President Obama is tired of turning left at Albuquerque when following the current brain map, so he proposed a new $100 million, long-term investment initiative Tuesday: the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies, or BRAIN for short, so scientists may better understand our noggin'.
The New York Times had the details early this morning, and the President unveiled them at an event at the White House Tuesday morning. Obama will propose as part of his budget to be unveiled next week that the federal government — in a split between the NIH, DARPA, and the NSF, as well as a cooperation with public institutions — should invest $100 million into the project in 2014, in hopes to map the activity of all 100 billion neurons that make up your brain — and, eventually, perhaps lead to answers on Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases. "Ideas are what power our economy. It's what sets us apart. It's what America is all about," the President said during his announcement.
We got the first hint of Obama's thinking during his State of the Union address:
“If we want to make the best products, we also have to invest in the best ideas... Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy... Today, our scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer’s… Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation. Now is the time to reach a level of research and development not seen since the height of the Space Race.”
The project is going forward because the President has deemed mapping the brain "a grand challenge of the 21st century," the Times reported, or "The Next Great American Project," as the President called it during his remarks. Unfortunately, the technology that already exists for brain research can't track the 100 billion neurons that make our brains work, so the project would — emphasis on the would — spend its first few years figuring out new ways and developing new technologies to study the human brain. The team's first tasks are to develop "a plan, a time frame, specific goals and cost estimates for future budgets," that would lead to developing new technologies that would allow them to figure out what's going on up there. This is very much a long-term project that may not see any results for five, ten, even 15 years.
Now, about that large sum of money. Early indications had the BRAIN team receiving a $300 million investment from the federal government annually over ten years, so at some point the funding for this got cut significantly. Maybe it was sequestration. Or maybe it was the initial and serious criticisms from scientists about the Brain Activity Map project, as it was previously known, met when details first started to leak. "Big science" doesn't always plan out. The Human Genome Project delivered a return on its investment, yes, as the President reminds us, but not all "big science" projects end up with the results their funding expected of them. "These investments don't always turn out the way we hope, but when they do, the changes are huge," Obama said Tuesday. CAT scans wouldn't be possible if it wasn't for the advancements made during the race to the moon, the President reminded the crowd.
But the implications of the President's BRAIN project are a bit scarier than you might think. You can only go so far mapping the brain before you get into some ethically questionable territory. Esquire's Luke Dittrich did some early tea leaf reading to preview the project last month and noticed something questionable: In an academic journal article written by many of the BRAIN project scientists, Dittrich noticed one of the proposed technologies the team may use would essentially be able to remotely and wirelessly control the human brain, if developed. While the intentions of this technology when used by the BRAIN team would be wholesome and for the good of human science, it's not hard to see how that technology could go horribly wrong if it ended up in the wrong hands. Dittrich adds:
I'm not saying that the President's brain-mapping project is a bad idea. As he put it in his State of the Union address, it could help "unlock the answers to Alzheimer's," among other worthy goals. But I do think it's worth considering that this same project is also a DARPA-associated endeavor that could lead to the development of the first truly sci-fi caliber mind-control technology.
Which is probably why the President is also ordering an ethical study of any new developments the team comes up with throughout the ongoing work of the BRAIN team. May Obama not turn us into mind-controlled, drooling robot-humans any more than some of the people trying to hold up his budget and NIH funding already think he has.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.