[ExI] Human Brain Project kicks off today

Eugen Leitl eugen at leitl.org
Mon Oct 7 15:45:29 UTC 2013


How to build a human brain (with a computer 1,000x faster than today’s)

By John Brandon

Published October 07, 2013 FoxNews.com


What if you could build a computer that works just like the human brain?

Scientists have started to imagine the possibilities: We could invent new
forms of industrial machinery, create fully autonomous thinking cars, devise
new kinds of home appliances. A new project in Europe hopes to create a
computer brain just that powerful in the next ten years -- and it’s
incredibly well-funded.

There’s just one catch: computers that fast simply haven’t been invented yet.

The Human Brain Project kicks off Oct. 7 at a conference in Switzerland. Over
the next 10 years, about 80 science institutions and at least 20 government
entities in Europe will figure out how to make that computer brain. The
project will cost about $1.6B in U.S. dollars.

The research hinges on creating a super-powerful computer that’s 1,000 times
faster than those in use today. If you’re keeping track, that’s an “exascale”
supercomputer, one fast enough to model a nuclear explosion or the complex,
planetwide forces that shape the climate. Just a few years ago, scientists
started using “petascale” supercomputers like Blue Waters at the National
Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) in Illinois that went online
last year.

'The more we know about our brains, the more we can utilize our brains to its
full potential.'

- Dr. Gayani DeSilva, a psychiatrist with a private practice in Orange,

“Well-known manufacturers of supercomputers like IBM, Cray, Intel, and Bull,
are committed to building the first exascale machines by approximately 2020.
So we are confident we will have the machines we need,” Henry Markram, the
director of the Human Brain Project at École Polytechnique Fédérale de
Lausanne in Switzerland, told FoxNews.com. Markram also directs the Blue
Brain project started in 2005 that hopes to reverse-engineering the human
brain by rebuilding the molecules.

For scientists, these sorts of projects are all about understanding
ourselves. The brain is the least understood organ in the human body. We
don’t really know how the brain controls our thoughts, our bodily functions,
or our behavior. And, Markham says the lack of processing power in modern
computer is the least of our worries.

He says a computer brain will consume gigawatts of power, require new forms
of memory, and force scientists to look at cutting edge storage techniques.
But the immense technical hurdles will be worth the effort. The first phases
will help us understand how the brain functions. In later phases, we’ll find
out how we learn, how we see and hear, and why the brain sometimes doesn’t
process information correctly.

Dr. Gayani DeSilva, a psychiatrist with a private practice in Orange, Calif.,
told FoxNews.com a human brain model could have “unimaginable” implications
for medicine, helping us learn how we adapt, heal, and develop. “The more we
know about our brains, the more we can utilize our brains to its full
potential, intervene when issues arise, replicate in artificial creations the
power of the brain’s ability to integrate a vast amount of information that
then causes other systems to perform specific actions,” she says.

“The human brain is immensely complex, and a model reduces this complexity
into a controlled system. In a model, scientists can test hypotheses as to
how the human brain works, and what occurs in disease in order to understand
how to treat neurological conditions. It's analogous to astronauts training
in a flight simulator prior to a shuttle launch,” added Amina Ann Qutub, a
bioengineer at Rice University.

Fortunately, scientists won’t have to wait 10 years for the results. Markram
says there will be initial models they can use for medical research with a
year. In three years, they will have models that could help us build new
kinds of computer chips. (That’s right: the brain project itself will help
them build the computer brain.)

As with any cutting edge science, we don’t know yet what we don’t know. Qutub
says this is all unmapped territory. “The number of total cells including the
neurons, vascular cells, and glia in a human brain is more than the number of
stars in the Milky Way,” she said. 

That’s enough to give scientists quite the headache.

Editors' Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the cost
of the project. The correct cost is shown above.

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