Rafael Yuste: "In a few decades we will be able to read the human mind" (Originally in Spanish)

By
Miguel G. Corral
July 07, 2018

Google Translation to English 

The human being is a mental animal, the only mental animal. And the mind is in the brain. Everything we are, the essence of the individual, what we think, what defines us as people, everything is in the brain . That is why drawing the map of the mysteries of the functioning of this organ is not the same for medicine and ethics as knowing how to manipulate a kidney or a heart. Rafael Yuste (Madrid, 1963) knows it. The building where he works at Columbia University, in New York, is next to the one that saw the Manhattan project born. "What stimulates me the most is not that my physics colleagues made the atomic bomb, but that they were the ones who initiated the regulation of atomic energy," he says.

The human being is a mental animal, the only mental animal. And the mind is in the brain. Everything we are, the essence of the individual, what we think, what defines us as people, everything is in the brain . That is why drawing the map of the mysteries of the functioning of this organ is not the same for medicine and ethics as knowing how to manipulate a kidney or a heart. Rafael Yuste (Madrid, 1963) knows it. The building where he works at Columbia University, in New York, is next to the one that saw the Manhattan project born. "What stimulates me the most is not that my physics colleagues made the atomic bomb, but that they were the ones who initiated the regulation of atomic energy," he says.

But Yuste is not only the father of the idea that convinced Barack Obama to invest $ 6 billion in the Brain project to unveil the secrets of the human brain, he is also the first to announce what is just around the corner : a new scientific atomic bomb with enough power to manipulate thoughts, direct feelings, adulterate memories or falsify emotions . He dedicates almost the same passion to delimiting ethical boundaries, than to investigate technologies that will allow him to walk the controversial paths of brain manipulation.

 

Precisely this Thursday, during a conference at the Madrid headquarters of the BBVA bank in the framework of a full day dedicated to values ​​- Values ​​Day -, Yuste presented a photograph of a wall of the Museum of Historical Memory of Santiago de Chile in the which are written over several tens of meters, one by one, the list of Human Rights. "The Declaration of Human Rights is from another time. And, looking to the future, neuro-rights should be included in that Declaration of Human Rights, " he claims.

The human being is a mental animal, the only mental animal. And the mind is in the brain. Everything we are, the essence of the individual, what we think, what defines us as people, everything is in the brain . That is why drawing the map of the mysteries of the functioning of this organ is not the same for medicine and ethics as knowing how to manipulate a kidney or a heart. Rafael Yuste (Madrid, 1963) knows it. The building where he works at Columbia University, in New York, is next to the one that saw the Manhattan project born. "What stimulates me the most is not that my physics colleagues made the atomic bomb, but that they were the ones who initiated the regulation of atomic energy," he says.

But Yuste is not only the father of the idea that convinced Barack Obama to invest $ 6 billion in the Brain project to unveil the secrets of the human brain, he is also the first to announce what is just around the corner : a new scientific atomic bomb with enough power to manipulate thoughts, direct feelings, adulterate memories or falsify emotions . He dedicates almost the same passion to delimiting ethical boundaries, than to investigate technologies that will allow him to walk the controversial paths of brain manipulation.

Precisely this Thursday, during a conference at the Madrid headquarters of the BBVA bank in the framework of a full day dedicated to values ​​- Values ​​Day -, Yuste presented a photograph of a wall of the Museum of Historical Memory of Santiago de Chile in the which are written over several tens of meters, one by one, the list of Human Rights. "The Declaration of Human Rights is from another time. And, looking to the future, neuro-rights should be included in that Declaration of Human Rights, " he claims.

 

What is the Brain project?
It is to develop the techniques, which do not exist now, to record the complete activity of the brain and to be able to manipulate it precisely. It is a technical development project. A first step to be able to address the big problem of knowing how the brain works.
 
What can be done with it in a few decades?
It's very simple. The brain generates the mind. If we understand the brain, we understand the mind. If we can read the activity of the brain, we can read the mind. Imagine that we can read the mind and we can manipulate the activity of the brain, then we can manipulate the mind. This is a rule of three, it is a drawer. Sooner or later we can manipulate people's minds.
 
Isn't it scary?
But you can also think it from the positive point of view. For a mentally ill person or with a neurological disease, we can fix the problem. If we can detect the problem in the neural circuits, see it, get in there and adjust the screws, we can still solve the problem. That will be possible. And that is why we have the obligation and responsibility to channel the development of these techniques so that they are used for the benefit of Humanity, and not to abuse people.
 
Should we draw ethical boundaries?
A person in my situation, who sees what is coming, has the responsibility to get up and say: gentlemen, we have to do something and if we do not it will bring us social problems. These techniques will have enough power to read or interfere with the human mind. You have to use them only for the benefit of people.
 
And have they already found the way?
We have copied the medicine model. How he has managed to channel the development of the knowledge of the human body and the techniques to manipulate the human body and use them only for the benefit of patients, the famous Hippocratic oath: do not harm.
 
Well, there were shadows with the Nazi experiments.
But they are the exception that confirms the rule. What impresses me is that these ethical rules have been respected in all cultures, in the last 2,000 years, regardless of political systems and are adopted as their own by the entire population of Humanity. People go to the doctor knowing that they will help them, not thinking that they will take advantage of them. Why can't we have something similar in neurotechnology or artificial intelligence (AI)?
 
