Building a brain inside a supercomputer


Blue Brain is an IBM computer built to simulate a human brain. It's powered by 2,000 microchips, each acting as a single neuron, that enable it to execute 22.8 trillion operations per second. Based at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, the project launched in 2005 to much controversy and skepticism. Modeling the complexity of the brain in a computer is considered a holy grail to some, and hubris to others. The Blue Brain Project isn't an attempt to build an artificial intelligence, although it could someday inform such an effort. That's because the scientists are hoping to use the machine to understand physiology, brain chemistry, and even intelligence and consciousness. The project's stated goal? "To reverse engineer the brain." Here's Markam talking at TEDGlobal this year:

Already though, Blue Brain has simualated the brain's neocortical column, containing 10,000 neurons and 30 million synaptic connection. "The column has been built and it runs," project director Henry Markram told Seed Magazine. "Now we just have to scale it up." In two years, Markram hopes to have modeled a complete rat brain that he will then load into a mobile robot. From SEED:

When listening to Markram speculate, it's easy to forget that the Blue Brain simulation is still just a single circuit, confined within a silent supercomputer. The machine is not yet alive. And yet Markram can be persuasive when he talks about his future plans. His ambitions are grounded in concrete steps. Once the team is able to model a complete rat brain–that should happen in the next two years–Markram will download the simulation into a robotic rat, so that the brain has a body. He's already talking to a Japanese company about constructing the mechanical animal. "The only way to really know what the model is capable of is to give it legs," he says. "If the robotic rat just bumps into walls, then we've got a problem."

Installing Blue Brain in a robot will also allow it to develop like a real rat. The simulated cells will be shaped by their own sensations, constantly revising their connections based upon the rat's experiences. "What you ultimately want," Markram says, "is a robot that's a little bit unpredictable, that doesn't just do what we tell it to do." His goal is to build a virtual animal–a rodent robot–with a mind of its own.

But the question remains: How do you know what the rat knows? How do you get inside its simulated cortex? This is where visualization becomes key. Markram wants to simulate what that brain experiences. It's a typically audacious goal, a grand attempt to get around an ancient paradox. But if he can really find a way to see the brain from the inside, to traverse our inner space, then he will have given neuroscience an unprecedented window into the invisible. He will have taken the self and turned it into something we can see.

Blue Brain Project (EPFL)

"Out of the Blue" (Seed)