The Politics of Repairing Humans

by on September 29, 2006

This week, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen announced that his mouse brain-mapping project has finally been completed. This major undertaking arrives in tandem with other advances in medical technologies that will soon force political leaders to face difficult policy questions.

Mapping a mouse’s brain is significant not only because mice share 90 percent of their genes with humans, but also because mapping is the first step towards the goal of reverse engineering. Computer science uses reverse engineering to understand how a device or program works, usually with the goal of copying and improving the technology.

Researchers interested in extending human longevity, such as Ray Kurzweil, believe that reverse-engineering the brain can lead to great advances, not only in understanding how to repair the human body, but also in the field of artificial intelligence. This potential is exciting, and it challenges many of our current practices and beliefs. Consider, for instance, a procedure being tested to wake up patients that many doctors consider brain dead.

Using electrical stimulation of the brain, a type of human “reboot,” scientists have discovered that it is sometimes possible to wake people in deep comas. Dr. Edwin Cooper, an American orthopedic surgeon, has had some encouraging success with his technique, including awakening from a coma Candice Ivey, a woman doctors wanted to terminate by pulling her feeding tube.

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