The jury is out on whether scientific and technological advancement will ultimately sound the death-knell for the human race, but such concerns have not stopped Henry Markram, director of the Blue Brain Project, from enthusing about the potential benefits of a synthetic human brain at TED Global 2009.
The project, based at Switzerland’s EPFL (École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne) was launched in 2005 and since then it has already succeeded in simulating elements of a rat’s brain. The next stage in reverse engineering a mammalian brain will focus on the neocortical column, an area that, evolutionarily speaking, has seen rapid and widespread development among species due to an increasing need for its primary function – coping with parenthood, social interaction and cognitive function.
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Over the last 15 years the structure of this area has been analyzed and recreated in much the same way. As Markram puts it: "It's a bit like going and cataloging a bit of the rainforest - how many trees does it have, what shape are the trees, how many of each type of tree do we have, what is the position of the trees. But it is a bit more than cataloging because you have to describe and discover all the rules of communication, the rules of connectivity."
Speaking at this year’s TED Global conference in Oxford, England, he goes on to predict that a functional human brain would be possible within the next 10 years. To give you an idea of exactly what this might entail, a single laptop would be required for each neuron in the model, which would require a total of 10,000 working in perfect harmony.
IBM’s Blue Gene has instead been roped in to do the legwork and has already started to yield some interesting discoveries. Simulations are giving the researchers clues about how the brain works. For example, they can show the brain a picture of a flower and follow the electrical activity in the machine. "You excite the system and it actually creates its own representation," said Markram.
The ultimate goal for such a project would be to better understand how the brain perceives the world and to offer insights into brain disease, from which around two billion people suffer, in one form or another, worldwide.