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7.7.10

Blue Brain Project

We know a lot about the biology of the neuron. It's quite amazing to see what information we have amassed these last few decades. Given my recent introduction to the whole Singularity way of thinking via the upcoming Singularity Summit, I've been thinking about brain-emulation, brain-computer interfacing, thought digitization, etc. more lately.

And of course, this has lead to the Blue Brain Project. For those who don't know about it, this project, funded by the Government of Switzerland and individual benefactors (edited to correct my error, see comments below), aims to "reverse-engineer the mammalian brain, in order to understand brain function and dysfunction through detailed simulations," and, "[u]ltimately, given additional resources, the facility can be extended to permit whole brain modeling, simulation and experimentation."

In his TED talk and in the associated BBC story, Henry Markram, the director of the Blue Brain Project claimed that "[i]t is not impossible to build a human brain and we can do it in 10 years."

So here's what I've been thinking: No.

I mean, not to be a super skeptic naysayer and all who ends up looking really dumb for making a sci/tech forecast that's woefully ignorant, but seriously. No. Not to say that it won't ever happen, but at this point we honestly just don't know enough about how all the pieces play together to give rise to our cognition. I think the neurosciences right now are where physics was in the early 1900s. A bunch of people thought Newtonian mechanics could explain everything. Turns out, the physical universe is much more complicated than that. Now we have quantum mechanics, relativity, the multiverse, dark energy, etc.

Like I said at the beginning of this post, we know a lot about the biology of the neuron. Similarly, computational modeling has gotten very sophisticated. When researchers build computational models incorporating known biology, they call it a "biologically-plausible" model. I think we're still stuck in the Newtonian mechanics period of neuroscience, and we're just now segueing into the more complicated "oh my god this stuff is harder than we thought!" part of our science.

To think that modeling a bunch of neurons digitally is akin to a thinking, evolved, conscious, aware human brain is like thinking that by soldering together a couple of million transistors in a "Apple-like fashion" will give you a working MacbookPro.

11 comments:

  1. .
    Check this 2 astonishing lectures of Henry Markram:
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    http://neuroinformatics2008.org/congress-movies/Henry%20Markram.flv/view
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    http://ditwww.epfl.ch/cgi-perl/EPFLTV/home.pl?page=start_video&lang=2&connected=0&id=365&video_type=10&win_close=0
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    .
    Very interesting article from the ‘Seed’ magazine:
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    http://seedmagazine.com/content/article/out_of_the_blue
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    http://seedmagazine.com/content/article/out_of_the_blue/P2
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    .
    And a few more interesting links about the project:
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    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/sci/tech/8012496.stm
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    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bz5IUaRr8No
    .
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RLCT3wU4fek
    .

    ReplyDelete
  2. Does this criticism still apply if we use a scanned brain as our template? It seems that a brain scan will have all of the connectivity information that you would need to go beyond "soldering together a bunch of transistors".

    (BTW, seems that openID doesn't work...)

    ReplyDelete
  3. Miron:

    Weird, I'm not sure what's up with openID...

    I think Ryan's been covering this pretty well in the email exchange, though. I don't really have anything else insightful to add.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Anonymous10:22

    - Well, that's what you think. Probably, if you bother to look a bit closer at what exactly is going on within the said project, you might figure out who does not understand what and how much. But then again, that's what I think.

    ReplyDelete
  5. It's not a question of who thinks what. We really just don't know enough even about the basic physiology to bootstrap a human brain from the molecular components. We don't even know how to define a neurotransmitter. How is Blue Brain modeling the diffusion of NO? What about gap junctions? Chaotic neuronal oscillations?

    Blue Brain's an excellent step in the right direction. However the people _selling_ it are over-hyping what we do know in neuroscience. That's to be expected. That's why we get things called "God particles" and crap.

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  6. Anonymous18:40

    "For those who don't know about it, this project, funded by IBM, "

    Please don't repeat zombie lies.

    IBM doesn't fund this project, the money comes from the Government of Switzerland and from individual benefactors.

    ReplyDelete
  7. That's correct. It's a common misconception and a serious error on my part. I've correct the main text of this post to reflect that.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Also, anonymous, I'll be at SfN this year. A few years ago there was a big Blue Brain Project push at SfN. I'll look for them there again this year and stop by.

    If I'm wrong about anything else I've said here, I'll correct it.

    If you work for them and will be there, grab me when I'm at the posters and talk to me. Maybe we can grab a beer and talk about our ideas.

    ReplyDelete
  9. As a complete novice ie starting my PhD thesis at FMI, Switzerland this is what i gather bout the Blue brain project...I completely agree with the neuroscience field being in a nascent stage but at the same time you need to model the brain to understand it just as Watson and Crick, Linius Pauling and their likes tried to model the DNA...AS for exaggerated claims or to put it correctly, expectations, are also justified...its only by reaching for the stars do you get the moon...And as for the physicists in 1900 trying to explain the whole workings of the universe with Newtonian mechanics, wouldn't you say that was actually a much needed fillip towards seeking theories which would explain things Newtonian Mechanics couldn't...its only by pushing this theory that scientists then realized its pitfalls and started looking for alternatives...so if you have a theory which you think will explain something then you need to push it to the limit until it fails or does explain fully what you sought out to explain...so i don't find myself being critical of the goals of the Blue Brain Project or their claims

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  10. Rabid: I remain critical of their claims, but I fully support their efforts! This post clearly gives the wrong impression--as though I think Markram is wasting time and money on Blue Brain. Far from the truth!

    We neuroscientists can write papers until the end of time detailing every little piece of neuronal physiology, psychology, etc. without knowing a damn thing about models of brain function. It's not until we put those models to the test that we know if we're right.

    Blue Brain is trying to build the brain from the ground up (digitally). When it fails to look like a human brain, you all can see what failed, and iterate accordingly. That's how science works! And I wish you all the best of luck. There's just a lot of conversations that I'd like to have with you all, I guess :) I want to really know what you all think you're doing, above and beyond the hype that I only hear about in the media.

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  11. Ahhh Brian...I am not a part of the Blue Brain Project in any way...just been following it pretty closely...even i don't expect the blue brain project to give a perfectly modelled human brain...but whatever it gives won't be very far from it and will be a step forward on which we can build for further steps forward

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