In April of this year, President Obama announced the BRAIN initiative. BRAIN stands for “Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies”. The program, a $100 million investment into research aimed at figuring out how the brain functions, brings together biologists, nanotechnology specialists, electrical engineers, computer scientists, and researchers from various other disciplines to study how the human brain works and how man-made systems can be built to achieve some of the same functionality. It is an ambitious endeavor that could reap significant rewards in combating diseases such as Alzheimer’s, autism, schizophrenia, and paralysis.
The BRAIN project’s approach to determining how intelligence can be manufactured is to map out and mimic the structure of the brain. In emphasizing mapping, it takes cues from the Human Genome Project, another extremely ambitious and ultimately transformative government-sponsored research project. The Human Genome Project used sophisticated computer-based pattern recognition and search algorithms to identify the pattern of G, T, C, and A cells in a human’s full genetic code. One of the promised benefits of that work is that one day we would be able to create drugs custom-tailored to a particular person’s medical condition or even to fashion an entire organ that could replace an ailing one in a particular patient. Two decades later, we are starting to see the fruits of this research, as evidenced by the successful outcomes of a number of cancer treatments that have taken this approach.
BRAIN is taking advantage of nanoscience breakthroughs to help chart brain function at the scale at which it needs to be investigated to learn its detailed structure and function. Nano-sized navigators can be injected into the body and provide a picture of how the brain is wired. Once the pathways are mapped, nanotechnology again leads the way in enabling the production and deployment of unprecedentedly small sensors that can be wired together to emulate the brain’s structure. These sensors will pick up signals from each other in much the same way that the cells of the brain do.
These millions of nano nodes will produce an unbelievable amount of data. Then, the Computer Scientists can go to work. Sophisticated data mining algorithms will help organize the data from the pseudo-brain sensor network, interpret it, and make conclusions from it that can then influence the function of the network. That last step – implementing a feedback mechanism that actually alters the characteristics of the network of sensors so that some paths become friendlier to signal transmission and others become more resistant – borrows from a long-standing emphasis in artificial intelligence research, neural networks.
BRAIN is perhaps today’s highest profile foray into the fascinating field of artificial intelligence, but it isn’t the only game in town. This week, a project that will be led by researchers from MIT and Harvard will give rise to the impressively named Center for Brains, Minds, and Machines.The aims of that project are similar to that of the federally funded BRAIN project: the researchers will explore how the brain functions, how it mobilizes our actions and shapes our attitudes, and how it is influenced by the environment. It will also take a more focused look at how artificial vision and speech might be better implemented.
Computer Science is incredibly intertwined with the other sciences. It provides simulation and visualization algorithms and tools that inform the work of scientists in these other disciplines. It helps other scientists store, organize, and interpret the data they collect. And it even helps emulate God’s designs, such as the human brain, as components of large-scale, integrated engineering systems.
As the enabler of so much scientific research, Computer Science is, perhaps, the most attractive of fields for young scientists who want to conduct research that bursts across the artificial boundaries that separate disciplines. Plus, you get to build brains. How cool is that?