Reverse Engineering the Brain
In his new book, The Singularity is Near; When Humans transcend Biology, Ray Kurzweil envisions the day when through reverse engineering of the brain, we'll be able to create non-biological intelligence, that surpasses even our own human biological intelligence. He thinks it will take 40 years or by about 2045.
Two barriers seem to stand in the way of his vision.
First we don’t even know were to look.
Despite all our research in cognition and neuroscience, we don’t actually know precisely where intelligence is created and stored in the brain.
The second problem is how do we watch intelligence on the fly? How do we track intelligence when it is changing?
The human brain is composed of billions of cells, each a separate entity that communicates with others. The chemical interaction of those cells determines personality, controls behavior and encodes memory. There is still much that we don’t understood.
Amazingly, two discoveries announced in the past two months actually address both these two barriers that stand in the way of cognitive reverse engineering.
Problem Area One: Searching for the I-spot – the Intelligence Spot
Last month, South Korean scientists announced that they have pin-pointed the part of the brain that determines the level of intelligence of individuals. The research results of this two year study appeared on the Internet version of NeuroImage.
This was not widely reported in the Western mainstream press, so it may take some time for this to filter through the research community.
The researchers defined "intelligence" as cognitive activities such as fluid reasoning, control of attention and working memory.
In the past, scientists had a general idea that the parietal cortices and the lateral prefrontal part of the brain, by forming a network, determined the level of intelligence, but this is the first time a specific area has been identified.
The potential here is quite exciting.
Researchers speculate that the work can help set up an objective approach to enhancing learning methods by being able to examine how humans acquire, store and process information and stimuli.
It can also permit educators to determine an exceptionally gifted person early in life.
In addition, the research can provide vital data for mankind's quest -the holy grail - to build intelligent robots or as Kursweil puts it, non-biological intelligence
(for possible negative impacts see comments below)
Problem Area Two: Watching the Brain-cell by cell
The second advance is the ability to peer into the workings of the brain, neuron by neuron. Recently, two independent research groups announced two different approaches
Mass spectrometric imaging techniques
US researchers have developed tools for studying the chemistry of the brain, neuron by neuron. The analytical techniques can probe the spatial and temporal distribution of biologically important molecules, and explore the chemical messengers behind thought, memory and emotion.
"In most organ tissues of the body, adjacent cells do not have significant differences in their chemical contents," note researchers "In the brain, however, chemical differences between neurons are critical for their operation, and the connections between cells are crucial for encoding information or controlling functions."
By dismantling a slice of brain tissue into millions of single cell-size pieces, each of which can be interrogated by mass spectrometric imaging techniques, the research group can perform cellular profiling, examine intercellular signaling, map the distribution of new neuropeptides, and follow the release of chemicals in an activity-dependent manner
Nano-Wires to the Brain
In an even more impressive and non-destructive approach, scientists can now probe individual brain cells with nano-wires.
Working with platinum nano-wires 100 times thinner than a human hair--and using blood vessels as conduits to guide the wires--a team of U.S. and Japanese researchers has demonstrated a technique that may one day allow doctors to monitor individual brain cells and perhaps provide new treatments for neurological diseases.
Writing in the July 5, 2005, online issue of The Journal of Nanoparticle Research, the researchers explain it's becoming feasible to create nano-wires far thinner than even the tiniest capillary vessels.
That means nanowires could, in principle, be threaded through the circulatory system to any point in the body without blocking the normal flow of blood or interfering with the exchange of gasses and nutrients through the blood-vessel walls.
The team describes a proof-of-principle experiment in which they first guided platinum nano-wires into the vascular system of tissue samples, and then successfully used the wires to detect the activity of individual neurons lying adjacent to the blood vessels.
Each nanowire would then be used to record the electrical activity of a single nerve cell or small groups of them.
If the technique works, the researchers say, it would be a boon to scientists who study brain function.
Current technologies, such as positron emission tomography (PET) scans and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), have revealed a great deal about how neural circuits process, say, visual information or language. But the view is still comparatively fuzzy and crude. By providing information on the scale of individual nerve cells, or "neurons," the nanowire technique could bring the picture into much sharper focus.
"In this case, we see the first-ever application of nanotechnology to understanding the brain at the neuron-to-neuron interaction level with a non-intrusive, biocompatible and biodegradable nano-probe." say scientists.
Think of these two discoveries as catalysts.
Just as the human genome project zoomed exponentially forward after some basic process discoveries, both of these fundamental advances could greatly accelerate our capability to reverse engineer the brain, even faster then Ray Kursweil predicted.
Let's all watch and wonder what happens next.
Let's hear your Pros and Cons.
Expert, Consultant and Guest Speaker on the emerging Smart Technologies and author of an upcoming book on the Smart Economy
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