news for fans of computer technology, neuroscience, and people who
think that humans telling the machines what to do is totally backwards. Henry Markram, director of the Blue Brain Project, says we are ten years away from a functional artificial human brain. The Blue Brain project was launched in 2005 and aims to reverse engineer the mammalian brain from laboratory data.
reported on the attempts of the Swiss Mind Brain Institute to simulate
the neocortical column of the rat last year using an IBM Blue Gene machine with 10,000 processors, and they've announced success of the first phase of their project.
"We cannot keep on doing animal experiments forever," Markram told the audience at the TED Global Conference at Oxford, England. "There are two billion people on the planet affected by mental disorder," he told the audience. The project may give insights into new treatments."
They've successfully simulated the neocortical column of a rat – only a
fraction of a full brain, but they proved that you don't get to do
world-shattering research when you settle for second-best by choosing
one of the most complicated and vital pieces of any mammalian cortex.
They also proved that even world-class scientists still have to compete
for funding, following up this amazing achievement with bold claims
that the same process could simulate an entire rat brain within three
years, and a human brain within ten. Obviously a team that sat down
one day and said "We're going to build a mind from scratch using better
parts than nature did" is ambitious, but projecting an upgrade to human
consciousness from a 2 mm chunk of grey matter designed purely to
think "eat garbage" and "carry Plague" within ten years? That's enough
to make Alexander the Great wave his hands and say "Hang on guys,
aren't you setting your sights a little high?"
To anyone who's worked in science the reasons for these assertions are
obvious: attention and funding. And it's a travesty that they have to
do so - they've achieved one of the most incredible advances in the
last decade of neuroscience and the idea that they have to make that
sound even cooler is insane: it's like inventing a perpetual motion
machine and having to offer it in designer colours to get people
interested. Assuming they continue to get support for this little "One
of the Greatest Achievements ever to be conceived of by Man" project,
it will raise a number of critical questions:
1. Are we going to need a court order to reboot this thing?
Considering that most scientists don't subscribe to the "magic
invisible soul dust" theory of what creates human consciousness, a
simulation that recreates the activity of a human brain may produce
ethical concerns. Technically a computer that recreates a rat brain
would raise similar issues but, as you're about to see, these guys
don't have any sympathy for rats.
2. How do they plan to get a human model?
The existing rat neocortical model is based on a huge amount of data
from real working rat brains - or at least, brains that were working
until the scientists got a hold of them. Where the team ran into gaps
in the existing data they cracked open rat skulls, extracted the
brains, sliced them into wafers while keeping them alive and recorded
their responses. It isn't known whether they cackled maniacally while
screaming "They said we were fools, but we'll show them, we'll show
them ALL!" during this procedure, because anybody who can slice a
brain into strips while keeping it alive isn't someone you want to
annoy with questions.
Suffice to say when one third of your research staff are on the "Knifing things in the head" payroll:
a) You're already two steps into a horror movie script
b) You aren't just assuming there are no such thing as ghosts, you're
betting the survival of everyone in the building on the fact
c) This is NOT a method that can be scaled up to humans without a rogue
agent with nothing to lose being sent to kill you in a highly ironic
3. Can we make improvements?
Those involved in the project sing its praises in work to understand
the human brain, but it's only a matter of time until somebody thinks
about making improvements - minus an hour at most, actually, because
that's the first thing I thought of when I read about it.
With the ability to simulate the effects of rewiring, drugs or external
electric fields at an individual neuron level we can investigate
enhancements (such as new senses, new cognitive modes or neuroelectric
interfaces) without all the inconvenient "human rights violations" and
"Crimes against humanity" such research normally entails. We could
improve our own minds - and since we'll have just invented a silicon
model operating at computer speeds in a bulletproof shell, we'll have
Posted by Luke McKinney.
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BBC World News
Blue Brain project simulation milestone
Our initial report