The race to decipher the workings of the human brain, and build new economies around it, is on. Today’s great entrepreneurs – people such as Paul Allen, Jeffrey Hawkins and Robin Li – believe that brain science can transform our lives. Li, the founder of Baidu, recently urged the Chinese government to launch a “China Brain” programme, which would apply neuroscience to a range of fields, from medical diagnostics to commercial robotics.
While some of these applications seem far off, many are closer than you might realize. Here are five emerging technologies that offer a glimpse into the future promise of brain science.
Scientists know that our neural circuits are intricately linked to normal behaviour – as well as to how that behaviour goes awry in cases of neurological diseases. An unprecedented global effort has begun to map the brain’s functional and structural connections and understand how these maps change in diseases like Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia. Already, some brain scans can detect early signs of Alzheimer’s plaque more than a decade before clinical symptoms appear, and others can revealconsciousness patterns in patients assumed to be brain dead.
The next generation of computers, whose design has been informed by brain science, may reason, predict and react just like the human neocortex (an area of the brain known as the seat of intelligence). Cortical computing algorithms have already shown an ability to solve modern CAPTCHAs (widely used tests to distinguish humans from machines). Some algorithms, based on brain circuits, can recognize pictures with the same success rate as macaque monkeys. Recently, an intelligent computer program in China scored better than many human adults on an IQ test. And IBM’s Watson supercomputer, after sifting through millions of medical records and databases, has begun to help doctors choose treatment options for patients with complex needs. Next up: IBM is working on brain-inspired SyNAPSE chips that use less energy but have a higher computing power than other chips. As these programs and chips get better at predicting behaviours, they will extend human cognitive abilities and blur the lines between man and machine.
Brain prosthetics for patients
As our understanding of the brain improves, so does our ability to control it and tap into its networks. Direct connections between the brain and machines – known as brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) – are already allowing paralysed patients to perform simple tasks such as turn thoughts into email or move their hand to hold a loved one. Other technologies send information from the outside world directly to the brain, allowing people with damaged ears and eyes to experience sights and sounds around them. And deep-brain stimulators can relieve the tremors of Parkinson’s disease and give cancer patients a break from intractable pain. Unlike purely mechanical prostheses, DARPA’s Revolutionizing Prosthetics programme is working to develop neurally controlled robotic arms to give amputees near-natural motor and sensory capabilities. As these prosthetics get better, they’ll continue to improve the lives of people with a variety of conditions.
Brain interfaces for the rest of us
Brain-connected devices aren’t just promising to change life for patients with physical or neurological conditions; they’re also finding applications in the automobile, education, gaming, and security industries. An attention-powered car, developed in Australia, uses real-time sensors to monitor the driver’s concentration and slow the car down if fatigue or distraction is detected. Brainpal, a BCI racing game developed in Singapore, uses neurological feedback (also known as electrical or EEG feedback) to help improve a player’s attention. Mind-controlled drones already exist. And brain-controlled exoskeletons that vastly improve the strength and performance of factory workers aren’t far off.
Automated brain testing
Noted venture capitalist Vinod Khoslapredicts that technology will replace 80% of the time a doctor spends on decision-making. Today, portable devices and phone apps can diagnose, track and even treat ailments – though they can’t yet replace doctors. NeuroPace’s RNS System can continuously monitor electrical activity in the brain for early signs of a seizure, and deliver brief electrical pulses to reduce the risk of a fit in patients with refractory epilepsy. Helmets and neck patches can measure the location, frequency and severity of concussions, helping to reduce long-term brain injuries in athletes. And new mobile apps allow patients to track in real-time their own cognition, mood and even gait, and send reports about their brain health to their doctor. Could we one day have a brain scanner attached to our smartphones? (Hint: a mobile ECG for the smartphone already exists.)
It has been said that futurists don’t predict the future so much as drive us towards a better one. Fulfilling the promise of these emerging technologies depends on continued research and funding. Ongoing projects, such as the Allen Institute Brain Atlas and Cell Types project, the Brain Initiative, the Human Brain Project, the Blue Brain Project and the China Brain Science Project, are all paving the way towards not only a better understanding of how the brain works, but technologies that take advantage of these discoveries to improve society.