Assessing Risks to the Human Brain Project


With a grand multidisciplinary project comes the need for a multi-faceted approach to risk. The Human Brain Project brings together brilliant minds and techniques, but also opens the door for new mutations of anti-technology risk. The unique needs of the Human Brain Project (along with links to other brain studies, including the BRAIN Initiative in the United States) demand concrete measures to defend this essential research from ever-evolving threats. Two main targets of the anti-technology movement pose a menace to the Human Brain Project: first, the project itself, what it represents and its implications. Second, the actors involved in the project.

The Human Brain Project

The Human Brain Project (with its five subprojectsi) was chosen as a European flagship research project in 2013. Its organizers state two main goals: building ICT-based research platforms (computer technology with unified communications) and, secondly, using these platforms. It aims to simulate the human brain in order to learn from it and apply that knowledge to multiple disciplines. Part of the project’s objective is to use knowledge from the human brain to construct high-performance computers. These same machines, based on technology from the project, will in turn improve the future efficiency of brain research. The project essentially depends on itself for innovative models of understanding. The plasticity, interconnectivity and learning-based structure of the human brain, once better understood, will provide exponentially interesting opportunities for information technology. Other essential goals associated with the project include a greater understanding of mental illness and applications for robotics.

Risk 1: Objection to brain simulation

A) General Anti-Technology Discourse

Neo-Luddites come in many stripes, but the internet and related technologies are empowering and organizing disparate groups at an increasing rate. The first group of anti-brain research technology will be opposed to the very project itself. Questions of transhumanism and technological singularity, even within the scientific community, are leading to abundant pop culture and (anti)science fiction references; with these come increased networking and paradoxical nostalgia for simpler times. A marked backlash to scientific progress has created a desire in rich societies to turn back the clock. The ironic use of relatively recent communication technologies to generate nostalgia for the past creates exposure to and support for anti-technology ideas. The radicalization of these ideas represents the first anti-technology threat mainly because of the sheer number of people and resources available for this cause and its damaging potential. The Human Brain Project represents a culmination of research and progress that could be generalized into a target of anti-technology ideas.

B) Religious Radicalization

Concurrently, while not unique to the Human Brain Project, religious extremism will pose an important threat to its scientific progress. In the specific context of brain research, there are some key notions that risk activating faith-inspired terrorism. In the three religions that make up the majority of Europeans (Christianity, Islam and Judaism), there is a common thread of the apocalypse. These stories have different specifics, but they all portend an end-of-days scenario that involves a struggle between humanity and something (possibly man-made) that resembles a humaniv.

Interpretations vary widely, but the possibility of attributing antichrist characteristics to brain research innovations is foreseeable. Important for the Human Brain Project is the ability to understand the motivation for the religious extremist threat and take precautionary steps. As we’ve done for millennia, we can accommodate scientific discovery and allow major world religions to coexist.

The issue of blasphemy in relation to religion must be taken seriously in the context of brain research. In just the last few years we have seen protest movements, death threats, state-sanctioned corporal punishment and murder as responses to perceived blasphemous behavior, even in Europe. While many of the great scientific research bodies were founded by the church, science has seen its share of blasphemous accusations throughout the centuries and modern brain research portends more of the same. Recent neural imaging studies seek to locate a “god spot” in the brain or show pathways during religious experiences, but their conclusions thus far have led to interpreting religion as an evolutionary adaptation rather than higher truth. Further brain structure and function research has the potential to refute the concept of religion entirely in some circles. Related brain studies that point to group intelligence and lack of free will challenge notions of religious morality. With synthetic human brain models also come the notion of “man as creator”, defying the creation narrative of major religions. Several of these concepts could lead to accusations of blasphemy.

Risk 2: Objection to the research body

In addition to disapproval of the project itself comes the criticism of those who are involved. The origin of funding (The European Commission) and the identity of partner institutions (mainly Western research institutions) make room for another category of risk in regard to the Human Brain Project: the ant-capitalist, anti-globalization risk. As the European Union has become more diverse, it has come to symbolize some of the same resented Western interests as the United States and globalization. The intelligent choices of the European Commission to support the Human Brain Project and Graphene as flagship research projects represent their compliance with, and allegiance to, unprecedented international partnerships. With shared data, shared methods and shared results comes a science economy that retractors could not previously imagine. Conspiracy theorists have access to ever-increasing amounts of data to manipulate for their causes, enabling organizers to pinpoint specific technologies while targeting individuals who have general interest in resisting Big Science projects and what they feel these projects represent. Several conspiracies surrounding brain models are rooted in fears of the American Military-Industrial Complex and its tacit promise of eugenics and enforced inequality.

The dangerous reality of the interconnectivity of the Human Brain Project’s goals and equipment to attain them leads to an unprecedented double-edged sword. Cyberterrorism acts that target actors who conduct brain research (institutions, governments or individuals) will result in infrastructure hacking and multifaceted cyberattacks. Tragically, the project relies on information technology, and is in itself mostly computational, meaning that attacks on the infrastructure or institutions are inevitably attacks to the actual Human Brain Project’s creations as a whole.

Investigating Solutions

Addressing the risks of such a widespread and nonspecific threat requires careful calibration of the communications model of the Human Brain Project. It also demands vigilance and analysis by someone who appreciates the importance of the project. Communications Professor Gabriel Weimann, of the University of Haifa, has done extensive research in mass media and modern terrorism. A better perspective could be gleaned from theology departments, through interviews with religious scholars on interpretations of religious texts that reference concepts that could be widely interpreted to coincide with the Human Brain Project. In addition, the communications coming from the project should continually inform the public about optimistic applications of the research and apply historical examples of overcoming technology resistance.

Preparing for risk also means understanding its roots. In the case of the Human Brain Project, it is essential to isolate the specific concepts that evoke fear, unease and immorality. When we speak of brain simulation, notions of anthropomorphism emerge. Using these ideas in positive ways, using appropriate vocabulary and highlighting meaningful areas of research will be keys to allaying anxiety. Often simple adjustments create better acceptance, especially in the AI field. The concept of the “Uncanny Valley” should apply not just to the appearance of artificial intelligence, but to other perceptions like conversation and function as well. Additionally, aspects of the project that pertain to universal social improvement should be highlighted, since there is a tendency to associate Big Science projects with primarily military applications. These could include advances in brain disease treatment and prevention, voice recognition technologies and translation, vision simulation for the blind, etc.

A strong research network that is able to communicate efficiently is essential. The Human Brain Project is still seeking partnerships for the upcoming ten-year program and a preliminary analysis suggests a need for more Eastern institutions as partners, especially from Japan where robotics are more ingrained in modern culture. It also needs to seek out communication alliances with faith organizations. By increasing understanding of the project in religious terms, the Human Brain Project has the opportunity to succeed without being dominated by fundamentalist fears.