The stuff of science fiction becomes reality as science journalist Rob van Hattum makes in the Greedy Brain a tour amongst neuroscientists looking for the future of our brain. We’ve asked him a few questions related to the fantastic possibilities of reading human brain.
In his film we discover that “greed”, or hunger for control, is the fundamental characteristic of our brain when it strives to learn to interact with and utilise the outside platforms available to it. We can not only learn to drive as if our car was a part of our physical body, as we already do today, but with the latest technology we can be trained to manipulate the outside world by a mere thought. In this way paralysed people can communicate through a computer or control a robotic exoskeleton.
However, giving the brain miraculous powers through electrodes and machines is not the only and perhaps not even the most intriguing thing Rob van Hattum discovers. Through powerful MRI scanners scientists are mapping out the brain and pinpointing the exact locations of our thought processes. And they are already very close to “reading” our thoughts by looking at our brain activity. Experiments with connecting monkey brains in to a “brain net” computing together seem to imply that in the future it might be possible to connect people in this way as well.
As elsewhere in scientific research, brain research brings great promise for new ways to treat illnesses and aid disadvantaged people but at the same time raises some ethical questions as to how far we should allow science to go. Miguel Nicolelis seems to be pushing his animal brain research as far as possible but does not want to go into the question of its applicability to human brains. Did you at any time have the feeling that ethical questions should be asked before it is too late?
To late for what? And Nicolelis already performed a rather far fetching experiment. Connecting monkey brain with a robot and connecting rat brains via internet and more recently, as he announced already in the film connecting multiple monkey brain together. It is a technically a small step to human brains and we are already poking into the brain with deep brain stimulation. We know deep brain stimulation has interesting side effects – changing sexual and other behaviour, increase feeling of happiness, control of obsessive behaviour. Yes I think this raises ethical issues, or at least we have to think about the way we want to experiment with our brain, especially when we work with (as Nicolelis is doing) invasive technology. But on the other end we use all kind of technology to enhance ourselves. Do we have a clear idea what enhancement is? If we can connect our brain directly to a entertainment system would that be enhancement or would I drive us into a crazy society where the world turns into a playground? And what if we connect to a knowledge database? What if we could erase disabling traumatic memories? Perform ‘cosmetic’ brain surgery? I don’t think we are to late but it is time to seriously talk about it. That’s why I made the program.
There are already some people in the world who believe that the future belongs to androids and they have electronic implants put in their bodies. These people might be very interested in Nicolelis’s experiments which endow rats with new senses like infra-red vision. Do you think that added senses might become a commodity in the future much like in computer games where you can purchase new abilities for your character?
If am honest, yes I think people will do that. During history in all cultures has changed itself, performed body art work, fashioned adaptations of the body, perform sports on the highest level using artificial means to reach records. If there is wearable technology we will use it. Already we wear tattoos, earrings, make long necks, saucer lips, cochlear implants, pacemakers, DBS devices and even ID chips. So I see no reason why we stop. If a safe infrared vision is possible, we will wear it. If we, like birds, could implant a global positioning device telling us how to navigate we will do that. In fact some experiments were done with a belt that does inform, directly on the skin, the ones wearing it where the North is. After a couple of day the people who where wearing it where extremely reluctant to give the belt back because they were feeling that they were ‘loosing’ a new sense. They incorporated the belt into their brain as part of their orientation system. The brain is greedy, so people are greedy too for systems that provide new sensory or knowledge information. If possible we do it, even if there would be some safety issues going with it. Think about cars. We accept (deadly) accidents because cars give us freedom.
Ever more powerful scanners can locate the precise spot where a certain thought or memory corresponds to a neural activity. (But scanners can only see a memory when we are consciously recalling it.) Do you think science is coming closer to answering the question of what consciousness is, or is there still an insurmountable mind/body dualism?
I asked this question too at all the brain researchers. They just do not know. Till this moment nobody seems to really know what consciousness is. We do not know how it comes alive in the brain. We do not know how to create it, how much we have of it in relation to other animals or what is so special about human consciousness. We only know that when we loose it, like all animals, we are lost.
I guess, but that is a personal guess, we will discover what makes us think and aware and we can create technology that at least behaves conscious.
But what is real consciousness? Does a Turing test reveals true consciousness? “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.” To change the ‘duck quote’ of Richard Patterson: “Suppose you have a discussion with something in a very sensible way. It has no label that says ‘conscious’. But it sounds certainly conscious. Also, it can argue consciously. Then it says it is aware of it’s own consciousness. Well, by this time you have probably reached the conclusion it is conscious, whether it’s wearing a label or not.”
And back to ethical questions. If it were possible to upload human brains to avatars, do you think immortality is a goal humanity should strive for?
Downloading a brain is virtually impossible, the brain is not a hard disk. We might be able to simulate a brain, build a new brain, fill it with information an let it become aware. But copying information from an entire brain into another system seems out of the question because the neural substrate is fundamentally different from our digital systems. 88 billion neurons each connected with thousands of other neurons guided by genetics and grown by all experiences we have had in our lifetime. The only way would maybe be to make a one to one copy of our entire neural network in hardware or a computer simulation or emulation. If possible at all, who would be the real me than?
Concerning immortality; Do we want to die? No, if we stay in good health and the right state of mind and our friends do the same, there is no reason to die for. Some say we can only live a sensible life because we die. I think that is a lousy reason to die for. Maybe you get fed up by living on and on. That might be a reason to strive for death. I don’t know.
I once made a television program about Anti Aging, when I went 50. Since that time I do not know anymore if immortality is right or wrong.
But by the time we have reached that, again if possible, we will have solved this question I hope.