Apr 02, 2013 (10:04 AM EDT)
Obama Brain Mapping Project Tests Big Data Limits

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Big Data's Surprising Uses: From Lady Gaga To CIA
Big Data's Surprising Uses: From Lady Gaga To CIA
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President Obama on Tuesday announced a brain-mapping initiative that could help scientists unlock the secrets to Alzheimer's and Parkinson's Disease, strokes and even human cognition, but it won't do so without the help of significant computing power.

The Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, announced Tuesday morning in a presidential speech at the White House after a fleeting mention in President Obama's February State of the Union Address, will require heavy use of cutting-edge and yet-to-be-invented data processing and imaging technologies if it is to have anywhere near the same success as the Human Genome Project has had for genetics.

"We can identify galaxies light years away, we can study particles smaller than an atom, but we still haven't unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter that lies between our ears," Obama said Tuesday. Studying and mapping the human brain, Obama said, will not only help scientists improve their understanding of human thought, learning, and memory, but could also help cure disease.

[ Read about a real-time alarm that warns of rising pressure on injured brains: IBM Big Data Monitors Patients For Brain Injury. ]

The new research initiative will include the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Science Foundation, outside academics, and private companies and foundations such as the Allen Institute and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. The White House hopes to spend more than $100 million the first year of the project, with more money coming from private-sector partners.

Among other work, those agencies and organizations will be pushing the envelope on data collection and analysis technologies. "Significant breakthroughs will require a new generation of tools to enable researchers to record signals from brain cells in much greater numbers and at even faster speeds," the White House said in a press release. "This cannot currently be achieved, but great promise for developing such technologies lies at the intersections of nanoscience, imaging, engineering, informatics and other rapidly emerging fields."

On a conference call with reporters after the President's announcement, National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins said that the brain-mapping initiative might eventually require the handling of yottabytes of data. A yottabyte is equal to a billion petabytes.

Even collecting and processing the quantities of data that brain mapping might require could stretch the limits of modern information science, Collins admitted. "There have been some conversations about whether the amount of data, if you are going to collect data from tens of thousands of neurons in real time, can you process and store it," he said. "This is generally in the direction of the capability where things are headed."

Among the specific projects being funded under BRAIN will be DARPA's Detection and Computational Analysis of Psychological Signals effort, which will require analyses of very large data sets. DARPA also will "develop a new set of tools to capture and process dynamic neural and synaptic activities," according to the White House press release.

Not only will BRAIN require new computer technologies merely to perform the necessary research, but the results of the research could also be used to develop new information technologies. President Obama provided the example of developing computers that can better respond to human thought. Collins said that the research could teach computer scientists new types of information processing architectures that could provide design principles for computers of the future.

A well-defended perimeter is only half the battle in securing the government's IT environments. Agencies must also protect their most valuable data. Also in the new, all-digital Secure The Data Center issue of InformationWeek Government: The White House's gun control efforts are at risk of failure because the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' outdated Firearms Tracing System is in need of an upgrade. (Free registration required.)