Rafael Yuste, Professor of Biological Sciences and Neuroscience at Columbia University, presented in January at Chile’s Congreso Futuro, a yearly event that brings together over 80 world-leading experts to present to the public, looking to diffuse science and technology among society.
The professor expounded in capital Santiago, as well as at “Encuentros ConCiencia” (Encounters with Science) at Universidad Austral’s School of Science in the southern city of Valdivia.
Yuste is an expert on the structure and function of cortical circuits, the biophysical properties of dendritic spines and the pathophysiology of epilepsy. He is working to decipher and be able to manipulate human thought. To do so, Yuste, along with the top neuroscientists grouped under the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative, focus on mapping all 100 billion neurons of the human brain to gain greater understanding of neural dynamics and function.
Two years ago the team was able to map out the activity of a small, fresh-water organism called a hydra, and they are currently working on doing the same on worms, flies and zebrafish embryo, which has some 200,000 neurons. He estimates that decoding human neuronal activity will be possible in 15-20 years.
With neurotechnology capable of putting together what he calls a “dictionary of mental patterns” and being able to access human thoughts, emotions, feelings and memories, this could be used to help prevent suicide, cure mental illness and treat neurodegenerative disease such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's. Further, technology will be able to interface with the brain, increasing humans’ brain capacity and allowing people to upload and download information directly from the brain.
In an interview with Chilean magazine Sábado, Yuste insists he is very positive about artificial intelligence. “I would compare it with fire, the wheel, the printing machine, the steam engine or computers. With a brain-computer interface, we will be more intelligent and effective… we will be a more developed species, but I don’t think we will stop being humans,” he said. “It will become essential in our lives, just as now when we don’t know what to do when the mobile phone is not around.”
At the same time, this technology poses significant ethical challenges as people’s thoughts could be manipulated if it is incorrectly used for economic, political or military purposes, he noted, adding that there are large corporations such as Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Apple, as well as countries such as the US and China, that are heavily investing in the technology. For this same reason Yuste finds it urgent to regulate what he calls “neuro rights.”
“Technology is neutral and can be used for good and for bad. Fire could warm you up in a cave in the Paleolithic era and survive glaciation – or you could use it to burn the neighbor’s cave. This is the same, and I hope that these technologies make us a freer species, with more resources and more effectiveness when it comes to work,” he said. “The economy and society will be revolutionized, which is why we need to ensure that the negative aspects be controlled.”
In this light, Yuste has been working for the past year with the Chilean government to present a constitutional reform that establishes neuro-rights as a new human right. If put into law, it would make Chile the first country worldwide that regulates and protects data that could be extracted from the human brain, in order for the data to be used for altruistic purposes only.
Use this link to read Yuste’s reflections on the origins of the BRAIN initiative.