Three Reasons to Reverse-Engineer the Brain

Ray Kurzweil is the author of the recent book How to Create a Mind. The first question we have for him is "why create a mind?"

Ray Kurzweil is the author of the recent book How to Create a Mind. The first question we have for him is "why create a mind?"


There are three purposes of reverse-engineering the brain. One is to do a better job of fixing it and because that's a business opportunity. Being able to master the information processes underlying biology, which includes the brain but actually includes the body also, is enormous opportunity.

We're going to transform this multi-trillion dollar health and medicine industry with these techniques.  Perhaps even more important, we're going to have an eye that really works well. Consider that Watson was actually able to read Wikipedia and understand it well enough to play a game of Jeopardy!, which is a complex, subtle, ambiguous game of language and got a higher score than the best players put together.

And its knowledge was not programmed fact-by-fact in lists per some computer languages. It just read Wikipedia and other encyclopedias, 200 million pages of natural language documents and didn’t do a perfect job of understanding it and didn't do a perfect job of answering the questions but was better than the best humans put together from having read natural language documents. That's very impressive.

That's coming to a search engine near you. The major search engines like Google are not just going to be using keywords with synonyms, they're going to actually read in order to understand the concepts because if you think about searching there's a lot of information now that's ignored, which is the meaning of all these documents, which is why they were created.

So you can have a computer even do a job that's very mediocre compared to human, but then you can apply the scale of computation.  I mean, Watson – if it read one page, it's not as good as you are, but it didn't read one page – it read 200 million pages. You and I can't begin to do that. Watson's out reading all medical literature, every medical journal article, every medical book, major medical blogs and will be an expert diagnostician and medical consultant that has read everything. No human can do that.

So that's where we're headed.  Our search engines will actually also know us very well.  They will – we will let them listen in on conversations: verbal, written.  They'll watch everything we're reading and writing and saying and hearing, and then they'll be like an assistant.  It'll say, "Oh, you know, you were talking about how you can get the supplement into the cells yesterday in that conversation with Joe.  You know, there's research that came out 13 minutes ago that speaks to that."  Or, "You were wondering who the actor was in that movie with the robot that can speak six million languages and here she is and here's background about her."

Since that helps you through the day, we'll answer your questions before you ask them or even before you realize you have a question, and you'll just get used to this information popping up that you wanted and you'll be frustrated if you're thinking about something and it doesn't immediately pop up with you even having to ask for it.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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