A balanced discussion of the realities, the mythologies, and the concerns surrounding cutting-edge brain research.
- A new film, I AM HUMAN, takes a comprehensive look at the realities of neurotechnology today.
- The film follows three patients for whom experimental treatment may be the best option.
- Experts weigh in on the difficulties and the promise of neurotech.
We hear a lot these days about a coming convergence between man and machine. Nowhere are more promises being made than in the area of the brain. From Elon Musk's brain interface to the promise of enhanced minds to home-brewed brain "stimulators," neurotechnology seems poised to carry us across a threshold into a new and glorious world. Or a new and terrifying one. There's robust debate over the potential impact, dangers, and value of such disruptive technology, as there should be. The problem is that we're not so good at thoughtful, reasonable debate.
We don't often write on Big Think about individual movies, but there's a new one, I AM HUMAN, directed and produced by Taryn Southern and Elena Gaby. It provides an unusually intelligent, wide-ranging, and balanced overview of where the research stands, and it's a compelling and thought-provoking experience. This being an area of such keen interest to Big Think readers, we recommend being on the lookout for this film.
Bill, Anne, and Stephen
One of the great hopes for brain research, of course, is that we'll discover the mechanisms behind brain disorders and learn how they can be cured. The World Health Organization has estimated that about 1 in 6 people have a brain disorder of some sort — that's a billion-plus people. As our visionaries fuel our imaginations regarding the eventual possibilities, it's easy to forget there are people here and now for whom the restorative potential of brain technology is no sci-fi daydream — it's a source of hope that their health can be restored. As doctors and technicians embark on this journey, they're accompanied by people you'd never imagine meeting at the cutting edge. People for whom such wildly experimental therapies are their best, and maybe only, hope.
I AM HUMAN introduces us to three such people. It's in following them through their procedures that we see the latest technologies being explored. Our emotional investment in this brave trio viscerally reminds us of the stakes involved.
- Bill recalls, "I was riding a bicycle in a charity event. It was raining really badly and I was following a mail truck. And then all of a sudden, it stopped and I didn't." A tetraplegic, Bill has no feeling below his mid-chest and longs to be able to one day regain enough movement simply to feed himself without assistance.
- Anne has Parkinson's disease. "I'm not really sure what's happening in my brain. Anxiety. Insomnia. Paralysis," says Anne. In addition to her fear of becoming nothing but a burden to her family as her symptoms worsen, "One of the Parkinson's symptoms I was always afraid of was that you couldn't smile and when you smiled you had a stony expression," she says. "It's hard to connect with people. I'm just way too exhausted and way too disorganized mentally to be with people the way I used to."
- Stephen was born with a condition he knew nothing about until his world world turned white: " When I lost my vision, the whole world collapsed." He lives alone, aided by his sister, with whom he's close, helping him get through life. "I just miss being independent."
The challenge of the human brain
Connective ports provide access to electrodes implanted in Bill's brain.
Image source: Luca del Puppo
None of the many experts interviewed in I AM HUMAN believe that a fundamental understanding is imminent of that three-pound object that has so much to do with who we are. Southern tells Big Think that, "The one consistent thing I've learned about a lot of neuroscientists is they have a very sober and humble view of just how complex and difficult of a problem they are tackling."
The current estimate is that the brain contains 100 billions neurons. As neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis notes, "100 billion was the old estimate of the number of galaxies in the universe." And even that number doesn't convey the true mathematical complexity involved. David Eagleman, also a neuroscientist, says that each of those neurons "is as complicated as the city of Los Angeles. It's connecting to 10,000 of its neighbors — so you have, you know, 500 trillion connections" to identify if you're trying to understand the human brain. Computer scientist Ramez Naam says it simply: "The brain is the most complicated object we've ever encountered in nature."
It's also a black box. Alongside each movement we make are lightning-fast instructions exchanged between these many neurons in some internal language we don't speak. Researchers use a range of technologies to eavesdrop on the brain's chatter — as Southern says, "You have methods like EEG, which uses electrical impulses to read brain activity; deep-brain electrodes also use electricity. But then you've got magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to read blood flow and sound waves through ultrasound. Of course, the non-invasive methods are more palatable. I'm sure that soon in the future, neuroscientists will see all of our methods now as crude."
