Many of you, like me, are excited about the possibilities of modeling and simulating the human brain. The Blue Brain Project, based in Switzerland, and made possible by IBM, is one of the leading endeavors to understand how the brain functions and how we can build a computer that will simulate those functions for us to explore. If our earlier article on the Blue Brain Project left you eager to learn more, check out the new presentation that Project Director Henry Markram gave as part of Seed Magazine‘s Seed Design Series. The 15 minute video is embedded after the break.
If you want to understand something, it helps to be able to explore it, tinker with it, and watch how it works. Computer simulations allows scientists to do just that. For an instrument as complex and beautiful as the human brain, a simulation would require enormous resources. Markram estimates that it will take computers 20,000 times more powerful than any produced today, and with memory capacity 500 times the current size of the Internet. We’re talking exaflops worth of computing power and peta or exabytes of memory stored. Yet Markram seems confident we can reach these goals in about 10 years.
Markram does a good job of breaking down Blue Brain’s approach, as does our earlier article, so I won’t repeat it all. The focus of the simulation is the neocortex, specifically microprocessors in neocortical columns. So far BBP has been able to make 3D models, examining the over 400 types of neurons, electrical signal profiles, protein profiles, connectivity patterns, and signal languages in the neocortex. The journey through the brain that Markram gives you is really cool, especially when he reveals it’s only at 10% density of the actual brain. Apparently neurons are more densely packed than geeks at a comicon.
BBP is not an effort to create an artificial intelligence, it’s an attempt to model how the brain works. As such, its ability to help us explore and treat brain disease has great potential. Markram touches briefly on medical applications such as researching Autism near 12:02.
The modeling and simulating of the human brain is a herculean feat, and many detractors claim it can never be fully accomplished. Some wonder if a simulation can even discover anything new as it is only based on supplied information not nature itself. While I can’t address the latter, I know that the scope of the project shouldn’t let you scoff at Markram’s 10 year prediction. After all, the Human Genome Project seemed equally daunting, but was achieved with historic results. Whether it takes a decade, or more, I look forward to a time when humans can explore a virtual version of the instrument that allows them to explore the world.