This week, the National Institutes of Health released a report on the future of neuroscience, which Gary Marcus calls “the first substantive step in developing President Obama’s BRAIN Initiative.” Marcus considers the report’s nine outlined goals:
The most important goal, in my view, is buried in the middle of the list at No. 5, which seeks to link human behavior with the activity of neurons. This is more daunting than it seems: scientists have yet to even figure out how the relatively simple, three-hundred-and-two-neuron circuitry of the C. Elegans worm works, in part because there are so many possible interactions that can take place between sets of neurons. A human brain, by contrast, contains approximately eighty-six billion neurons.
To progress, we need to learn how to combine the insights of molecular biochemistry, which has come to dominate the lowest reaches of neuroscience, with the study of computation and cognition, which have moved to the forefront of fields such as cognitive psychology.
(Though some dream of eliminating psychology from the discussion altogether, no neuroscientist has ever shown that we can understand the mind without psychology and cognitive science.) The key, emphasized in the report, is interdisciplinary work shared as openly as possible: “The most exciting approaches will bridge fields, linking experiment to theory, biology to engineering, tool development to experimental application, human neuroscience to non-human models, and more.”
Perhaps the least compelling aspect of the report is one of its justifications for why we should invest in neuroscience in the first place: “The BRAIN Initiative is likely to have practical economic benefits in the areas of artificial intelligence and ‘smart’ machines.” This seems unrealistic in the short- and perhaps even medium-term: we still know too little about the brain’s logical processes to mine them for intelligent machines. At least for now, advances in artificial intelligence tend to come from computer science (driven by its longstanding interest in practical tools for efficient information processing), and occasionally from psychology and linguistics (for their insights into the dynamics of thought and language). Only rarely do advances come from neuroscience. That may change someday, but it could take decades.