Just as daunting, when neuroscientists attempt to manipulate individual neurons, the precision required is astounding, with each procedure a white-knuckle procedure. Surgeon Andres Lozano tells the filmmakers, "This is a game where you have to be within one millimeter. That one millimeter means a difference between success and failure."
Or stumbling into another area of the brain. One doctor told the filmmakers of a case in which an interface was implanted into the hypothalamus of a patient weighing 420 pounds "to see if they could regulate hunger or appetite." No dice. On the other hand, "To their surprise, the patient had vivid flashes of memory from 30 years earlier. When they left the stimulator on for a period of time, at a lower current, the patient had huge increases in memory capacity and being able to remember lists of words."
So for all of the fever-dreams of any-time-now cyber-brains, neurotech investor Bryan Johnson offers a reality check: "It's extraordinarily difficult to make breakthroughs in neuroscience. Scientists are tackling these really complicated problems, trying to do things that other people consider to be impossible. And it makes it both an extremely exciting time but also, it's daunting because there is no clear path to success."
Visions of the neurotech future
Anne must remain conscious during her deep brain surgery.
Image source: Joel Froome, ACS
The film presents' a range of advocates' visions of the possibilities should we finally be able to master the workings of the brain.
"We are about to enter into the most consequential revolution in the history of the human race," says Johnson, "where we can take control of our cognitive evolution. If we can make breakthroughs in the brain, we can overcome our biological limitations. We can reject the things that stop us from moving forward. My hope is that we get to a point in tech advancement that we're not limited by our technology, we're empowered by it, so it's a matter of choice of what we want to become."
While Southern says coverage of research is often focused on the enhancement of people to be "smarter, better, faster," she suggests that this may merely be a reflection of "our own sort-of Western bias to favor productivity and efficiency. But perhaps in other Eastern cultures they would orient the use of an interface to induce greater states of calm or create more empathy."
Johnson offers up how this could work: "Imagine I had a tool to interface with my brain where I could walk a mile in someone else's shoes. What if I could feel what it was like to be you? What if I could understand your contextual framework? What if I understand your memories and your emotions? Would that change the way we deal with each other? The way we cooperate, the way we make decisions?" Or, he adds, "Would that change our creative ability?"
Philosophical question arise
Retinal implants such as Stephen's are created in Second Sight's lab in Sylmar, CA.
Image source: Credit: Joel Froome, ACS
Of course, not everyone is embracing neurotechnology. According to a recent Pew study for example, people are more worried than enthusiastic when it comes to brain chip implants designed to boost a person's natural abilities — only 34% would be interested in getting one. (About half are okay with implants' use for therapeutic value.)
It's not just a fear of change — there are genuine philosophical and ethical issues. As Naam says in the film, "As we have this ability to change who we are, change our personality, what's at the core of us? What does that do to our sense of where we belong in the universe?"
Professor of philosophy and law Nita Farahany sums up the question this way: "If we start tinkering with the brain, if we start changing it….What does that mean? Are we about to fundamentally change what it means to be human? And if so, are we okay with that?" Seeing that, "We're at the moment where there are a lot of very rapidly emerging technologies, and brain computer interfaces are starting to become part of mainstream society,"' she warns that we'd better start figuring out where we want all this research to go before it's too late.
Southern tells us, "My biggest concern around the ethics is the lack of basic knowledge that we have as a society about science and tech. Scientists are so great at science, but sometimes lack the time or ability to connect that information to a larger audience. I think information is power, and the first step is education."
As far as the ethics of experimenting on living patients goes, the decisions of Bill, Anne, and Stephen to participate reflect their lack of better options. "People are worried, you know, 'Will I be the same, coming out, as I was going in?'" says Lozano. "There's a tremendous amount of anxiety about whether they are going to change in their outlook, in their personality, in their motivation, in their drive. You know, this is brain surgery. It's invasive. It is a scary thought."
The doctors involved, says Southern, are "incredibly conscientious about the impact of their work on the world, and those that we worked with on the film have a real drive to help people and improve lives. I don't think many people would argue that restoring function to someone with a disease as a resort of a brain interface is a bad thing. The ethical questions come down the road from there, when adoption becomes more widespread and normalized and people start to seek 'cosmetic' applications of these currently medical devices."
