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Firing Up the Blue Brain -"We Are 10 Years Away From a Functional Artifical Human Brain"

Blue Brain "It's a new brain. The mammals needed it because they had to cope with parenthood, social interactions, complex cognitive functions. It was so successful an evolution from mouse to man it expanded about a thousand fold in terms of the numbers of units to produce this almost frightening organ. It is evolving at an enormous speed."

Henry Markram, Director, Project Blue Brain.

Excellent 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.

We 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.

Artificial Brain

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 manner.

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 to.

Posted by Luke McKinney.

Related Galaxy posts:

Unlocking Your Inner Fish: Human DNA Traced Back to Marine Origins


BBC World News
Blue Brain project simulation milestone
Our initial report 


I just read Jonah Lehrer's blog about this, and commented on his likening this to the HGP. Namely, don't count your results before they're hatched. But this more complete coverage is great, both regarding the funding politics and the method. When Markram claims he's doing this accurately from the bottom up, I have to ask not only on what animal, but from what bottom? Last I heard there were trillions of synapses. Kind of hard to find a bottom!

I want them to be able to backup our current brain so, when we die they can just "recover" us into our mechanical brain then we live on as androids.

yeah...right, an engineered human brain in ten years and we can't even engineer an electric car. I'm calling bs on this one. This should be stopped right now cause if it ever happens here is how i see it playing out. Somebody starts putting advanced "human brains" into primates and well...planet of the apes...need i say more.

Wow, that is truly amazing dude!


Benny @ July 24, 2009 at 09:47 AM: "I want them to be able to backup our current brain so, when we die they can just 'recover' us into our mechanical brain then we live on as androids."

There's something fundamentally wrong with this comment.

Making a backup of you is making a just facsimile of you. It wouldn't ensure "your" actual survival.

If you got into a car crash and died in the crash you'd still be dead. The person they reanimate into the android body isn't really you.

Now, what if they were able to do a live transfer of your brain into the android body?

The question remains: how can you ensure that your consciousness is actually transferred to the android body? What if in reality the essence of who you actually are is killed off during the process, and what reappears on the other end is a mere copy?

"I want them to be able to backup our current brain so, when we die they can just "recover" us into our mechanical brain then we live on as androids. "

Spectacular! I hope that this will enable doctors in the future to preserve the lives of everybody indefinitely! Surely every mouth-breathing knucklehead is worth it!

No. The only way that humanity progresses is by the Old Idiots dying and the New Idiots (with slight improvements) taking over.

This article very poorly written and edited! It sounds like it was written by a dim 8th grader.

I agree with Johnny Cash, creating a backup of your brain would be creating a copy, and it wouldn't really be you.

I think an artificial human brain would raise significant ethical questions, as well as practicality questions. From an ethics standpoint, I can think of a couple issues:

1. If we could create functional artificial human brains, we would effectively be creating something that's alive. If we are to do that, I don't think it would be right to just shut it off (effectively killing it).

2. This raises the question of whether some people might want to replace their brain with an artificial brain. To resolve the consciousness issue, suppose we replaced a brain piece by piece (don't replace the whole brain at once). Then there would effectively be someone with an "upgraded" brain. How would that change the person? Would only their abilities change, or would their personality change as well? An increased capacity and capability might lead to a superiority complex if given to the wrong person. It wouldn't be good to create bad/evil personalities this way. This is eerie to think about.

As for practicality complex man-made technology is prone to failure and error. It's simply a fact that human error is a factor in such things. An artificial brain would probably be prone to wearing out over time and would require periodical maintenance, which would be a hassle, considering that a healthy human body is able to automatically repair itself.

I would argue that you are what you remember. If they figure out a way to stick all of your pre-death memories in to your new android body, then you are in fact the same person. Now, of course, with an android body a whole lot of new possibilities arise, so you would start immediately changing your personality based on this fact.

There's only one thing that can come out of this: Cylons.

That popup is really distracting and annoying. It even covers your banner. What site is this again?

@Boldrix: If you are what you remember, it sounds like what you're effectively saying is that if they put your memories inside an android body, then after you die, you would then be aware of yourself awakening in an android body. How is that transfer of your awareness/consciousness supposed to take place? And what if they copy your memories to 2 or more androids? How would that work as far as which one you would occupy? Or, what if they copied your memories into an android body before you die? Surely your own awareness/consciousness would still be within your human body, I'd think.

As for the second part, about not being able to slice a human brain into tiny pieces, it's actually already being done. I think Wired did an article about it, but it's something that Paul Allen's funding and they're using the brains of cadavers. Weird stuff.

A wee bit optimistic, don't you think?

"10 years away from an artificial brian"?

Should´nt that really be "10 years from an EVEN MORE artifical brain" on the Human road of becoming totally alienated from everything Natural and Spiritual?

- The Native African Dogon Tribe got spiritual knowledge of the Sirius Star System in ancient times - it took the modern science until 1954 to get the same knowledge via rockets and space telescopes.

- No wonder some people is searching for natural intelligent Life in outer space - it´s decreasing more and more on planet Earth.

