Friday, December 25, 2009

When I was a kid back in 1963, I saw this Erector-set gizmo advertised on my family’s 12-inch black-and-white TV and knew that without a doubt, this was the greatest toy in the world.

I had to have it for Christmas. Not only could you use the set to build the Amazing Giant Walking Robot as advertised on TV, you could then build other things with it: cranes, levers, pulleys - it would just keep building and building. As a kid, I envisioned years of endless, boredom-free play with the Erector set Santa would bring.

Well, Christmas morning came, and lo and behold, Santa had brought me the set. (Kudos to my father, the engineer, for putting this under the tree. I’m sure he already was figuring out how he was going to pay for me to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.)

Despite my enthusiasm for this coolest of gifts, I quickly found it had limits. If you forgot a screw here, lost a nut there, misplaced a string or a pulley, or if the little girders weren’t firmly grounded, well, let’s sum it up by saying things just wouldn’t go the way I planned. The instructions were not much help, either. Basically, they read something like this: “Take these things out of the box, put them together however you want, and watch it work.”

I soon found many of my friends were feeling the same frustration, and the story could have ended there. But instead, something else happened. Almost in unison, my friends and I discovered the boxes the Erector sets had come in.

Now here was a venue for boundless curiosity and creativity. There were big boxes with the Stars and Stripes on ‘em. There were boxes inside boxes; there were separators and dividers. Suddenly, the boxes could become anything we chose to think they were - spaceships, forts, aircraft carriers, hot rods - limited only by what we knew and could imagine.

The Erector set had lured us with the promise that we could achieve engineering marvels, but in turning to the boxes, we reaffirmed our creativity, individuality, even our humanity - and built stronger friendships as we had more fun together. Whether that also was the spark of some realization that I probably should not become an engineer, who knows? However, as a neuroscientist (by way of the City University of New York and Johns Hopkins University - sorry, MIT), I like what that experience says about the human brain - and I see parallels between it and what’s going on in my field today.

Like the Erector set for the Amazing Giant Walking Robot, technological developments in neuroscience dazzle us with the possibility that we can create something new in the image of ourselves. A whole new field, dubbed neurotechnology, allows us to see into the living human brain, create human-machine interfaces and even could enable us to build new organisms that could function like a neurological system.

These new organisms might be able to walk and talk. They could be part human and part machine. At first blush, this is way cool - and for a neuroscientist, it’s like being a kid all over again.

Maybe this Christmas, my friends and I ask Santa for a new kind of Erector set, a neurotechnology set, to build a 21st-century version of the giant walking robot. This one not only will move, but will talk, see and hear. And why stop there? With this new neurotechnology kit, we’ll make it feel.

Imagine an Erector set that can build a neuro-cybernetic embellishment of me or my friends, that can feel happy (after all, it’s the holidays) or sad (after all, it’s the holidays) or have expectations and frustrations (ditto about the holidays). What could be better than that?

But wait. Forget a screw here, lose a nut there, misplace a string or a pulley, and maybe once again, things just wouldn’t go the way we planned. As with the Erector set, too, guidance from “instructions” will have limits. We might be able to build an erecto-brain, but we could be on our own if it starts to develop a mind.

So, before we convince ourselves that we must build things with brains, maybe we should take a closer look at the “boxes” our own brains and minds come in. The beauty and joy of the human brain is that it doesn’t come with instructions: How we use it defines our individuality and humanity in much the same way that playing with those boxes did when my friends and I were kids.

What’s more, as we learn about our brains, we grasp more about the enormity of what we don’t know and may never know about our minds. And, no, this is not a Luddite argument but rather a plea to go forward in the march toward technological progress with an appreciation of what it means to be human and a decision to value that above all else.

So, what did we learn from that holiday long ago? I hear that some of my friends, ticked off with the limits of the Erector set, have gone into pharmaceutical development. (I think one of them was instrumental in developing Viagra.) As for me, it confirmed - despite my stumbles - the start of a lifelong love affair with science, technology and, most important, human potential. It’s a journey that has taken many turns but began under that Christmas tree. Thanks, Dad.

James Giordano is the director of the Center for Neurotechnology Studies at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Va.

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