This week, the Obama administration revealed its plan to pursue a 10-year, $3 billion research effort aimed at mapping the human brain in its entirety. Titled the Brain Activity Map, the project is designed to facilitate an understanding of the approximately 100 billion neurons interacting in our brains. Advocates of the study claim it will contribute to the elimination of neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s and stimulate employment in the sciences. Critics, however, question the worth and motives of this bold initiative — brain research is not cheap, and current theoretical and technological means such as nanotechnology tools might not be adequate for the endeavor.
Although the ’90s have been called the “decade of the brain,” and significant advances in the computational aspects of brain architecture were made in the last decade, we are still far from understanding the inner workings of the cognitive organ. Therefore, such funding would greatly benefit scientific research at large, most notably artificial intelligence. In addition, Obama’s initiative is expected to boost the economy as the Human Genome Project did, with an $800 billion return on a $3.8 billion investment.
While the Brain Activity Map study is indeed similar to the HGP, there are notable differences. First, the HGP was organized with a basic, though flawed, hypothesis in mind — knowledge of the human genome would allow us to map human beings based on their distinct genetic codes. The Brain Activity Map study has a similar structure but lacks a concrete prediction — our knowledge of the brain is so limited that scientists cannot foresee the full implications of a realized brain map. Second, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a government organization responsible for the development of new and innovative military technologies — including drones — was not involved in the HGP, meaning the project had no military ends.
In contrast, a portion of the Brain Activity Map funds will be appropriated to DARPA, as briefly noted by The New York Times. Interestingly enough, the Times did not expound on the implications of DARPA’s involvement. The inclusion of money for DARPA seems to suggest that this project may have strategic military benefits in waging new kinds of wars. This is where the project begins to sound more Orwellian. It remains to be seen if the administration will divulge exactly what the strategic military advantage of this study would be. Whether the findings will be used for humanitarian purposes is another question entirely.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Feb. 19 print edition. Email the WSN Editorial Board at [email protected]