[ExI] Fwd: [neuro] Daily Mail on Markram
kanzure at gmail.com
Thu Jan 7 17:27:08 UTC 2010
---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Eugen Leitl <eugen at leitl.org>
Date: Thu, Jan 7, 2010 at 10:00 AM
Subject: [neuro] Daily Mail on Markram
To: tt at postbiota.org, info at postbiota.org, neuro at postbiota.org
(aargh, I guess)
The real Frankenstein experiment: One man's mission to create a living mind
inside a machine
By Michael Hanlon Last updated at 8:30 AM on 04th January 2010
Professor Markram is planning to create the world's most expensive 'baby'
His words staggered the erudite audience gathered at a technology conference
in Oxford last summer.
Professor Henry Markram, a doctor-turned-computer engineer, announced that
his team would create the world's first artificial conscious and intelligent
mind by 2018.
And that is exactly what he is doing.
On the shore of Lake Geneva, this brilliant, eccentric scientist is building
an artificial mind. A Swiss - it could only be Swiss - precision- engineered
mind, made of silicon, gold and copper.
The end result will be a creature, if we can call it that, which its maker
believes within a decade may be able to think, feel and even fall in love.
Professor Markram's 'Blue Brain' project, must rank as one of the most
extraordinary endeavours in scientific history.
If this 47-year-old South-African Israeli is successful, then we are on the
verge of realising an age-old fantasy, one first imagined when an adolescent
Mary Shelley penned Frankenstein, her tale of an artificial monster brought
to life - a story written, quite coincidentally, just a few miles from where
this extraordinary experiment is now taking place.
Success will bring with it philosophical, moral and ethical conundrums of the
highest order, and may force us to confront what it means to be human.
But Professor Markram thinks his artificial mind will render vivisection
obsolete, conquer insanity and even improve our intelligence and ability to
What Markram's project amounts to is an audacious attempt to build a
computerised copy of a brain - starting with a rat's brain, then progressing
to a human brain - inside one of the world's most powerful computers.
This, it is hoped, will bring into being a sentient mind that will be able to
think, reason, express will, lay down memories and perhaps even experience
love, anger, sadness, pain and joy.
'We will do it by 2018,' says the professor confidently. 'We need a lot of
money, but I am getting it. There are few scientists in the world with the
resources I have at my disposal.'
There is, inevitably, scepticism. But even Markram's critics mostly accept
that he is on to something and, most importantly, that he has the money.
Tens of millions of euros are flooding into his laboratory at the Brain Mind
Institute at the Ecole Polytechnique in Lausanne - paymasters include the
Swiss government, the EU and private backers, including the computer giant
IBM. Artificial minds are, it seems, big business.
The human brain is the most complex object in the universe. But Markram
insists that the latest supercomputers will soon have its measure. Professor
Markram believes that if his 'Blue Brain' project is successful, it will
render vivisection obsolete
Professor Markram believes that if his 'Blue Brain' project is successful, it
will render vivisection obsolete
As I toured his glittering laboratories, it became clear that this is
certainly no ordinary scientific endeavour. In fact, Markram's department
looks like the interior of the Starship Enterprise, and is full of toys that
would make James Bond's Q blush with envy.
But how on earth do you build a brain in a computer? And haven't scientists
been trying to do that build an electronic brain for decades - without
To understand the sheer importance of what Blue Brain is, it is helpful to
understand, first, what it is not.
Dr Markram is not trying to build the kind of clanking robot servant beloved
of countless sci-fi movies.
Real robots may be able to walk and talk and are based around computers that
are 'taught' to behave like humans, but they are, in the end, no more
intelligent than dishwashers. Markram dismisses these toys as 'archaic'.
The professor is not mad, but he is unsettling
Instead, Markram is building what he hopes will be a real person, or at least
the most important and complex part of a real person - its mind.
And so instead of trying to copy what a brain does, by teaching a computer to
play chess, climb stairs and so on, he has started at the bottom, with the
biological brain itself.
Our brains are full of nerve cells called neurons, which communicate with one
another using minuscule electrical impulses.
The project literally takes apart actual brains cell by cell, using what
amounts to extremely intricate dissecting techniques, analyses the billions
of connections between the cells, and then plots these connections into a
The upshot is, in effect, a blueprint or carbon copy of a brain, rendered in
software rather than flesh and blood. The idea is that by building a model of
a real brain, it might - just might - begin to behave like the real thing.
To demonstrate how he is achieving this, Markram shows me a machine that
resembles an infernal torture engine; a wheel about 2ft across with a dozen
ultra-fine glass 'spokes' aimed at the centre.
It is here that tiny slivers of rat brain are dissected, using tools finer
than a human hair. Their interconnections are then mapped and turned into
computer code. Professor Markram is adamant the experiment will not result
in a stereotypical Frankenstein, like the one seen here in 1970 film The
Horror of Frankenstein
Professor Markram is adamant the experiment will not result in a
stereotypical Frankenstein, like the one seen here in 1970 film The Horror of
A bucket full of slop lies next to the gleaming high-techery. That's where
the bits of old rat brain go - a gruesome reminder that amid this is a
project based upon flesh and blood.
So far, Markram's supercomputer - an IBM Blue Gene - is able, using the
information gleaned from the slivers of real brain tissue, to simulate the
workings of about 10,000 neurones, amounting to a single rat's 'neocortical
column' - the part of a brain believed to be the centre of conscious thought.
