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Mysteries of the Mind

Mark Matthews

Coming up with its 14 Grand Challenges for the
21st century, the National Academy of Engineering
mused that to date, artificial intelligence devices
had been designed “without much attention to real
ones.” It proposed the ultimate biomimicry endeavor:
discovering how the mind works by reverse-engineering
the brain. This route, the academy said,
“promises enormous opportunities for reproducing
intelligence the way assembly lines spit out cars or
computers,” along with “deeper insights about how
and why the brain works and fails.”

Researchers are taking up the challenge, as Mary
Lord and Corinna Wu report in our cover story.
Functional magnetic resonance imaging and micro-endoscopes
enable them to peer into the active brain and begin to answer questions
like, “What is memory?” or “Why do we sleep?” Their efforts
could gain a further boost if Congress approves President Obama’s
expected 10-year Brain Activity Map project.

Just as brain research requires cooperation between neuroscientists
and engineers, researchers and engineering instructors
are finding benefit in collaboration with anthropologists, political
scientists, and psychologists. Physical scientists, not to mention
certain members of the U.S. Congress, have traditionally looked
askance at this kind of teamwork. As Carnegie Mellon’s M. Granger
Morgan tells writer Art Pine, they had the idea “that nothing goes
on in the social sciences that a physicist couldn’t invent at a cocktail
party.” But in our feature “Strange Labfellows,” Smith College’s
Donna Riley offers another view: “With the emerging technologies,
we now have more complex systems to deal with, and they’re more
obviously intertwined with social systems.”

Riley’s own students recently won top prizes for their interdisciplinary
pursuit: an NAE ethics video competition on the theme of
energy policy fairness and sustainability. Another ethics topic is of
longer duration: animal testing. No matter what the eventual benefits
– better medical devices, pharmaceuticals, or understanding
how the brain works – critics say the practice inflicts unnecessary
pain and should be halted. Engineers have used animal tests in developing
such products as an adhesive to aid recovery in stomach
surgery. But, as Jaimie Schock reports in our third feature, engineers
also are exploring ways that the same kind of data – or better
yet, actual human data – can be gathered with advanced technology.

We hope you enjoy the March-April Prism. As always, we welcome
your comments.

Mark Matthews


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