Will Neuroscience Have A “Manhattan Project”?

By Neuroskeptic | March 4, 2013 3:42 pm

I’ve been reading a biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the ‘father of the atomic bomb’. Oppenheimer was famously the scientific head of the Los Alamos laboratory, who as part of the Manhattan Project, invented and built the first atomic bombs, thus transforming the science of physics, as well as the world.

I wonder - will neuroscience ever have its own Manhattan Project?

What I mean by this is, will advances in neuroscience ever reach the point that further advances, in certain directions, would become a matter of national security? Would a government ever feel the need to nationalize certain kinds of neuroscience research – giving researchers resources while taking away their freedom to work independently?

Obama’s plan to Map The Human Brain has been called a neuro-Manhattan Project, but that’s hyperbole. The President is going to give neuroscientists money, but he’s not commissioning them to work for the US government and the results of the research will be made available to scientists everywhere. The real Manhattan Project was top secret.

So will neuroscience ever threaten to become as useful, or as dangerous, as nuclear physics has? Here’s two scenarios where I can see this happening:

If it ever becomes possible to put someone into a brain scanner and, without their consent, work out what they’re thinking – to read minds, not just in a lab setting but in a really useful way – that would revolutionize intelligence, espionage and policing, perhaps as deeply as the atomic bomb revolutionized warfare. Such a technology would be of great interest to governments.

Likewise, were it to become possible to directly manipulate someone’s opinions, memories, or attitudes in such a way that the subject was subsequently unaware of this having happened (i.e. Inception or the Manchurian Candidate) – this would also be a matter of national security.

Such things are impossible today. They might never be achievable, but they’re not so far-fetched as to be unthinkable. Already we have made small steps along the way. I’d wager it will be decades at least before these technologies could be ‘useful’ but if ever it looks like it’s about to happen, could neuroscientists find themselves conscripted in the same way physicists were 70 years ago?

  • http://twitter.com/Neowolf2 Neowolf

    What if neuroscience enabled the production of much “smarter” drones and other autonomous weapons?

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      That would also be very important although I think it would be more of a computer science / engineering achievement than a neuroscience one… but who knows?

  • Semigrounded

    Governments have used neuroscientists to develop espionage techniques for years, usually in secret.

    The thing about the Manhattan project is that it had a single, well defined goal, one that seemed absolutely pressing. That’s what motivates collectives. You know where you’re trying to get, and you know the consequences of not getting there. The current field of neuroscience is kind of the inverse of that. The grander the project, the more aimless it feels. I don’t think national security will ever hinge on neuroscientific achievement. At least, not in a large enough way that would require conscription. It’d be nice if the community itself could find a way to consolidate it’s disparate efforts, I suppose that’s what the human brain project is aiming to do. I’m not quite sure how, though.

  • DS

    “Likewise, were it to become possible to directly manipulate someone’s opinions, memories, or attitudes in such a way that the subject was subsequently unaware of this having happened …”

    In the states we call that Fox News.

    • BobTheKnob

      Scopolamine

    • Buddy199

      Not MSDNC, of course. Go troll on HuffPo or Kos.

      • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

        Hey – this is my blog, and I decide where people get to troll. DS, continue to troll here.

        • Buddy199

          Yes, DS got any new insights on Sarah Palin or Dick Cheney to share?

  • Annonymous

    “I’m as interested in the findings of the modern bench neuroscientists as
    the next guy. They are on a roll, at the threshold of many things to
    come in the distant future. But in clinical psychiatry, this is hardly
    the time for wild speculations or desperate claims of breakthroughs just
    around the corner. This is an age where former irrational exuberance
    and broken promises hang thickly in the air – a time when the
    unimaginable corruption of the not so distant past is becoming
    increasingly clear with every passing day.”
    http://1boringoldman.com/index.php/2013/03/05/some-time-back/

    To me the question is:

    The potential increase in available money with the sexier “Manhattan Project” kind of billing

    VS

    The way research gets warped by the sexier “Manhattan Project” kind of mindset

    Manhattan Project: build a nuclear bomb

    Moon Shot: land someone on the moon

    But, how about:

    The 60′s/70′s “War” on Cancer

    or

    The “Decade” of the Brain

    We need greater coordination in the work on the brain. But, the TRANSLATIONAL WARP that arises out of how to justify the funding, using a Manhattan Project or Moonshot Mindset, is a huge problem.