I have no answers to those questions. Humanity still doesn't know much about consciousness and only have a few theories where the memories might be located. Until we know these thing, we can only speculate... Might be there is no actual "consciousness" and it's just some strange side effect that arises from memories interacting with one another.

human context in language and perceptual interaction within the natural world requires much more than computer technology that is within current understanding. Translational programs that have been in wide use within the past decade suggests this cognitive and contextual misunderstanding between human and computer. I believe Hofstadler has been critiquing these "computer-to-human" processes since the 70's, in which he vehemently attempted to disprove very similar claims that such technology will be available within 10 years. Pretty much, putting a false deadline on said technology is a ploy to receive more funding, but is really not plausible.

tom827, King, et al:

We would indeed just be making a copy of ours or somebody else's brain, not downloading the actual mind itself into a computer / bank of computers or a giant version of the Internet. The person would be dead. Deceased. An ex - human. Bleedin' demised, to loosely paraphrase Monty Pythons' " Dead Parrot Sketch ".

Or, to sorta kinda paraphrase myself in an earlier message, it would be like making a very sophisticated semi - interactive copy of your dear aunt Marilyn whe she was alive & well at your last family gathering. It might be interactive to a point, but would dear old aunt Marilyn really be " in there " ? would her personality patterns be a part of this piece of electronic media ? Probably not.

We still have a long way to go before we can truly make an electronic version of the human mind. Machines are sophisticated & advancing with every generation, very good at calculating, storing data, & even emulating emotions to a point, but capturing the psyche ( trying to side - step the word " Soul " again ) ? I don't think so. I even had a similar discussion with a member of the American Cryonic Society about restoring the mind of a cryonics " patient " brought out of a centuries - long cold slumber in the future. We're still bouncing that question around.

A lot of comments today - I hope at least some of you are clicking on a few of the ads while you're here (No, I don't work for the Daily Galaxy, I just want to make certain it stays around).

Basuto9 :

Yep, I'm clicking on the " Reclaim your brain " ad banner, to see what's on there. If it's good I'll bookmark it.
The prospect of Parkinson's & Alzheimer's alarms me no end.

Here's an interesting question no one seems to be asking...

If Singularity and Artificial Intelligence is so superior to us slow and stupid humans, and if it takes only a fraction of time for an AI to solve all the mathematical and scientific problems, how come we're not overrun with Artificial Intelligences in the visible Universe?

Those with expensive tickets will immediately notice an implicit assumption in my question - there must have been races out there who had done exactly what is being proposed here. I won't even consider the prevailing "wisdom" of "we are alone in the Universe", since it's ultimately so stupid.

So, what happened to these (AI/machine) races? Why aren't there here? They could certainly live in open vacuum, with no need to breathe, and no need to eat, just some energy bursts from a star or two to keep them going. Where are they?

Here's one alternative view of the topic - since AI's are so efficient at what they do, they tend to expand like viruses. Quick explosion in expansion, followed by slower migration from one system to another, until they hit a brick (anti-virus) wall.

What if there is someone out there who waits for civilizations to make exactly the same mistake so many had done before, and simply wipes out any new virus (that is - an AI) that appears?

Either that, or we're already under an AI rule, but since no AI wants to be known of, we don't realize that it is actually an AI that gives us these ideas about creating AIs. Humans are unpredictable bunch, but AIs... they are so easy to control by another AI.

Maybe someone can write a book, or make a new sci-fi flick with this kind of questioning, but that's not going to change the head-on collision with the (hypothetical, for the time being) anti-virus (anti-AI) wall, though.

Too many questions, too little answers... up to a time... when all will be revealed.

For those with really expensive tickets - this is a wrong kind of article you're reading. You should be looking into memristors, and EM field "software" design - EM patterns, and mathematical (physics) functions describing those patterns. They are the forerunners of true "artificial brains".

The sooner you get there, the sooner you'll see the truth... and you may not like what you see.

The fact that military already has such memristor-brains should not stop you in your search, though. You're just 20 years behind. No big deal.

I think Asimov's robot stories and the latter of his Foundation books give a pretty good picture of what might happen if sentient robots finally exceed humans in mental capacity. We might have to actually put his 3 laws of robotics into effect:
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

i also like the idea that consciousness is some kind of an ilusion produced by our brain and memories interacting.

my favourite related questions are:

- are we the same person we were a second ago (isnt brain constantly creating the ilusion of self-awarness? it can be easily shut off-sleep, changed-illnesses, get confused-loss of memory etc.)

- are we only helpless spectators ? (foundings in neuroscience, that we are aware of activities only after we actually did them, doesnt anybody know more about this topic?)

- would you go into a teleport machine, which would destroy you 'here' and create the same copy/instance of you 'there' ?

- if you got destroyed by this machine and were recreated just a nanosecond after on the same place.. would you notice?

- if our lives are series of related experiences, what is the 'entity' which is experiencing these 'nows'

- how many forms could consciousness take, eg. in a sci-fi novel the thinking black hole Bob, or maybe other complex systems being aware of existence. Is it 3D only, or could exist in 2D systems (or even 1D)

- how far the animal consciousness goes ? how does it feel to be an animal ?

btw interesting thought about the AI machines not dominating universe:)

Your assumption that their claims of having a working human brain in ten year are exaggerated may not be accurate. They are simply using existing technologies. They don't need to invent anything. You also missed the real goal. Most of cells in your body are in your brain so they don't have to stop with the brain they can do the whole body and then you have basically created an being (see new Battlestar Gallactica series for the implications of that)

Please don't argue if you don't now about it

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