Why you should care

Scientists have already created devices that mimic your memory. Now they want to replicate your mind.

Braaaaiiiinnnns. It’s the zombie national anthem. But these days, the undead aren’t the only ones trying to get inside your head. Now you’ve got to worry about the goddamn robots. Or, more to the point, the scientists who make the goddamn robots. But before you scurry into your bunker and tell all the Dr. Frankensteins of the world to back off, hear us out! It’s a matter of life and … memory.

Researchers from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, recently figured out how to cook up devices with bionic memory. At first, that might sound like just another gadgetry advance, but here’s the thing: They can save information the way our own brains do. It’s sort of like transitioning from the old days when cameras could snap only black-and-white photos to now, where we have “memories in full color with shade, light and texture,” says Hussein Nili, lead brainiac on the RMIT study. In a few years, researchers estimate, the discovery could lead to manufacturing improvements with pint-size, souped-up memory chips. And those new memory cells could become the starting point for building a bionic brain, giving a boost to one of the most coveted areas of robo-research: artificial intelligence.

But the race to replicate the human mind is a global one that’s still revving up — and it’s anyone’s to win. The Australian Academy of Science’s High Flyers think tank has already requested millions of dollars to conduct bionic brain research, while the Europe-based Human Brain Project is investing more than $1.8 billion over the next decade in a bid to better understand the old noggin. Meanwhile, scientists in the U.S. have launched the decade-long, $3 billion BRAIN initiative to map all 100 billion neurons typically tucked inside a cranium.

These steps could help lead to developing machine psyches.

Creating a bionic model remains the holy grail, though. With one in hand, scientists could finally do away with the ethical quandaries over animal testing. After all, mice or pigs are often used in brain studies, and if they’re not diseased, “the researchers have to introduce the disease into them,” says RMIT project leader Sharath Sriram. And studying humanlike minds could also accelerate drug testing and speed up research into severe mental conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, experts say.

Some of this may sound eerily familiar, and that’s because — for years — bionic parts have been often portrayed as a sort of bogeyman in pop culture. There was that bionic hand (and eye) in The Terminator, and, decades before he wrote about flesh-eating dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, the Harvard-trained biologist and author Michael Crichton warned of the bionic brain’s existential threat to humanity in his thriller The Terminal Man. (Think of a mind-mimicking microchip rather than a brain floating in a vat.)

Now, some of that seemingly sci-fi fluff is becoming nonfiction. After creating a bionic ear decades ago, scientists in the land Down Under now plan to get a working bionic eye into human trials next year. Meanwhile, the first mechanical mind is expected to be seen in many of our lifetimes — in “decades, rather than centuries,” says Steve Furber, a professor of computer engineering at the University of Manchester in England. He says scientists are close to replicating the way humans store long-term memory in chips, which could eventually be mass-produced for much less than it would cost today. These steps could help lead to developing machine psyches.

Sure, some of this technology is still in its infantile stages. In May, American researchers at UC Santa Barbara and Stony Brook University became the first to teach machines how to recognize specific letters in an image — meaning, basically, robots had just graduated kindergarten. Under Furber’s direction, British engineers are now building a machine capable of simulating the activity of 1 billion neurons.

That’s an impressive-sounding feat, until you realize it represents only 1 percent of the human brain’s total computing power. So don’t expect a human trial anytime soon. “It’s a problem that keeps turning out to be harder than we thought,” Furber says. And some aren’t convinced bionic brains are ultimately the way forward. All they do right now, says Colin Masters, executive director of Melbourne’s Mental Health Research Institute, is try to help with sensory deficits such as hearing loss or blindness.

Then there’s the “what if” issue. In the film I, Robot, Will Smith famously fought off his suddenly sentient android counterparts — but how would humanity fare in a similar scenario? After all, computers with artificial intelligence would certainly be stronger and smarter than the best mankind has to offer. Which is the kind of doomsday scenario Oxford University’s Nick Bostrom outlines in Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, his recent best-selling book. In essence, he’s told the IBTimes UK, we would “want the solution to the safety problem before somebody figures out the solution to the AI problem.”

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