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Mapping the brain

USC Stevens Institute for Neuroimaging and Informatics

When Jesus was asked about the afterlife, he said we’d need to build it ourselves, so we did: “For the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” And now at the eleventh hour, those who arrived last will be the first to receive their reward.

But just how did the householder create the afterlife? By mapping the brain.

On 2 April 2013 President Barack Obama, announcing the BRAIN Initiative — Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies — quipped:

As humans, we can identify galaxies light years away, we can study particles smaller than an atom. But we still haven’t unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears. (Laughter.) But today, scientists possess the capability to study individual neurons and figure out the main functions of certain areas of the brain. But a human brain contains almost 100 billion neurons making trillions of connections.… It’s like listening to the strings section and trying to figure out what the whole orchestra sounds like.

Listening in on neural activity is old hat to NASA. In 2004 the National Aeronautics and Space Administration began “to computerize human, silent reading using nerve signals in the throat that control speech”:

NASA Ames Research Center, Dominic Hart

In preliminary experiments, NASA scientists found that small, button-sized sensors, stuck under the chin and on either side of the “Adam’s apple,” could gather nerve signals, and send them to a processor and then to a computer program that translates them into words. Eventually, such “subvocal speech” systems could be used in spacesuits, in noisy places like airport towers to capture air-traffic controller commands, or even in traditional voice-recognition programs to increase accuracy, according to NASA scientists.

“What is analyzed is silent, or subauditory, speech, such as when a person silently reads or talks to himself,” said Chuck Jorgensen, a scientist whose team is developing silent, subvocal speech recognition at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. “Biological signals arise when reading or speaking to oneself with or without actual lip or facial movement,” Jorgensen explained.

“A person using the subvocal system thinks of phrases and talks to himself so quietly, it cannot be heard, but the tongue and vocal chords do receive speech signals from the brain,” Jorgensen said.

“Just a few decades ago, the human brain was uncharted territory,” writes Suzanne Wu of the University of Southern California in 2015:

The best map — an X-ray of the soft tissue inside your skull — looked like a hovering cloud, all shadowy contours and empty space.

It took the advent of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) about 30 years ago to construct the first three-dimensional pictures of the brain. Then functional MRIs (fMRI) came along and hinted at the duties of different parts of the brain – which use the most resources when you read a book, for example, or when you listen to music.…

The largest brain-mapping project in the world, ENIGMA – Enhancing Neuro Imaging Genetics Through Meta Analysis – enables scientists to sift out discoveries from mounds of data.… The ENIGMA team developed a computer program for colleagues around the world to pull relevant pieces of information from brain scans. These figures then filter to USC, where engineers take on the heavy number crunching, including cross-referencing the brain data with other medical history.

How powerful is the brain? Zachary Boren of the Independent reports on a Japanese computer mapping one second of brain activity in 2014:

Using the K supercomputer, the fourth most powerful in world, scientists in Japan replicated a network of 1.73 billion nerve cells and 10.4 trillion synapses. It took the K computer, with over 700,000 processor cores and 1.4 million GB of RAM, 40 minutes to model the data.…

But mapping and then simulating the human brain requires next-gen supercomputing, an order of computational power known as ‘exascale’.

An exascale computer is one that can perform a quintillion floating point operations per second, thought to be same power as a human brain.…

“If petascale computers like the K computer are capable of representing one per cent of the network of a human brain today, then we know that simulating the whole brain at the level of the individual nerve cell and its synapses will be possible with exascale computers – hopefully available within the next decade,” Markus Diesmann, one of the scientists involved, told the Daily Telegraph.

In 2015, Mark Molloy of the Daily Telegraph reported that Google and Nasa developed “a lightning-fast quantum computer that is 3,600 times faster than a supercomputer at solving complex problems”:

Google and Nasa announced they were collaborating on the D-Wave X2 quantum computer, which they say is 100 million times faster than a conventional computer chip, in 2013. It can answer certain algorithms in seconds rather than years.…

Quantum computing is based on quantum bits or qubits. Unlike traditional computers, in which bits must have a value of either zero or one, a qubit can represent a zero, a one, or both values simultaneously.

Representing information in qubits allows the information to be processed in ways that have no equivalent in classical computing, taking advantage of phenomena such as quantum tunneling and quantum entanglement.

As such, quantum computers may theoretically be able to solve certain problems in a few days that would take millions of years on a classical computer.

