Neurotechnology will allow us to decipher thoughts and alter them (Originally in Spanish)

Miguel G. Corral
October 25, 2019

Neurotechnology will allow us to decode thoughts and alter them (Originally in Spanish)

He was barely 14 years old when his father gave him  tonicos de la voluntad or “The Tonics of the Will”, the work in which Santiago Ramón y Cajal proposes rules and advice for young researchers. And Rafael Yuste (Madrid, 1963) was fascinated by that book. He read it and reread it almost obsessively and still retains it in his New York office. «It was an inspiration to me. It came to me when I was looking for something to do with my life, ”says the researcher and father of the great US project to decode the human brain.

He is the son of a pharmacist and a lawyer who knew how to irrigate a talent for science that has led Yuste to be one of the world's most clairvoyant scientists. Perhaps, the Spanish researcher that is the closest to having the key to the door that leads to the future. "That spirit that Cajal had is a flame that I still carry constantly," he says in a conversation during a recent visit to Madrid.

What will the world be like in three decades?

I hope that in 30 years we will understand how the brain works. That we will have reached a general theory that explains how the brain's neural circuits generate the human mind. It will be a historic moment. I don't know when it's going to happen, it may be tomorrow or it may be in 29 years. But it will be a time similar to when they discovered the double helix of DNA. Neurobiology is like a great puzzle, but we need a piece that makes all the others fit together.

What will that piece allow us?

We will understand what a thought is, what memory is, what is imagination is, what perception is, how emotions work ... It will be like a new Renaissance, humans will understand each other for the first time. We are a mental species. Understanding how the mind works is going to be the new humanism, the Renaissance 2.0. We will understand who we are. And this will have repercussions in all social and human spheres, in education, in philosophy, in politics ... and also in medicine.

It is similar to what happened to the field of genetics behind the human genome...

It is very similar. We are trying to decipher the brain code, just as geneticists deciphered the genetic code and were able to read the book of life. We want to do the same with the brain. We have about 80,000 million neurons in our brain, which are being activated and inactivated in a way that we cannot decipher, but in those connections the human mind is written.

And how will the future change?

It will lead to the development of a new technology, neurotechnology, which will allow us to decipher thoughts and alter them. We can change mental activity and behavior. That is essential to help patients with schizophrenia, Alzheimer's ... but it can also lead to the manipulation of brain circuits in healthy people. We enter a new world. We have to know very well what we want and what can be done and what not before we start.

We are entering 'A happy world' ...

This comes straight ahead. Human behavior is generated by the brain and we do not understand it, we cannot change it. But when we understand it we can change the human mind. Doctors can help a mentally ill person. But imagine a company, like Elon Musk's Neuralink, that wants to increase people's cognitive abilities and intelligence. Society must make a reflection now and define what species we want to be and what should be done and what should not be done.

I understand that "now" is not capricious. Do we need to define a neuroethics?

Yes, I am stuck in this up to the neck. Years ago we began to warn of the lack of ethical regulation of new neurotechnologies. I am working with the Republic of Chile to amend the Constitution and protect against these potential abuses. We call them "NeurRights". It is a human rights issue, whose universal declaration has not been touched since 1948 and has to be updated. Chile may be the first country in the world where these NeuroRights are protected in the Constitution.

How far can technology go now?

We can decipher what a person is thinking when watching a video projection. And the big technology companies are already getting into this, last year they already invested 100 million dollars and this year they will invest three times more. What they want is brain data. They already have us signed with what we buy or with what interests us, but imagine if they could have direct access to what we think ... The first of our NeuroRights is mental privacy. We want brain data, NeuroData, to be treated with the same rigor as organ donations. You cannot trade with an organ. And we don't define ourselves by our kidney, but by what we think.

Could you evade regulations, as Chinese scientist He Jiankui did with the first two transgenic girls?

It is technically possible. Science goes ahead of society. But the model is that of the Hippocratic Oath of doctors. At any time, in any political regime and anywhere in the world doctors are there to help you, and nobody thinks that this manipulative power of the human body can be used for another purpose.

How do you convince the president of the United States to invest 6,000 million dollars in a project like yours?

President Obama wanted to leave his mark on history, just as Kennedy made history as the president who sent a man to the Moon. I wanted to do something big, historic... Among other 200 ideas, we sent our request to develop a methodology to decode the activity of all neurons of the brain. And he liked the idea. They called us six times over a year and a half to have us present our ideas at the White House. Obama chose us as his star project ... although we found about this when watching the nation's speech of state on TV.

Didn't they inform you that you had been selected?

No. The White House is like a one-way street, you send them all the information they request, but they never answer. But they carried it impeccably. In all these meetings there was not a single argument that was not suggested to help Humanity.

Did you talk to Obama?

No, always with his team. We saw Obama 20 minutes when he came to make the final presentation.

Are you learning Basque ... Why?

I find it fascinating. Even as a child, when I learned that there is a language that is spoken in Spain that it is not spoken anywhere else in the world, I was fascinated. It is very possible that the missing piece to decipher the human brain is in the grammar of language. It is an intuition, but it is possible that the brain uses a kind of internal mathematics to function.

Do you really believe that the key to deciphering the human brain could be in the rules of languages ​​such as Basque?

I think so, but I have not been able to establish the direct relationship. It is possible that here we have [pointing at his head] a tool capable of computing in a very powerful way. And it is possible that what humans have done with language is to use these rules to formalize communication.

And that is not an algorithm?

Scientists are mathematicians. It may happen to us as like to Molière’s character, the bourgeois gentleman who realizes that throughout his life he has been speaking in prose. Although they don't know it, biologists are mathematicians.