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Brett Emison
Brett Emison
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The $1.3 Billion (Virtual) Brain

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Henry Markram has ambitious goal: fully map and simulate the human brain inside a supercomputer. Now he has funding – $1.3 billion – sized to match his ambitious plan.

In 2009, Markram announced during a Ted Talk that he "would deliver a fully sentient hologram within a decade" and "dedicated himself to wiping out all mental disorders and creat[e] a self-aware artificial intelligence." How? He would build a complete model of the human brain – all 86 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections – and simulate it on a supercomputer.

See Markram's Ted Talk from 2009:

Markram's plan does have its risks. While he has partially modeled a rodent brain as a proof of concept, there's no guarantee that he will be able to build out the rest of the rodent brain, much less a complete human brain. Even Markram doesn't know if a fully modeled brain will actually think – i.e., behave like a real brain.

But the only way you can find out is by building it. And just building a brain is an incredible biological discovery process.

– Henry Markram

Despite the vast improvements of modern medicine, there is still more we don't know about the brain than we do know.

Over the past century, brain research has made tremendous strides, but it's all atomized and highly specific – there's still no unified theory that explains the whole. We know that the brain is electric, an intricately connected network, and that electrical signals are modulated by chemicals. In sufficient quantity, certain combinations of chemicals (called neurotransmitters) cause a neuron to fire an electrical signal down a long pathway called an axon. At the end of the axon is a synapse, a meeting point with another neuron. The electrical spike causes neurotransmitters to be released at the synapse, where they attach to receptors in the neighboring neuron, altering its voltage by opening or closing ion channels. At the simplest level, comparisons to a computer are helpful. The synapses are roughly equivalent to the logic gates in a circuit, and axons are the wires. The combination of inputs determines an output. Memories are stored by altering the wiring. Behavior is correlated with the pattern of firing.

– Jonathan Keats at Wired.com

Yet, as scientists examine these systems more closely, the over simplification doesn't look much better than the Egyptian's belief that the brain was the "marrow of the skull" or Aristotle's belief that the brain was a radiator to cool the heart.

Jonathan Keats has an extensive article about this project at Wired.com with some very detailed analysis of the project and the computing power required for it to succeed. It's definitely worth the read.

While Markram certainly has his naysayers, the European Union has bet $1.3 billion on his success. If his research is fruitful, it could have groundbreaking impact on treatment of a variety of conditions from Alzheimer's Disease, Parkinson's disease, ALS, Autism, Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and more. Let's just hope Markram's research doesn't result in an early version of Skynet.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Wlsd9mljiU

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© Copyright 2013 Brett A. Emison

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