Thought experiment: build a supercomputer replica of the human brain

May 17, 2013

Neocortical column in Henry Markram’s Blue Brain project (Credit: Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne)

Henry Markram’s Human Brain Project (HBP), backed by 1 billion euros ($1.3 billion) funding Jan. 2013 from the European Commission, plans to integrate findings from the Allen Brain Atlas, the National Institutes of Health-funded Human Connectome Project, and the Brain (“Brain Activity Map”) project, Wired reports.

The HBP is an ambitious attempt to build a complete model of a human brain using predictive reverse-engineering and simulate it on an IBM Blue Gene supercomputer. Markram plans to give the EU an early working prototype of this system within just 18 months.

According to Brown University neuroscientist John Donoghue, one of the key figures in the Brain project, the HBP provides a means to test ideas that would emerge from Brain Activity Map data, and Brain Activity Map data would inform the models simulated in the Human Brain Project.

Markram is simultaneously doing four things: running a wet lab that amasses data through experiments on brain tissue, building a small-scale model and simulation of the rat neocortex (his initial Blue Brain project), running the Human Brain Project, and managing the simulation aspects of the HBP, building a virtual human brain from all the incoming data.

Markram thinks that the greatest potential achievement of his sim would be to determine the causes of the approximately 600 known brain disorders. He’ll achieve this by connecting his model brain to sensor-laden robotics and simultaneously recording what the robot is sensing and “thinking” as it explores physical environments, correlating audiovisual signals with simulated brain activity as the machine learns about the world.

A neuroscientist could then play back those perceptions as distorted by a damaged brain simulation. In an immersive 3-D environment, a researcher could see the world as a schizophrenic while watching what is going on in the schizophrenic’s mind.

Markram has hinted at the possibility that a sim embodied in a robot might become conscious. Hardwired with Markram’s model and given sufficient experience of the world, the machine could actually start thinking (à la Skynet and HAL 9000).

Blue Brain Project: speed vs. memory (credit: Henry Markram)