Last week, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) launched its “BRAIN 2.0”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 atlas in silico, 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 with Stat News, Ngai noted two concrete results of his current neuro-mapping efforts. One is an advanced brain-computer interface — implanted last year at the University of California, San Francisco — 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, relieving depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Ngai’s cyborg obsession is shared by his close government partner, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), where “man-computer symbiosis” has been a longstanding paradigm. The defense agency’s involvement in the BRAIN Initiative is open and well documented. However, beyond the NIH’s declared mission to heal, our top military minds also have a deep interest in human enhancement.
“DARPA has been a pioneer in brain-machine interface technology since the 1970s, but we began investing heavily in the early 2000s,” boasted Justin Sanchez, the director of DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office. “We’ve laid the groundwork for a future in which advanced brain interface technologies will transform how people live and work.”
This transformation involves neural implants, to an extent, but also non-invasive devices, such as wearable neuro-bands or skull caps. “Imagine what will become possible when we upgrade our tools to really open the channel between the human brain and modern electronics,” said DARPA program manager Phillip Alvelda, whose goals include “Bridging the Bio-Electronic Divide” and developing a “High-Resolution, Implantable Neural Interface.”
If successful, the atlas created by BRAIN 2.0 will be a crucial bridge across this “bio-electronic divide.” The neural territory will be mapped and ready to conquer.
‘The Century of Engineered Biology’
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 the National Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Initiative. “We need to develop genetic engineering technologies and techniques,” the executive order reads, “to be able to write circuitry for cells and predictably program biology in the same way in which we write software and program computers.” Another $1 billion will go toward creating the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H), with a full $6.5 billion requested for its “high-risk, high-reward” projects.
Last Wednesday, the new agency’s inaugural director, Renee Wegrzyn, reminded her colleagues that humans now have the ability to alter DNA at will. But because gene-editing technologies such as CRISPR have become so inexpensive and widespread, she warned, the specters of accidental pathogens or intentional bioweapons pose a grave threat to humankind.
“We’re ushering in the century of engineered biology,” Wegrzyn declared with a weird fake-smile, “whether it’s through gene-editing, or it’s through engineering of living medicines that will be in our gut — or in soil to promote fertilization and growth, especially as we face challenges like climate change.”
What else does this “century of engineered biology” hold in store? According to Wegrzyn, a former DARPA program manager, this revolution will lead to “human-machine convergence” and the creation of “Human 2.0.”
“These are things that are somewhere on the horizon,” she told the Long Now Foundation in 2017, “that 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?”