In the end
Southern says she was drawn to this topic as a storyteller. "I see what they're doing, and I think it's just incredible." Her goal in making I AM HUMAN she says, is that, "It's their job to be understated, and my job to hopefully translate the awe and I wonder I feel about what they're doing with the world."
In their experiences creating this film, Southern and Gaby gained a uniquely comprehensive overview of where things stand. We asked Southern what she dreams of humanity gaining from neurotechnology. "I'm really intrigued by the ideas of expanding our sensory abilities and processing. We know that our brains receive data through our given senses — sight, tough, taste, sound, etc. But that data isn't necessarily reflective of reality, and other animals can receive data into their brains differently. For instance, bats have a sense called echolocation that allows them to use sound waves and echoes to determine where they are in space. What if we had that ability? Or what if we could sense electromagnetic waves or ultraviolet light? I'd be pretty excited to see some of these things come to fruition."
Such capabilities could allow us to understand the true nature of physical reality in ways we currently lack the tools to even image. On a more day-to-day level, she adds, "I'd also love to just be able to turn off that pesky and unnecessary fight-or-flight survival response to mundane stress."
The experience has left Southern feeling "Optimistic. Every new technology has been fraught with incredible advantages and drawbacks. I see this being no different. We're just so often uncomfortable with changing the status quo — but ultimately we collectively adopt what is valuable to us. Pessimism around technology," she says, may just reflect issues with our values and systems. "When the foundation of those are broken, it's hard to imagine not building things on top that wreak some degree of havoc. Ultimately, however, having our ability to see and understand the mechanics of our own minds — the creation force of our reality — offers us unparalleled potential beyond our wildest imaginations."
I AM HUMAN will be screened at the Tribeca Film Festival in early May.
It's unlikely that there's anything on the planet that is worth the cost of shipping it back
- In the second season of National Geographic Channel's MARS (premiering tonight, 11/12/18,) privatized miners on the red planet clash with a colony of international scientists
- Privatized mining on both Mars and the Moon is likely to occur in the next century
- The cost of returning mined materials from Space to the Earth will probably be too high to create a self-sustaining industry, but the resources may have other uses at their origin points
Want to go to Mars? It will cost you. In 2016, SpaceX founder Elon Musk estimated that manned missions to the planet may cost approximately $10 billion per person. As with any expensive endeavor, it is inevitable that sufficient returns on investment will be needed in order to sustain human presence on Mars. So, what's underneath all that red dust?
Mining Technology reported in 2017 that "there are areas [on Mars], especially large igneous provinces, volcanoes and impact craters that hold significant potential for nickel, copper, iron, titanium, platinum group elements and more."
Were a SpaceX-like company to establish a commercial mining presence on the planet, digging up these materials will be sure to provoke a fraught debate over environmental preservation in space, Martian land rights, and the slew of microbial unknowns which Martian soil may bring.
In National Geographic Channel's genre-bending narrative-docuseries, MARS, (the second season premieres tonight, November 12th, 9 pm ET / 8 pm CT) this dynamic is explored as astronauts from an international scientific coalition go head-to-head with industrial miners looking to exploit the planet's resources.
Given the rate of consumption of minerals on Earth, there is plenty of reason to believe that there will be demand for such an operation.
"Almost all of the easily mined gold, silver, copper, tin, zinc, antimony, and phosphorus we can mine on Earth may be gone within one hundred years" writes Stephen Petranek, author of How We'll Live on Mars, which Nat Geo's MARS is based on. That grim scenario will require either a massive rethinking of how we consume metals on earth, or supplementation from another source.
Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, told Petranek that even if all of Earth's metals were exhausted, it is unlikely that Martian materials could become an economically feasible supplement due to the high cost of fuel required to return the materials to Earth. "Anything transported with atoms would have to be incredibly valuable on a weight basis."
Actually, we've already done some of this kind of resource extraction. During NASA's Apollo missions to the Moon, astronauts used simple steel tools to collect about 842 pounds of moon rocks over six missions. Due to the high cost of those missions, the Moon rocks are now highly valuable on Earth.
Moon rock on display at US Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, AL (Big Think/Matt Carlstrom)In 1973, NASA valuated moon rocks at $50,800 per gram –– or over $300,000 today when adjusted for inflation. That figure doesn't reflect the value of the natural resources within the rock, but rather the cost of their extraction.
