Brain research promises smarter machines, healthier humans

June 16 2008 / by futuretalk / In association with Future
Category: Other   Year: General   Rating: 8 Hot

By Dick Pelletier

Cognitive computing (computers that process information the same way a brain does) has been a dream for 50 years. Artificial intelligence, fuzzy logic, and neural networks have all experienced some success, but machines still cannot recognize pictures or understand languages as well as humans do.

Despite the many false starts however, forward-thinkers like Dr. James Albus, at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, believe cognitive computing research is at the tipping point, similar to where nuclear physics was in 1905. The following projects underway now describe the progress of this new research:

‘Smart’ cars: Auto makers are now investing heavily in collision-warning systems and vehicles that drive themselves; DOT officials believe that robotic vehicles with safety warnings will likely save more lives than airbags and seatbelts combined.

Future military: DOD planners predict that by 2015, auto-fly drones and other computer-driven systems could remove most soldiers from battlefield dangers.

Modeling the brain: Scientists at the Blue Brain project, a collaboration of IBM and the Swiss government; can zoom inside a single cell and examine exactly how each neuron fires. This research will help repair damaged brains today, and in the future could allow robots to mimic human consciousness. (cont.)

Replacement neurons: Implantable biomimetic electronics developed at University of Southern California could one day be used to replace long-term memory neurons that become lost as people grow older. This could mean no more ‘senior moments’.

Cybernetics expert Christof Koch believes science will soon create a brain-machine interface, which in the next decade may only be used for research and neuroprosthetics, but its immense prospect for enhancing human minds will drive this technology forward, and by mid-2020s, human-machine connections could become an inexpensive routine procedure.

Now imagine a hard drive linked directly to a person’s mind, accessible on demand. An encyclopedia of information could be uploaded on a whim and photographic memory would become the norm. Forget Strong AI – why create competition when we can take the best features of a computer and improve our own capabilities?

Today, disabled individuals can control a computer mouse with thoughts, and experiments are underway to attach robotic limbs directly to nerves giving handicapped patients mobility; researchers have already achieved success with a monkey ‘thinking’ an artificial arm and hand with food into its mouth. Cognitive technologies will soon enable doctors to repair central nervous systems, beginning with the retina and optic nerve; later the spinal cord. Experts believe whole-body replacements could become available in the 2030s.

Although brain transplants have yet to be performed, in the future, a person whose body no longer functions may be able to connect to a machine which would regulate blood/energy flow in the brain, keeping the mind alive. Attached electrodes and sensors would enable that person to carry on a temporary life and even communicate with others while waiting for an artificial body to be constructed.

Some may find futuristic procedures like these unsettling, as is bound to happen with almost every new technology. But while the contours of how this ‘magical future’ will apply to society are foggy, the map for how we get there couldn’t be clearer. “The amazing thing is there’s nothing I can see as a big roadblock to this,” says Koch. “It’s a question of when, not if.”

What do you see as the greatest benefit from this futuristic research?

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Comment Thread (3 Responses)

  1. Promises, promises…

    Plus, where’s my fat insulin receptor inhibitor drugs? According to Ray Kurzweil, they would have been on the market by now (he first annouced that several pharmaceutical companies were “rushing” to bring them out in five years in 2003).

    Having a drug that will cut obesity by 5% by 2025 would be a miracle indeed.

    Posted by: adbatstone80   June 17, 2008
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  2. @adbatstone80

    I myself find many specific predictions like this, including the ones made by Kurzweil, overly optimistic. But at the same time one cannot be pessimistic (although I’m sure you consider yourself a realist, rather than pessimist) just because some predictions in the past did not come true. I mean just because we still don’t have flying cars, it does not mean that technological progress failed us, because we got things instead that some would consider much more impressive and useful than a flying car. The same will be true in future – we might not get magic anti-obesity pill any time soon, but it does not mean that we will not get something else instead.

    My point is that the progress does not slow down, but it does not always go where we want or expect it to go.

    Posted by: johnfrink   June 17, 2008
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  3. Great comment Johnfrink; I hadn’t thought of it that way, but I think you are 100% correct.

    I’ve seen awesome advances in medical science since I first came into being in 1930. This has resulted in a life expectancy increase for Americans from about 50 years of age to nearly 80.

    And now, some optimists are predicting that we could be heading for an indefinite lifespan. Will this happen during my lifetime? There’s no guarantee, but I think this is something that is piquing the interest of a growing number of ‘boomers and seniors; and many of us believe that it has a chance of becoming reality.

    Comments welcome.

    Posted by: futuretalk   June 17, 2008
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