Neurosurgeon Andres Lozano refers to Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) as “adjusting the dials in the circuits in the brain… being able to go anywhere in the brain and turning areas of the brain up or down to help out patients.” You can watch a great TED lecture on DBS by Lozano below.
DBS has achieved some amazing results–for instance in relation to Parkinson’s Disease, chronic pain, and depression–often taming intractable medical problems with life-changing results. (See, for instance, Deep Brain Stimulation for Treatment-Resistant Depression (HTML, PDF).
This blog is concerned with real life, current science that could, even in theory, lead to the development of homo artificialis, which can denote either a biological human whose consciousness has been digitized and instantiated in an artificial body, or an entirely artificial consciousness. DBS could potentially impact on either possibility, but most obviously it relates to the former–natural humans transferred to artificial bodies.
In this respect, there are several things to note about DBS.
First, the possibility of this type of HA ever existing relies upon the notion that the natural human brain is, in effect, a collection of electro-chemical circuits and that it should be possible to mimic these circuits in a synthetic, electronic or electro-chemical device. DBS works specifically by dealing with the natural brain as just such a collection of circuits, and one whose functioning is understandable even if we have only an incomplete understanding of it at present.
Second, the technologies which, in aggregate, allow for the development of HA are likely to arise for other, more immediately compelling reasons than maybe, one day, creating artificial bodies. The profound, potent, practical applications of DBS are an excellent impetus for deepening our understanding of exactly which parts of the brain do what, and how they produce their effects, all of which is essential to the HA enterprise.
And that brings us to the news item that prompts this post, because one other powerful driver of technological innovation is the desire for a more effective military force. Whatever each of us thinks about the larger role played by the world’s various military forces, it is a fact that one role the military has is to drive innovation.
Anyone with a keen interest in cutting edge technology will have heard of the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, which is the research arm of the Pentagon. They’ve ventured into HA territory before, for instance as early internet pioneers and with their cybug research program (the fictional progeny of which were featured in my novella Los Angeles Honey), and now they’re at it again.
DARPA wants to make DBS technology portable and reactive in real-time, as Raw Story reports:
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced its Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies (SUBNETS) initiative this week. Its goal is to discover “the characteristics of distributed neural systems and attempt to develop and apply therapies that incorporate near real-time recording, analysis and stimulation in next-generation devices inspired by current Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS).”
“Deep Brain Stimulation” devices already exists as a therapeutic tool for certain patients who are unresponsive to other therapies. Approximately 100,000 people worldwide currently live with DBS implants, which at this moment are only devices that deliver “electrical stimulation to reduce motor impairment,” but which DARPA believes can also be used to treat depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, Tourette’s, epilepsy, general anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“If SUBNETS is successful, it will advance neuropsychiatry beyond the realm of dialogue-driven observations and resultant trial and error and into the realm of therapy driven by quantifiable characteristics of neural state,” according to Justin Sanchez, DARPA program manager.
“SUBNETS is a push toward innovative, informed and precise neurotechnological therapy to produce major improvements in quality of life for servicemembers and veterans who have very few options with existing therapies,” he said. “These are patients for whom current medical understanding of diseases like chronic pain or fatigue, unmanageable depression or severe post-traumatic stress disorder can’t provide meaningful relief.”
As outlined in the agency’s announcement, this will include devising a means of monitoring soldiers in combat conditions, and applying “deep brain stimulation” in real-time.
What’s the significance of DARPA becoming involved in this precursor technology for HA development? To elaborate on what Justin Sanchez says in the article, it has the potential to give us a much more sophisticated understanding of how neural states relate to consciousness, mood, mobility, and other aspects of mental functioning. That may have already been on the horizon of DBS research, but where DARPA gets involved, research tends to accelerate, so whatever DBS has to offer, we may well get to it that much faster.
That said, not every DARPA project results in magical new technologies. The cybugs were quietly retired, although the program produced some interesting results before that happened. This new initiative will bear watching to see how it plays out.