“The Quantum Computer is the Holy Grail of quantum technology,” reports Science Daily from a Vienna University of Technology announcement:

A team of researchers from TU Wien (Vienna) the National Institute for Informatics (Tokyo) and NTT Basic Research Labs in Japan has now proposed a new architecture for quantum computing, based on microscopic defects in diamond.…

The architecture which has now been published in the journal “Physical Review X”…[involves] nitrogen atoms…injected into a small diamond. Every nitrogen defect is trapped in an optical resonator made of two mirrors. Via glass fibres, photons are coupled to the quantum system consisting of the resonator, the diamond and the nitrogen atom. This way, it is possible to read and manipulate the state of the quantum system without destroying the quantum properties of the spins in the diamond.…

[Michael Trupke (TU Wien)] compares the current state of quantum computing with the early days of electronic computing: “When the first transistors were built, nobody could imagine placing them on a small chip by the billions. Today, we carry around such chips in our pockets. These nitrogen spins in diamond could develop just like transistors did in classical computer science.”

Meanwhile, Jay Narayan and Matt Shipman of North Carolina State University report on researchers making diamonds at room temperature:

Researchers from North Carolina State University have discovered a new phase of solid carbon, called Q-carbon,…to make diamond-related structures at room temperature and at ambient atmospheric pressure in air.…

Q-carbon has some unusual characteristics. For one thing, it is ferromagnetic – which other solid forms of carbon are not.… In addition, Q-carbon is harder than diamond, and glows when exposed to even low levels of energy.…

Researchers start with a substrate, such as such as sapphire, glass or a plastic polymer. The substrate is then coated with amorphous carbon – elemental carbon that, unlike graphite or diamond, does not have a regular, well-defined crystalline structure. The carbon is then hit with a single laser pulse lasting approximately 200 nanoseconds. During this pulse, the temperature of the carbon is raised to 4,000 Kelvin (or around 3,727 degrees Celsius) and then rapidly cooled. This operation takes place at one atmosphere – the same pressure as the surrounding air.

The end result is a film of Q-carbon, and…by changing the rate of cooling, they are able to create diamond structures within the Q-carbon.

At the same time, researchers are proposing creating nanofactories that build diamonds one molecule at a time:

The nanofactory is a proposed compact molecular manufacturing system, possibly small enough to sit on a desktop, that could build a diverse selection of large-scale atomically precise diamondoid products. The nanofactory is potentially a high quality, extremely low cost, and very flexible manufacturing system.

The principal input to a diamondoid nanofactory is simple hydrocarbon feedstock molecules such as natural gas, propane, or acetylene. Small supplemental amounts of a few other simple molecules containing trace atoms of chemical elements such as oxygen, nitrogen or silicon may also be required.

“Imagine a swarm of microscopic robots, so tiny that a teaspoon can hold billions of them,” writes Jacopo Prisco for CNN in 2015:

Nanotechnology is yet another field of science that bears that promise.

At ETH Zurich, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, mechanical engineer Brad Nelson and his team have worked on nanobots for a decade, and are now ready to think big: “We’re making microscopic robots that are guided by externally generated magnetic fields for use in the human body,” he told CNN.

The first to suggest that you could one day “swallow the surgeon” was beloved physicist and Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman. He coined the idea in the provocative 1959 talk “There’s plenty of room at the bottom”, which is widely considered the first conceptual argument for nanotechnology.

“Nanobiotechnologies represent a rapidly growing field of interest,” notes Donald Bruce in a 2006 EMBO Report about “Ethical and social issues in nanobiotechnologies”:

Applying techniques at the molecular and atomic levels to understand and transform biosystems, and of using biological principles and materials to create new devices at the nanoscale,…holds great promise in medicine for improved diagnostics, less invasive monitoring devices and more targeted therapies, and also has potential for agricultural and environmental applications.…

Nanobiotechnologies are mostly in their early stages of discovery and exploration; specific applications remain too limited to build a full picture of the field.… Because of the wide gap between the basic science and many of the still speculative predictions, nanobiotechnologies are presented in a future-oriented way.…

A wide variety of identifiable values, ideologies or world views might drive research and development in different directions. Many scientists regard the implicit values of free and curiosity-driven research, or of medical progress to tackle hitherto incurable diseases as primary motivations for their work. Other important drivers are the prevailing neo-liberal economic ideology of the free market, and the goals of national or European economic growth and competitiveness. For some, however, the quality of life takes precedence over economics. This might be in terms of social justice, environmental goals, help for the developing world, or compassion to alleviate human suffering. Then there are religious beliefs, and philosophical ideas and principles, including the transhumanist dogma to drive forward human evolution. These economic, ideological and social influences will have a material effect on the directions taken by nanobiotechnology research and its applications.