    This is inviting the opportunists and PT Barnums to again pitch their tents.

    And, potentially sets things back in the long run.

    When did the decade of the brain end again?

    For study of the brain over the coming 50 years do we want more of a focus on big science, basic science style, or big science translational style?

    What do we think will serve humankind better in 2063?

  • http://twitter.com/PonerologyNews PonerologyNews

    “If it ever becomes possible to put someone into a brain scanner and, without their consent, work out what they’re thinking – to read minds, not just in a lab setting but in a really useful way – that would revolutionize intelligence, espionage and policing, perhaps as deeply as the atomic bomb revolutionized warfare. Such a technology would be of great interest to governments.”

    Yes, but it might also be of interest to the public in regards to the people being put in office.

  • http://www.facebook.com/budgie.mitchell Budgie Mitchell

    I got a link to this site via “neuro fiction” on blog.ted.com . I have to ask you, as you are a neuro-scientist, how do you feel regarding the study of the object that makes you “you”.

    Are you depressed that the 3lb of matter between your skull is “you” and everything you have ever been (see New Scientist’s article on “self”, I’d like your thoughts on that), that we are meat computers…. ?

    or do you not believe we are meat computers, and if so why not?

    Finally (sorry to keep on) are thoughts initiated by random neurons, or are thoughts always started from the same neuron(s)? In other words, could thoughts be predicted, as in the Matrix movies. I hope not…

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Hi Budgie. Well, it doesn’t bother me, because we are what we are. If we are meat computers, then we always have been, and we always will be – so it doesn’t change anything. We’ve still got to get on with life.

      Could thoughts be predicted? Depends. Probably, although it would depend how the brain is organized (as you say – depends which neurons are involved.)

      But I think thoughts must be predictable because otherwise, all of our thoughts would be completely random and we couldn’t think at all. For example if I’m hungry and I see an apple, I would probably think “I want to eat that apple”. Now, it must be possible to predict that. If it were totally impossible, I would never want to eat apples.

      • http://www.facebook.com/budgie.mitchell Budgie Mitchell

        Hmm, true, when you see an apple you may think “I want to eat that apple” but that’s just you :) Others may think “I don’t like apples”, and others might not even acknowledge the apple’s existence as such. What if you’re allergic to them? So predicting whether the subject wants to eat an apple can’t have a one-size-fits-all approach, if you see what I mean.

        I would like/hope to think my brain is random in thought origination. By this I mean that the neurons that instigate a thought are random and cannot be predicted, that each time I thought about something I am thinking differently about it, even if I come to the same conclusion twice.

        Maybe my brain is subconsciously considering and discarding alternate options or adding more to the mix every iteration because of the different synapse paths taken each time?

        If you could “tracert” neurons repeatedly & predictably the same way you can IPs, I think I’d feel quite sad :)

  • DS

    The comparison of this proposed initiative to the Manhattan Project is a big stretch.

    The Manhattan Project’s goals were achievable according to well developed principles and therefore the expense of its undertaking was justified (at least from a feasibility perspective). In contrast we presently have no well developed in principle method of measuring brain “activity” on a time scale and a spatial scale that could justify such expense.

  • awshucks

    If it were possible to “harvest” babies, i.e, select their genetic traits, their level of intelligence, etc… “perfect” people would be more susceptible to kidnappings.

  • areanimator

    There’s a book by Jonathan D. Moreno called “Mind Wars” that deals with these issues and the history of neuroscience’s involvement in national defense. I recommend it highly.

    He also blogs on http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/mind-wars

  • Pingback: Friday Bites – 22/03/2013 | PsyBites

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Neuroskeptic

No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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