This week saw the European Union launch its Brain Mapping initiative. In tandem with the US BRAIN initiative, it looks like we have the makings of a transatlantic brain race on our hands. Regardless of who wins, there’s the potential for some really exciting neural "wetware" being developed. Let’s round up the existing, near future and frightening neuro-engineering technologies designed to get inside your head.
The EU effort distinguishes itself from the US foray by its methods: the EU wants to build the biggest simulation of a brain ever (and then program it to dream of electric sheep, no doubt). So far, it takes a gobsmacking amount of computational horsepower to accurately simulate the tiniest portion of mammal brains, while animals manage the feat with squishy matter and the equivalent energy required to dimly illuminate a light bulb. Some brain simulations use neural networks to ape the brain. Neural networks are algorithms that make sense of inputs (read: reality) in a manner comparable to neurons. When Google built a 16,000 computer strong neural network and exposed it to the internet it got as far as building a mental model of cats. Unfortunately, the cat recognising algorithm has since escaped the lab.
Networked borg brains
On the more cumbersome side of things are numerous research initiatives working out how to transmit thoughts over TCP/IP (aka the internet). Earlier this year two humans were networked to one another, building on previous forays which including a human wagging a rat's tail with their brainpower, and a man going full cyberpunk by having his brain linked to a (frankly adorable) robot avatar.
I know what you’re thinking...
Figuratively, at least, your burning question has got to be "will we be able to read minds?" The short answer is we don't know, primarily because the amount we don’t know about the brain is part of the impetus behind these initiatives (that, and an aging boomer population haunted by the prospect of dementia and Alzheimers). Until then, progress is slow: compare 2008’s brain decoding image to a recent effort and you can see computers struggle with reading brains almost as much as they struggle with captchas. This amazing research which reconstructs moving images in the brain into a pixel bleeding visualisation of brain activity remains the most interesting (video above).
Voices in your head
If telepathy is the desired outcome of brain research (spoiler, it isn’t) then there may be a far more interesting and ingenious route to that end goal. These electronic tattoos which can do everything (according to their creators) could be used to measure the electrical activity going from your brain to your vocal muscles, and map that into words. Research indicates those muscles faintly fire when you think or say a word aloud in your head, transmitting bioelectric subvocal signals which these tattoos could convert into wireless thought transmission. It may or may not surprise you to learn that NASA (link offline due to shutdown), not the military, have been the major researchers to date in this field.
This is your brain on magnets, ultrasound and battery voltage
Now that we’ve answered the mind reading question, the next hot topic is: how will these new technologies supercharge our synapses? Lots of ethical hand wringing abounds around this topic and with good reason: unless someone steps up we’ll see abuse of brain enhancement tech, comparable to the rampant use of Ritalin and Modafinil around exam term. While ultrasound and super strong magnets have all been used to do weird things to our brains (like turning off our moral compass) one of the most popular is transcranial direct stimulation which promises boosted concentration if you’re ok wiring your frontal lobes to a 9 volt current.
DIY brain hacking
All that science is pretty exciting, but just like Google’s life extension project it’s unlikely any of us are likely to get their hands on the tech anytime soon. Which explains the dedication of Hackerspaces the world over to DIY brain interfaces. Of particular note is the Czech Hackerspace and the aforementioned tCDS devices. In a continuation of their infiltration of the hackerspace scene it is reported that DARPA (the granddaddy of off-the-wall interfaces) are aiming to release a super cheap EEG device in time for next years Maker Faire season.
One downside of cheaper EEG means an increase in an already saturated field of weak digital art that uses EEG to do X, Y or Z with water/ screens/ sex toys. One notable (and slightly terrifying) instance of brain music with potential medicinal use is this musical brain stethoscope. The device maps chaotic electrical brain activity (aka seizures) into “music” (we use that term lightly). It’s hoped that this biofeedback would be useful in epilepsy patients, acting as a brain-powered baby monitor that screeches terrifying tinny dubstep when it detects epileptic brain activity.
Decoding brain data
While it’s heartening to think of accessible brain hardware it must be noted that EEG is a pretty low res brain computer interface tool. Researchers have even proved that an EEG headset on its own can’t tell the difference between a bowl of jelly and a comatose patient's brain. fMRI is where it’s at, but it’s locked down by proprietary data formats, and super expensive hardware. Nevertheless Salvatore Iaconesi’s opensourcecureforcancer.com is a humbling tale of open brain data. Diagnosed with a brain tumour, the hacker cracked the brain scan data to make it available for the world to remix.
Debugging the brain with light sensitive viruses
One technology you’ll guaranteed to hear lots about in the coming 5 years is optogenetics: the radical biotechnology the maps the brain’s inner workings in unparalleled detail. The method is a bit mental: the test subject (rats and chimpanzees - for now) brain is injected with the aforementioned virus. The poor rodent/ape then has to have an LED implant embedded in their skull. When the light turns on, scientists can disable genes in the brain which control certain functions, like memory for instance (and yes, the US Military is also very keen on this technology). This tool promises to be the ultimate debug mode for perception.
IBM have secured the branding on the term, but telecoms company Qualcomm are also active in this field. Both enterprises are doing the inverse of the EU Brain project (and both are recipients of US funding, from DARPA and US BRAIN initiative respectively): instead of simulating a brain they’re building computer chips that are more like brain cells! What’s more, both of them plan to make apps stores for cognitive computing! Qualcomm is developing a “Neural Processor Unit” called ‘Zeroth’ (a hat tip to Isaac Asimov's famous 1st rule of robotics) within their BrainCorp startup. Yes, these are all actual names.