What could we gain by mapping the human brain? (istockphoto)

It turns out that President Barack Obama’s head-scratching mention of a project to map the human brain in his most recent State of the Union speech was more than just a casual comment. John Markoff of the New York Times reported this week that the White House will soon unveil a massive, multi-billion-dollar research project to map the entire human brain that will likely involve scores of scientists, foundations and government agencies. When completed, a detailed map of how the human brain works would be a staggering development in innovation — one that could lead to cures for brain-related illnesses as well as unimagined breakthroughs in artificial intelligence.

Today’s technology landscape would be completely altered.

Similar to the Human Genome Project to which it has already been already compared, the Brain Activity Map Project would open up the mysterious workings of what makes us human. We already know something of how the brain processes information, but thus far, we only have isolated bits and pieces. A full map would let researchers know how every neuron fires, how every thought comes into being, and how the human brain learns over time. A map would let us understand the link between thought, memory and emotion. Now, this is where things get really interesting (and possibly scary), understanding how the brain works could, perhaps, help us solve some of the greatest mysteries of our age: What is the essence of genius? Do we have a soul?

Understandably, then, mapping the human brain has been a particular fascination of scientists such as George Church and Ray Kurzweil for years (Kurzweil’s newest book, in fact, is called “How to Create a Mind” and details his quest to reverse-engineer the human brain). It’s only been in recent years, however, that we’ve had the computing chops and brain imaging techniques to actually get a detailed look at the human brain at the level of the individual neuron. In 2012, for example, the Human Connectome project of the NIH found that the human brain was wired much like a Mondrian grid painting.

Knowing how the human brain works means that we will, at some point in the near future, be able to fundamentally change the structure of it by re-arranging a few neural pathways. If we understand how memory works, we may be able to download new memories into our brains. If we understand how language processing works, we may be able to insert foreign language knowledge into our brains just like a series of software upgrades. In his new book, Kurzweil includes some interesting charts documenting the exponential growth in new technologies that is making all of this possible. With each exponential increase in computing potential, new opportunities arise. At some point, we will be able to transform our computing machines into highly-intelligent thinking machines. Years from now, we may look back on early artificial intelligence efforts before the era of the Brain Activity Map and view IBM’s Watson supercomputer as the computing equivalent of a classroom dunce.

What’s fascinating, of course, is what the White House stands to gain. Is it a pure legacy play for by the Obama administration? In much the same way that the JFK presidency has become known as the one that sent our nation to the moon, will the Obama presidency be known as the one where we mapped the human brain and broke the bar on artificial intelligence forever? It’s certainly not a jobs play, although it can be imagined that quite a few neuroscientists will be hired for this project. Maybe it’s an economic play, especially since Obama noted that every $1 invested in mapping the human genome has resulted in a staggering $140 in new economic activity.

The most likely outcome in the short-term, at least, is that our nation’s leading tech companies will use this new knowledge from the Brain Activity Map to make us much smarter in our everyday lives. This is just a guess, but now that Ray Kurzweil has landed at the Googleplex, it’s easy to see how a company such as Google could build on findings from the Brain Activity Map project and build new brain assistants for our computing devices that mimic the activity of the human brain. At the same time, entirely new companies may emerge, offering futuristic services such as cosmetic brain surgery or “total recall” or “the eternal sunshine of a spotless mind”.

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