“Stimoceivers offer great promise in the investigation, diagnosis, and therapy of cerebral disturbances in man,” writes Dr. José Delgado of brain-to-computer-to brain feedback in his 1969 treatise Physical Control of the Mind: Toward a Psychocivilized Society:

It is already possible to equip animals or human beings with minute instruments called “stimoceivers” for radio transmission and reception of electrical messages to and from the brain in completely unrestrained subjects. Microminiaturization of the instrument’s electronic components permits control of all parameters of excitation for radio stimulation of three different points within the brain and also telemetric recording of three channels of intracerebral electrical activity. In animals, the stimoceiver may be anchored to the skull, and different members of a colony can be studied without disturbing their spontaneous relations within a group. Behavior such as aggression can be evoked or inhibited. In patients, the stimoceiver may be strapped to the head bandage, permitting electrical stimulation and monitoring of intracerebral activity without disturbing spontaneous activities.…

It is reasonable to speculate that in the near future the stimoceiver may provide the essential link from man to computer to man, with a reciprocal feedback between neurons and instruments which represents a new orientation for the medical control of neurophysiological functions. For example, it is conceivable that the localized abnormal electrical activity which announces the imminence of an epileptic attack could be picked up by implanted electrodes, telemetered to a distant instrument room, tape-recorded, and analyzed by a computer capable of recognizing abnormal electrical patterns. Identification of the specific electrical disturbance could trigger the emission of radio signals to activate the patient’s stimoceiver and apply an electrical stimulation to a determined inhibitory area of the brain, thus blocking the onset of the convulsive episode.

“While there’s no denying that implantable medical devices such as pacemakers save peoples’ lives,” writes in 2011, “powering those implants is still a tricky business”:

The batteries in a standard pacemaker, for instance, are said to last for about eight years – after that, surgery is required to access the device. Implants such as heart pumps are often powered by batteries that can be recharged from outside the body, but these require a power cord that protrudes through the patient’s skin, and that keeps them from being able to swim or bathe. Now, however, scientists at Germany’s University of Freiburg are developing biological fuel cells, that could draw power for implants from the patient’s own blood sugar.

The research team is being led by Dr. Sven Kerzenmacher, of Freiburg’s Department of Microsystems Engineering. They are looking into the use noble metal catalysts, such as platinum, to trigger a continuous electrochemical reaction between glucose in the blood and oxygen from the surrounding tissue fluid. The use of platinum (or a similar metal) would be ideal, as the material exhibits long-term stability, it can be sterilized, and electrodes made from it wouldn’t be sensitive to unwanted chemical reactions, including hydrolysis and oxidation.

The Freiburg scientists are ultimately hoping that the surfaces of implants could be covered with a thin coating of the fuel cells, which would then power the devices indefinitely.

“Sugar is an excellent source of energy,” remarks Katia Moskvitch for Chemistry World in 2014 regarding bio-batteries:

Virginia Tech

Most living cells generate their energy from glucose by passing it down an enzymatic chain that converts it into different sugars. This enzymatic cascade provides the necessary energy to create an electrochemical gradient. This, in turn, can be used to power an enzyme that synthesises adenosine triphosphate (ATP) – the universal biological energy currency. However, extracting this energy from a sugar if you’re not a biological organism is tricky – short of combustion, which is impractical to power handheld electronics.

To fuel their battery the [Virginia Tech] team used maltodextrin – a polymer made up of glucose subunits. They then created an entirely new synthetic enzymatic pathway to extract energy from the sugar. Using 13 different enzymes they were able to strip, on average, 24 electrons from a single glucose molecule, which can then be harnessed to power an electrical device.

And lest you forget: spy technology is decades ahead of what civilians like Google are doing. This includes the cyborg technology that is needed to map each of our brains into external devices as Delgado suggested. Brain implant technology has come a long way since the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) created their Acoustic Kitty cyborg in the 1960s, much further along than the media reports. Declassified in 2001, the spy cat is still cloaked in secrecy: the cover story downplaying the remote-controlled feline’s importance with the goal of dissuading onlookers from pursuing further inquiry.

Professor Kevin Warwick contemplates the future of cybernetic organisms in his book I, Cyborg:

If cyborgs are created with superhuman capabilities from a normal human start point, then it certainly brings about a threat to humanity itself. Perhaps the development of direct, military-style cyborgs might be possible to avoid. After all, when cyborgs exhibiting an intelligence that far surpasses that of humans are brought about, it will surely be the cyborgs themselves that make any decisions about how they treat humans.

In the meantime, be kind or else, and pleasant dreams.

(Author’s note: The morning after writing this I had a dream reinforcing my goals to stop child abusing cults including the Catholic Church.)

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