That, says Markram, is the hard part. To go further, he is going to need a
Using just 30 watts of electricity - enough to power a dim light bulb - our
brains can outperform by a factor of a million or more even the mighty Blue
Gene computer. But replicating a whole real brain is 'entirely impossible
today', Markram says.
Even the next stage - a complete rat brain - needs a £200million, vastly more
Then what? 'We need a billion-dollar machine, custom-built. That could do a
But computing power is increasing exponentially and it is only a matter of
time before suitable hardware is available.
'We will get there,' says Markram confidently.
In fact, he believes that he will have a computer sufficiently powerful to
deal with all the data and simulate a human brain before the end of this
The result? Perhaps a mind, a conscious, sentient being, able to learn and
make autonomous decisions. It is a startling possibility.
When faced with such extraordinary claims, one must first ask the question:
'Is he mad?'
I have met several scientists who maintain they can change the world: men
(they are always men) who say they can build a time machine or a starship,
cure cancer or old age.
A glittering machine brain, perhaps many times more intelligent than our own,
carries, perhaps, even more potential for evil, as well as good
Men who believe telepathy is real, or that Earth has been visited by aliens
or, indeed, or who claim they are on the verge of creating artificial minds.
Most of these men are deluded.
Markram is not mad, but he is certainly unsettling. He comes across like a
combination of Victorian gentleman scientist and New Age guru.
'You have to understand physics, the structure of the universe and
philosophy,' he says, theatrically.
He talks about humans 'not reaching their potential', and of his conviction
that more of us have the capacity for genius than we think.
He believes his artificial mind could show us how to exploit the untapped
potential in our own minds. If we create a being more intelligent than us,
maybe it could teach us how to catch up.
The best evidence that Markram is not crazy is that he gets his hands dirty.
He knows his way around his machines and knows one end of a brain cell from
The principles underlying his work are firmly rooted in the scientific
mainstream. Professor Markram is hoping the artificial brain he will create
could be used for medical research, but concedes this could cause ethical
Professor Markram is hoping the artificial brain he will create could be used
for medical research, but concedes this could cause ethical problems
He believes that the deepest and most fundamental properties of being human -
thoughts, emotions, the mysterious feeling of self-awareness - arise from
trillions of electrochemical interactions that take place in the lump of grey
jelly in our heads.
He believes there is no mysterious 'soul' that gives rise to the feeling of
self. On the contrary, he insists that this results from physical processes
inside our skulls.
Of course, consciousness is one of the deepest scientific mysteries. How do
millions of tiny electrical impulses in our heads give rise to the feeling of
self, of pain, of love? No one knows.
But if Markram is right, this doesn't matter. He believes that consciousness
is probably something that simply 'emerges' given a sufficient degree of
Imagine it this way: think of the marvellous patterns that emerge when a
flock of starlings swoops in unison at dusk.
Thousands of birds are interacting to create a shape that resembles a single
unified entity with a life of its own. Markram believes that this is how
consciousness might emerge - from billions of separate brain cells combining
to create a single sentient mind.
But what of the problems such an invention could generate? What if the
machine makes demands? What if it begs you not to turn it off, or leave it
alone at night?
'Maybe you will have to treat it like a child. Sometimes I will have to say
to my child: "I have to go, sorry," ' he explains.
Indeed, the artificial brain would throw up a host of moral issues. Could you
really use an artificial mind, which behaves like a real mind, to perform
experiments oa human mind.
Dr David Lester, one of the project's lead scientists, says that they are
effectively in a race with Markram, a race they will have to win with cunning
rather than cash.
'We've got £4million,' Lester says. 'Blue Brain has serious funding from the
Swiss government and IBM. Henry Markram is to be taken seriously.'
'The process of building this is going to change society. We will have
ethical problems that are unimaginable to us'
Manchester is hoping it is possible to simplify key elements of the brain and
thus dramatically reduce the computation power needed to replicate them.
Others doubt Markham can ever succeed. Imperial College professor Igor
Aleksander claims that while Markram can build a copy of a human brain, it
will be 'like an empty bucket', incapable of consciousness.
And, as Dr Lester points out, 'a newly minted real human brain can't do very
much except lie on the floor and gurgle'. Indeed, Professor Markram may end
up creating the world's most expensive baby.
But if Markram turns his machine on in 2018, and it utters the famous
declaration that underpins Western philosophy, 'I think, therefore I am', he
will have confounded his critics.
And his ambition is by no means impossible. In the past year, models of a rat
brain produced totally unexpected 'brainwave patterns' in the computer
software. Is it possible that, for a few seconds maybe, a fleeting rat-like
'Perhaps,' Markram says. It is not much, but if a rat, then why not a man?
During my meeting I tried to avoid bringing up the name of the most famous
(fictional) creator of artificial life, on the grounds of taste. But in the
end, I had to mention him.
'Yes, well, Dr Frankenstein. People have made that point,' Markram says with
a thin smile.
Frankenstein's experiment, of course, went rather horribly wrong. And that
was one man, with his monster made from bits of old corpse.
A glittering machine brain, perhaps many times more intelligent than our own
and created by one of the best-equipped laboratories in the world, carries,
perhaps, even more potential for evil, as well as good.
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