Just this field tries to imitate the brain, but you say we don't know how it works. What is AI imitating?
I sometimes laugh when we talk about artificial intelligence, if we don't know what natural intelligence is! It is like a metaphor for a metaphor. When we talk about intelligence ... what is that? There is a cloud of smoke. More than artificial intelligence I would talk about optimization algorithms, which some are based on the models of neural circuits of the 60s. They are imitating something that we have already ruled out in neuroscience. And, despite everything, it has been working very well for them. The logical thing is that the more we learn about the brain, the better the machine learning algorithms will work, because they will be much more effective.
 
For example?
There is a problem that nature has solved very well which is the energy expenditure of computing. Brains spend very little energy. And they compute very complex things. Supercomputers can compute these problems, but they need a power plant to stay active.
 
There are those who compare the human brain with a large computer ...
The brain is a biological Turing machine. It takes 600 million years preparing biological algorithms. And they may be much more complex than the most complex computer processes. “They are the impenetrable jungles where many researchers have been lost,” said Ramón y Cajal .. and referred to himself.
 
Cajal was the first to describe a neuron. But you don't want to see a single pixel on the screen, you want to see the whole movie.
That's. In five years we will be able to read the activity of 50,000 neurons at a time, that means being able to register the entire brain of some invertebrates; In 10 years we can do the same with about one million neurons, that is, the size of the entire brain of the smallest mammal in the world, that of the Etruscan shrew. And in 15 years we can read large pieces of human brains involved in diseases such as schizophrenia. Then, we will learn to manipulate those human brains to bridge the failures caused by schizoid visions to fix this type of mental illness.
 
And can one day improve the intelligence of a human brain?
Honestly, I don't know what intelligence is. But, I'm sure we can change the functioning of the human brain. And we are already doing it with animals. In an external way we are changing the behavior patterns of animals based on stimulating certain neurons at certain times. We are doing this with mice today in my laboratory. The human being is another mammal, so if it can be done on a mouse today, it sure can be done with a human in the future.
 
And how far can you go?
Let's say that we are opening the doors for the first time in history towards a technology that will allow people to change their free will. Just as there are proofreaders on our mobile phones that finish the words we write, we can decide where a human thought is going, finish an idea, modifying brain activity without invasive techniques, perhaps with a helmet or a net located above our head .
 
You work in the building next to where the Manhattan project was created. Making a parallel with the Brain project, who would you be, Von Newman, Bohr, Oppenheimer ..?
What stimulates me the most is not that my physics colleagues made the atomic bomb, but that they were the ones who initiated the regulation of atomic energy. That's where they gave their human courage, not only invented a new world, but they warned people that they had to control it. It is the lesson that I take. And every time I go to work and step ahead of that building it is impossible not to realize that we can do something that can help humanity, but that can also be used to abuse these technologies.
 
When he had the initial idea, his colleagues threw himself around his neck. What if the goal is not achieved?
The proposal we made to President Obama was to be able to record the activity of each and every neuron of a nervous system in animals. President Obama expanded the project and included humans. I do not believe that we will be able to record all the activity of all neurons in the human brain in 15 years. But we will record the complete activity of an animal's brain. And this we have already done in Hydra vulgaris [a jellyfish-like cnidary]. For me, this is the goal.
 
And don't you fear criticism from colleagues if you can't do it in humans?
In that it has helped me to be Spanish, because we don't know we have the Spaniards. To the colleagues who were shrinking with the criticisms I said: 'Guys, this is nothing, in my country, people run in front of the bulls. They throw you poisoned darts in a conference, that slips us. '
 
Brain distributes money from the US taxpayer to hundreds of laboratories around the world. Isn't it strange that a president as protectionist as Trump allows this?
Maybe this was good for me being from another country. I was at the first meeting where the money was distributed, and a request came from Switzerland that had been scientifically qualified as very valid. An administrator said: 'Gentlemen, this is American taxpayer money, why are we going to give money to the Swiss?' I told him that Brain is a project designed not for the US, but for all of Humanity. And now 20% of the Brain project laboratories are abroad, in Europe, in Australia, in Israel ... The United States is much more than its president. The money tap does not have the president, as in Europe, but the Congress. Whatever Trump says, they keep giving money. They are so excited that in the last budget of the Brain project the Senate gave more money than had been requested.
 
Is there another culture, another interest in science?
In Columbia, all students spend a course and a half reading the classics to learn to think and are required to take an introductory course in science where we teach them the great moments of science in history: particle physics, quantum, biology, chemistry ... And they have to study this regardless of whether they are going to study Medicine or Art History.
 
A professor of History of Science of a Madrid university says that most students in the fourth year of Biology are not able to name three great Spanish scientists ...
I am sad to hear this, because it reflects the traditional carelessness of Spanish society for science, which is something totally unfair and must be corrected. We cannot be a top country if we don't have a top science. Science is the engine of progress and of Humanity. It is not healthy to have a leading society if you do not have a leading science. We are in the market of signings in the world of football and Rafael Yuste has exported his impetuous passion for Real Madrid to New York ...