This week President Obama announced a federal brain mapping project, aimed at conquering challenges such as epilepsy, autism, and Alzheimer's disease. While the $100 million proposed initial funding amount is not small, it pales in comparison to the $5.5 billion National Institutes of Health already invest annually on neuroscience research. So why all the buzz?
The President is on to something here, and the BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) should drive a broader agenda -- one that includes innovation and growth. Mapping the brain as a sort of macro-human genome project will certainly provide other researchers a better starting point to tackle diseases and improve the quality of many lives. However, this is not just about mitigating or prevent disease, it can also be used as a catalyst to improve thinking and learning processes themselves. This is an innovation play, not just a medical one.
Academia and business have been discussing innovation management a lot in the last few years, but less press has been given to learning -- how fast, how much, and how well. Big data and analytics are providing horsepower to make better decisions at moments of truth: consumer purchase, employee hire, supplier selection, portfolio allocation, and product launch, to name a few. The BRAIN Initiative can complement this technology, helping us understand how new employees can be more productive, how to retain knowledge from retiring workers, how make decisions with less than complete information, and how to demystify intuition as a valued tool in decision making. Maybe Malcolm Gladwell was onto something with Blink. There are 3 reasons that the proposed BRAIN Initiative would be good for US manufacturing:
It captures the imagination. Leaders are supposed to think big thoughts and lay out grand challenges. To generate support across a wide base, this needs to be told as a captivating story, not a sterile science lecture. Create a simple, grand vision, and then line up the scientists and engineers to make it real. This type of vision is also exactly what US manufacturing needs, and the fuel for good stories is all around:
- The US is essentially energy-independent for the first time in a hundred years. Abundant, less expensive fuel alternatives make US-based production plants (which can be large consumers of energy) more attractive
- The replacing-inventory (and other waste)-with-data swap has reached a crescendo due to the developing maturity of big data, cloud-based computing, analytics, and mobility. The technologies are creating plenty of success stories to which people can relate
- 3-D printing. Yes, there is too much hype and it currently begins and ends with prototypes. However, the science fiction has become somewhat real, and for under $1,500 an aspiring captain of industry or a creative type can harness this new technology for their own purposes
Learning will become cool. Let's face it, US companies are facing a dual problem in knowledge management: on the one hand, the Baby Boomers are starting to retire in large numbers (though later than planned after the brutal recession), so stemming the brain drain is critical. On the other hand, younger workers are entering the workforce less prepared than ever to be productive, sometimes missing basic skills like communication that companies have long assumed that college or trade school would provide. The BRAIN Initiative will highlight the science of learning -- how we think, how we learn, and how we remember. Understanding how our 86 billion brain cells do this can help retain the knowledge from our aging workforce while accelerating the onboarding and impact that new workers can make. After all, if business strategy has to be tweaked every year or two, then agility to learn new things and transform the business needs to become much faster than the 5-7 year refresh cycles companies often experience.
The initiative should make money. According to White House estimates, every $1 invested to map the human genome has returned $140 to the US economy. When funds are pointed at a fertile area of opportunity with some real focus, it tends to become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Even the thought of this can be a catalyst for more people to take risks to get their ideas out into the market, and for larger companies to commit the larger investments that only happen when forward-looking confidence exceeds the hurdle rate of the boring but safe status quo.
Yes, there is a potentially scary side to the BRAIN Initiative, as you can only go so far mapping the brain before you get into some ethically questionable territory. Things like wireless control and of course thought manipulation are potential longer-term outcomes of the program. As with any advances in technologies, the ethics questions will have to be addressed along the way as the frontiers of science are pushed back.
There is sometimes debate about the next frontier or even the final frontier. Our world's oceans, space, and the atom are sometimes held up in this regard. However, the brain as final frontier has held special fascination for centuries, because it represents a significant part of what defines humanity itself. For the here and now world of manufacturing, the proposed BRAIN Initiative offers a chance to dream big and also focus on human capital as a competitive advantage. And that sounds like a smart idea.