Assuming that Martian mining would be done with the purpose of bringing materials back to Earth, the cost of any materials mined from Mars would need to include both the cost of the extraction and the value of the materials themselves. Factoring in the price of fuel and the difficulties of returning a Martian lander to Earth, this figure may be entirely cost prohibitive.
What seems more likely, says Musk, is for the Martian resources to stay on the Red Planet to be used for construction and manufacturing within manned colonies, or to be used to support further mining missions of the mineral-rich asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
At the very least, mining on Mars has already produced great entertainment value on Earth: tune into Season 2 of MARS on National Geographic Channel.
It's an incredibly exciting time to be alive, especially if you're an explorer. We may have been to almost every point on the globe, but there is so much left to understand.
Scott Parazynski is the only person in history to have both flown to space and summited Mount Everest. He's seen more of this world than most, and some of what lies beyond it—so what is it about adventure that draws people like him in? Parazynski thinks it's innate curiosity that drives us, but that the more we explore the more we gain other reasons to keep going. Humanity has benefitted enormously from pursuing "moon shots"—like the Apollo missions—and NASA's research in particular has pushed our capacity for innovation, resulting in spin-off technologies that create new industries and change people's daily lives (3D printed food, invisible braces, memory foam, scratch resistant lenses, the DustBuster—come on!). Why keep your feet planted on Earth, or your mind planted in the known, when there could be life under the ice-encrusted oceans of Enceladus or Europa, a new home waiting for us on Mars, and technology on the horizon that will connect a surgeon in New York City with a person in danger in rural Nepal? Scott Parazynski is the author of The Sky Below: A True Story of Summits, Space, and Speed.
Astronomers have discovered a new kind of galaxy that raises many questions, and perhaps paves the way for answers about galaxy formation.
Astronomers at the University of Minnesota Duluth and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences have just discovered a galaxy unlike any other in the observed universe. Its name is thoroughly unsexy: PGC 1000714, which is its catalog number, but the new find is a very remarkable and rare one: it's a ring galaxy.
PGC 1000714 is the first observed ring galaxy of its kind. Ring galaxies have an elliptical core surrounded by a ring of stars. As George Dvorsky points out in an article on the new discovery in Gizmodo, ring objects are very rare in and of themselves: fewer than 0.1% of known galaxies are ring galaxies. PGC 1000714 is not only an instance of a very rare type, but it is unique enough among them to warrant its own sub-classification: it has not one but two distinct rings.
Left visual: A color-rendered image of the ring galaxy PGC 1000714. Right visual: a B-I color index map showing the outer ring (in blue) and diffuse inner ring (in light green). Image: Ryan Beauchemin
Astronomers are hopeful that PGC 1000714’s unique features will provide some answers to questions surrounding the how galaxies form. Ring galaxies are particularly mysterious, as astronomers remain unsure of how they form at all. The discoverers’ analysis of the galaxy demonstrates that the core and the two rings formed at separate times. An article from the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences provides an overview of the scientists’ methodology.
While the researchers found a blue and young (0.13 billion years) outer ring, surrounding a red and older (5.5 billion years) central core, they were surprised to uncover evidence for a second inner ring around the central body. To document this second ring, researchers took their images and subtracted out a model of the core. This allowed them to observe and measure the obscured, second inner ring structure.
The core, as is typical of ring galaxies, formed long before and independently of the rings. The article continues:
Galaxy rings are regions where stars have formed from colliding gas. “The different colors of the inner and outer ring suggest that this galaxy has experienced two different formation periods,” [lead author Burcin] Mutlu-Pakdil says. “From these initial single snapshots in time, it’s impossible to know how the rings of this particular galaxy were formed.” The researchers say that by accumulating snapshot views of other galaxies like this one astronomers can begin to understand how unusual galaxies are formed and evolve.
The rings themselves formed independently too.
PGC 1000714 is a new kind of galaxy that tests existing ideas in astronomy. Astrophysicist Patrick Treuthardt, one of the co-authors of the study, noted, “Whenever we find a unique or strange object to study, it challenges our current theories and assumptions about how the universe works.” This discovery raises many interesting and perplexing questions and, hopefully, helps to pave the way to some answers about how galaxies form.
Here's the lead author on the finding, Burcin Mutlu-Pakdil: