s clear that you don’t just think with your brain, you think with your body. When you feel an emotion, when you have an emotion, the body acts as a resonator or a sounding board or an amplifier, and you need to understand how the body works, as well as the brain does, if you’re going to understand emotion. But granted, we’re getting—we’re able to build more complex and more and more effective simulators.

    I wonder if parts of the body, or even environment (potentially including other brains), will need to be intact or available to ensure accurate consciousness transfer.

    Of course, Kurzweil does not agree, believing that by quantifying the mental states that correlate with certain conscious patterns and modes will be enough to generate a copy of consciousness.

    Posted by: Alvis Brigis   June 05, 2008
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  2. Yes, thought control technologies are developing fast. Just last week, Dr. Andrew Schwartz at the University of Pittsburgh enabled monkeys to control robotic limbs with thoughts. The monkeys reached out with an artificial limb and grabbed food; then placed it in their mouth; all of this by only using their thoughts.

    As far as transferring consciousness into another body, first, researchers must define what consciousness is; which many believe may be accomplished by around 2020. The next step, some experts say, is to program human consciousness into machines for study.

    If the technology advances like positive futurists believe that it will, by 2030, when many predict that machines will outthink humans; providing these machines with human emotions could make them feel more compassionate towards us and at this time, we will definitely need to be interfacing brains with our silicon cousins to share their increased intelligence.

    By mid-2030s or so human/machine intelligence should be advancing at incredible high speeds, which will soon unravel the mysteries of creating new bodies and understand how to transfer consciousness into that new body without problems.

    By 2040 or so, humanity could consider unwanted death only an unpleasant memory of our past. No one would die unless they chose to. How long will people want to live? I don’t believe anyone can answer that question today. I know I would like to live to see us advance to Type I Civilization status, probably around 2100. After that, who knows?

    Posted by: futuretalk   June 05, 2008
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  3. “By 2040 or so, humanity could consider unwanted death only an unpleasant memory of our past.”

    Yeah, and Santa Claus will rock up in his flying Andromeda 3000 at Easter 2012. Get real!

    No-one knows where the exponentially accelerating capability of biotechnology will lead us in the next 50 years. Not even Kurzweil himself has the right to make such a claim. But it’s dead certain that we will NOT have serious life extension by 2050-2075. More like by 2100 or after.

    Posted by: adbatstone80   June 07, 2008
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  4. Adbatstone80; of course everyone has the option of expecting a negative future, or one that’s not too different from today, or a positive future filled with technologies and benefits that seem breathtaking by today’s standards.

    I expect a very positive future advancing at high speeds; evidently, you expect one that is not so dynamic. Whose version of the future will prove to be correct? I’m willing to wait and see, how about you?

    Posted by: futuretalk   June 07, 2008
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