Henry Markram's computer model of a brain is built one neuron at a time.
Henry Markram's model of a brain is built one neuron at a time.

Once you start building a brain in a box you get two things: admission into the Mad Scientists' Club, and a chance to speak at TED. Henry Markram is the director of the Blue Brain Project, a collaboration between European scientists and IBM that aims to construct a life-like simulation of a brain using a supercomputer. Earlier this year Markram spoke at TED Global discussing how most of human perception is based on decision making within the brain. BBP hopes it will only take another decade to create a fully functioning computer model of a human mind, and Markram will guide you through some of the most important concepts behind the simulated brain today. Check out the TED Global 2009 video after the break.

This is neither the first Blue Brain Project story, nor even the first video of Markram that we've discussed here at Singularity Hub. What keeps us coming back to the topic? The amazing possibilities created by the BBP research and the uncertainty as to whether it will ever succeed. While not aimed at creating an artificial intelligence, a fully functioning simulated brain would be hard to define as anything else. Even ignoring the AI applications, BBP could help neuroscientists learn what causes certain mental illnesses, or how to repair trauma to the brain, or how to improve the way the brain processes information. Right now, BBP is exploring different theories on how the mind works. Yet it's still much too early to tell if Markram will ever be able to exploit those theories to create a full fledged simulation.


The BBP is focused on the neocortex and specifically the neocortical columns that provide the raw computational power that shapes our minds. These columns are where our higher reasoning and decision making abilities reside. Research into the neocortex not only informs Markram and his team in how to program their supercomputer, it also highlights the fundamental ways in which our minds interact with the universe. As Markram describes in the video, 99% of our perception is based on the decision making processes which analyze incoming sensory information. Our world is cognitively based on our choices. That's powerful stuff.

Neuroscientists have spent the better part of the last 15 years learning how to build digital models of the branching and connectivity between neurons. In Markram's discussion he mentions that there is a huge amount of neural diversity, that each cell in our brain is different in its orientation and connection from every other cell, and different from every other neuron in the brains of others. Yet despite this diversity, there are consistent patterns in how neocortical circuitry is wired. Hearing that, I wonder if the efforts to build devices to "read people's minds" will be enhanced by BBP's discoveries. Once we understand common patterns in neurons, couldn't we look for those patterns and translate them as thoughts or emotions? What if those patterns are too complex, or if the diversity is too strong to create a general model of the brain? BBP has a long way to go in understanding the nature of neuron interactions.

Markram's goals for modeling the electrical activity in the brain may lead to a better understanding of how real world objects are mapped into neuron connections and signals. Such "electrical objects" in the brain show us its perception of the outside world, and could also give us the key to programming the brain. Creating artificial electrical objects in the brain (however one might do that) could allow us to experience things without ever being near them. There are many possible applications of such a technique for virtual reality and accelerated learning. Those technologies would require a tremendous understanding of the brain, however, and it's unclear how quickly Markram's team will be able to define the way neurons map the real world.

It's hard to know if the Blue Brain Project will achieve its goal of creating a life like simulation of a brain in just 10 years. The task is monumental, but if you listen to Markram you sort of believe that they are most of the way there already. Hopefully that confidence will be supported by many years of fruitful work in the near future, because his research is far from over. There are likely some functions of the brain than can ever be revealed by simulation. But as far as mad scientist projects go, this one makes me as hopeful as I am skeptical.

[photo credit: blue brain project]