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Christof Koch
Christof Koch, chief scientific officer for the Allen Institute for Brain Science, addresses the GeekWire Summit. (Photo by Dan DeLong for GeekWire)

It may sound like a zombie movie, but Seattle’s Allen Institute for Brain Science is studying fresh human brain tissue to see up close how our neurons work — and perhaps eventually figure out how to meld minds with machines.

Integrating artificial intelligence chips into our own neural wiring may be the best way to address concerns about the rapid rise of AI, and the potential that the machines could outpace humans, said neuroscientist Christof Koch, the institute’s chief scientific officer.

Studying the brain should be a “matter of great urgency,” whether you believe that AI will lead to a work-free paradise or a Terminator-style nightmare, Koch said today at the 2017 GeekWire Summit.

Koch emphasized that the focus of his research is the biological brain rather than its artificial equivalents, but he said it was clear that human-level AI was decades rather than centuries away.

If that’s the case, the pace of change could overwhelm the ability of individuals or societies to cope, he said. Statistics point to a significant shift ahead in employment, with truck and taxi drivers as well as fast-food workers likely to feel the brunt first, Koch said.

Koch doesn’t think it’s likely that the shift to robotic workers will make things easier for humans. “Life speeds up,” he said. “It’s going to get ever more hectic for those who still have jobs.”

If AI goes down the wrong path, the technology could lead to greater economic inequality, social instability, and wars fought with weaponized thinking machines.

“If we think about the long-term future, 20, 30, 40, 50 years from now, it’s very unpleasant, it’s very fuzzy,” Koch said.

Can two intelligent species — one biological, one artificial — share the planet? Koch is doubtful about that, but he sees the potential for an alternate scenario. “One very real possibility … is that we have to understand how our brain works, and we have to engineer the shit out of it,” Koch said.

That’s where the Allen Institute for Brain Science, created by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, plays a role. For 14 years, the institute has been methodically studying how human and animal brains work, on the physical level as well as the genetic level.

One of the institute’s projects involves taking bits of cortical tissue extracted during brain surgeries at Seattle hospitals, and running them through experiments while the brain cells are still fresh.

“This is not a mouse brain. This is a piece of living human brain,” Koch said. “Twenty minutes ago, it was part of somebody’s brain, with somebody’s memories of their first kids. But now it’s here, it’s in the lab, we can look at the morphology, we can study it in great detail.”

Koch said a database of human brain-cell reconstructions, including 3-D imagery, would be made freely available via the institute’s website later this month. As the database grows, researchers can use the reconstructions to model how electrical fields might affect brain function — or precisely what happens in the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease.

“This is going to be a long road ahead,” Koch acknowledged. But eventually, neuroscientists could gain enough of an understanding of the nervous system’s circuitry to restore lost functionality.

Researchers have already found ways to rewire paralyzed limbs so that they can respond to brain commands, and even provide sensory feedback, although the apparatus that’s been developed so far is typically too bulky for practical use.

Koch thinks it’s only a matter of time before brain-machine interfaces become small enough and capable enough to restore full function to a patient’s nervous system — and go even further.

“We are all interested in also enhancing all of our performance,” he said, “because I think this is one way we can continue to compete against our own creation. So this is the challenge for this century, really. The last century has been called the century of physics. This century is really the century of biology, and particularly brain science: trying to understand our brain, to cure diseases, but also to enhance our brain for our long-term survival.”

Koch isn’t alone in his view: Elon Musk, the billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, is also backing a venture called Neuralink that is focusing on developing powerful brain implants.

After his talk, Koch told GeekWire that he was on board with Musk’s vision for future brain chips.

“In general, that’s the right way to go,” Koch said. “The question is, how long is it going to take? Particularly, the regulatory hurdles are big. Anytime you drill a hole in somebody’s brain, you better have a very good reason for doing it, typically because the health is in danger.”

It can take a decade or two for surgical technology to make its way from the lab to the operating room, Koch pointed out. “If we want to attempt to make a difference in our lives, and not just in the lives of our children’s children, we have to do this faster,” he said.

Koch speculated that Musk just might be among the first people to get a brain chip purely for the purpose of mental enhancement rather than to restore lost neural function.

“All it takes is well-known people, maybe like Elon Musk, saying, ‘Yes, I’m going to put that chip into my brain. I’m going to get some surgeons, no matter when — and see? I can now do things that nobody else can do,'” Koch said. “Then, suddenly, you’ll see thousands of people everywhere who’ll want to do it.”

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