Last week, the National Institutes of HealthÂ (NIH) launchedÂ its â€œBRAIN 2.0â€initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnology), ramping up an existing program started eight years ago. Comparable to the Human Genome Project in scope and scale, BRAIN 2.0 grants $600 million to fully map our 86 billion neurons and their uncounted connections. The project is expected to reach a grand total cost of $5 billion by 2026.
In theory, once scientists have created this detailed brain atlasÂ in silico,Â they can directly alter neural function using digital devices. The director of the BRAIN Initiative, John Ngai, exhibits a troubling fixation on this method.
In a recent interview withÂ Stat News, Ngai noted two concrete results of his current neuro-mapping efforts. One is an advanced brain-computer interface â€” implanted last yearÂ at the University of California, San Francisco â€” that allows for astounding thought-to-text communication. The other is a major breakthrough in deep brain stimulation at Baylor University, where electrodes are implanted to alter mood and behavior, relievingÂ depressionÂ andÂ obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Ngaiâ€™s cyborg obsession is shared by his close government partner, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), where â€œman-computer symbiosisâ€ has been a longstanding paradigm. The defense agencyâ€™s involvement in the BRAIN Initiative isÂ open and well documented. However, beyond the NIHâ€™s declared mission to heal, our top military minds also have a deep interest in human enhancement.
â€œDARPA has been a pioneer in brain-machine interface technology since the 1970s, but we began investing heavily in the early 2000s,â€Â boastedÂ Justin Sanchez, the director of DARPAâ€™s Biological Technologies Office. â€œWeâ€™ve laid the groundwork for a future in which advanced brain interface technologies will transform how people live and work.â€
This transformation involves neural implants, to an extent, but also non-invasive devices, such as wearable neuro-bands or skull caps.Â â€œImagine what will become possible when we upgrade our tools to really open the channel between the human brain and modern electronics,â€Â saidÂ DARPA program manager Phillip Alvelda, whose goals include â€œBridging the Bio-Electronic Divideâ€ and developing a â€œHigh-Resolution, Implantable Neural Interface.â€
If successful, the atlas created by BRAIN 2.0 will be a crucial bridge across this â€œbio-electronic divide.â€ The neural territory will be mapped and ready to conquer.
â€˜The Century of Engineered Biologyâ€™
This mad quest to alter basic biology extends all the way down to the genome. Two weeks ago, the White House announced that $2 billion will go to reshaping life as we know it by way of theÂ National Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Initiative. â€œWe need to develop genetic engineering technologies and techniques,â€ the executive order reads, â€œto be able to write circuitry for cells and predictably program biology in the same way in which we write software and program computers.â€ Another $1 billion will go toward creating theÂ Advanced Research Projects Agency for HealthÂ (ARPA-H), with a full $6.5 billion requested for its â€œhigh-risk, high-rewardâ€ projects.
Last Wednesday, the new agencyâ€™s inaugural director, Renee Wegrzyn,Â remindedÂ her colleagues that humans now have the ability to alter DNA at will. But because gene-editing technologies such asÂ CRISPRÂ have become so inexpensive and widespread, she warned, the specters of accidental pathogens or intentional bioweapons pose a grave threat to humankind.
â€œWeâ€™re ushering in the century of engineered biology,â€ Wegrzyn declared with a weird fake-smile, â€œwhether itâ€™s through gene-editing, or itâ€™s through engineering of living medicines that will be in our gut â€” or in soil to promote fertilization and growth, especially as we face challenges like climate change.â€
What else does this â€œcentury of engineered biologyâ€ hold in store? According to Wegrzyn, a former DARPA program manager, this revolution will lead toÂ â€œhuman-machine convergenceâ€ and the creation of â€œHuman 2.0.â€
â€œThese are things that are somewhere on the horizon,â€ sheÂ toldÂ the Long Now Foundation in 2017, â€œthat genome engineering and gene-editing will be a part of. So how do we make sure we can pursue this future in a safe manner?â€