Engineering the Human Brain

neurologist-markam-human-brain3_fWired’s piece, “The $1.3B Quest to Build a Supercomputer Replica of a Human Brain“, is a must-read — if you’re into big data, neuroscience, super computers, artificial intelligence, and the singularity.

The way [Henry] Markram sees it, technology has finally caught up with the dream of AI: Computers are finally growing sophisticated enough to tackle the massive data problem that is the human brain. But not everyone is so optimistic. “There are too many things we don’t yet know,” says Caltech professor Christof Koch, chief scientific officer at one of neuroscience’s biggest data producers, the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. “The roundworm has exactly 302 neurons, and we still have no frigging idea how this animal works.” Yet over the past couple of decades, Markram’s sheer persistence has garnered the respect of people like Nobel Prize–winning neuroscientist Torsten Wiesel and Sun Microsystems cofounder Andy Bechtolsheim. He has impressed leading figures in biology, neuroscience, and computing, who believe his initiative is important even if they consider some of his ultimate goals unrealistic.

Markram has earned that support on the strength of his work at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, where he and a group of 15 postdocs have been taking a first stab at realizing his grand vision—simulating the behavior of a million-neuron portion of the rat neocortex. They’ve broken new ground on everything from the expression of individual rat genes to the organizing principles of the animal’s brain. And the team has not only published some of that data in peer-reviewed journals but also integrated it into a cohesive model so it can be simulated on an IBM Blue Gene supercomputer.

The big question is whether these methods can scale. There’s no guarantee that Markram will be able to build out the rest of the rat brain, let alone the vastly more complex human brain. And if he can, nobody knows whether even the most faithful model will behave like a real brain—that if you build it, it will think. For all his bravado, Markram can’t answer that question. “But the only way you can find out is by building it,” he says, “and just building a brain is an incredible biological discovery process.” This is too big a job for just one lab, so Markram envisions an estimated 6,000 researchers around the world funneling data into his model. His role will be that of prophet, the sort of futurist who presents worthy goals too speculative for most scientists to countenance and then backs them up with a master plan that makes the nearly impossible appear perfectly plausible. Neuroscientists can spend a whole career on a single cell or molecule. Markram will grant them the opportunity and encouragement to band together and pursue the big questions.

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