"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 cannot keep on doing animal experiments forever," Markram told the audience at a 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 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.
Casey Kazan with Luke McKinney
BBC World News
Blue Brain project simulation milestone
Our initial report