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'Bio-computationally accurate' simian-simulant sought

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Famed military maverick madscience outfit DARPA has launched a new bid to keep America's tech edge sufficiently sanguinary. This time the killer boffins want nothing less than an accurate computer simulation of a living humanoid brain - which they may use for purposes benign or sinister.

The new push is called Reorganization and Plasticity to Accelerate Injury Recovery (REPAIR), and DARPA says it's all about "understanding how neural-based sensory stimulation could be applied to accelerate recovery from brain injury".

There's more detail in this Word document. What DARPA want is this:

Creation of an in silico [in a computer, that is, not a bubbling jar with an actual brain in it] bio-computationally accurate model based on collection of multi-region, multi-scale neural activity in a non-human primate performing a complex dexterous task... constructed in such a manner as to allow for analysis of performance metrics, such as, time to target or targets, assessment of accuracy, control of simultaneous degrees of freedom, and learning time for task acquisition...

It is expected that the bio computational model employ appropriately sophisticated mathematical analysis to capture the complexity of parallel processing, inter-neural activity, and plastic adaptation within the brain.

Building this bio-computationally accurate brain is expected to involve contruction of "an experimental system to collect neural activity in a non-human primate". This monkey- or gorilla-scanning brainscope hat is supposed to use "multiple methodologies", so perhaps there is some scope here for brains in bubbling jars after all.

After the experimental brain probe has mapped the monkey brain and duplicated it in silicon (essentially creating a computer that thinks it's a living monkey - !), DARPAs want to move on. At that point, things start to get interesting:

Stimulation of non-human primates in order to evoke a biomimetic response

Investigators should be able to demonstrate the ability to stimulate relevant regions of the brain in such a manner that will evoke a response in the primate similar to that evoked through natural interaction with their surrounding environment... Ideally, investigators will be able to demonstrate ability of a non-human-primate to complete the task outlined in technical area one without the use of traditional sensory inputs.

In other words, DARPA would like to develop a way of plugging into the channels between the brain and the senses - potentially dropping a living mind into an artificial simulated world, where it can carry out actions and tasks. The Pentagon scientists offer another hint that this isn't just about healing brain injuries:

Major advances in neuroscience over the past decade have led to a number of theories and applications for the control of systems, biological or mechanical, through neural signals. While many of these applications access anatomically relevant regions for appropriate signals, few of them address the brain as a distributed computational network made up of systems that act in parallel.

It would seem, then, that what DARPA want is to find out ways of manipulating the brain as though it were a computer. You could, of course, use such knowledge benevolently, to repair injuries or illnesses.

But you could also use it for other things, such as placing the consciousness hosted by the said brain into simulations - perhaps entire simulated worlds and situations - which it would believe were real. You could use such technology as a direct brain-to-machinery interface, allowing mind control of computers, weapons, vehicles or whatever. You might even, if you could really master the brain in computing terms, learn to reprogram it.

All this is not even to mention that in creating the computer model of a primate brain, you would seem likely to create something quite close to a genuine machine intelligence - albeit one probably focused primarily on banana-related tasks. This would of course have profound implications in the field of futuristic butlers, both the robotic and the brainchipped-monkey types.

In this case - and generally of DARPA, really - one can't really say that necessity is the mother of invention. It's more a matter of wackiness and capability being the surrogate artificial lab womb growth tank -assisted parents of the spooky designer mutant superchildren of possibility. ®

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