Supercomputing Project To Map The Human Brain
October 8, 2013

Human Brain Project Looks To Create Computer Simulations Of The Mind

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redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Scientists from more than 100 universities and institutions are joining forces on what is being called the most ambitious neuroscience project ever attempted: an initiative to develop the technology necessary to create a computerized simulation of a person’s mind.

The Human Brain Project will cost an estimated $1.6 billion (1.2 billion euros) to operate and is co-funded by the European Union, the Associated Press (AP) reported on Monday. The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne will team with 135 partner institutions on the project, and they hope to have systems in place and tested in time to begin conducting simulations and calculations in 2016.

“The Human Brain Project is an attempt to build completely new computer science technology that will enable us to collect all the information we have built up about the brain over the years,” Professor Henry Markram, Director of the HBP at EPFL, told BBC News Medical Correspondent Fergus Walsh. “We should begin to understand what makes the human brain unique, the basic mechanisms behind cognition and behavior, how to objectively diagnose brain diseases, and to build new technologies inspired by how the brain computes.”

At the center of the project will be a proposed supercomputer expected to be 1,000 times faster than those currently in use, according to’s John Brandon. This so-called exascale supercomputer is fast enough to model nuclear explosions and the natural forces that help shape the planet's climate. However, once the technology is up-and-running, HBP scientists plan to simulate drugs and treatments for conditions that cost hundreds of billions of dollars to treat, the AP added.

“The scientists involved accept that current computer technology is insufficient to simulate complex brain function. But within a decade, supercomputers should be sufficiently powerful to begin the first draft simulation of the human brain,” Walsh explained. “Another hurdle is the huge amount of data that will be produced, which will mean massively expanding computing memory.

“The HBP can be viewed as the neuroscience equivalent of the Human Genome Project, which involved thousands of scientists around the world working together to sequence our entire genetic code,” he added. “That took more than a decade and cost hundreds of billions of dollars. But whereas that involved mapping every one of the three billion base pairs found in every cell that make up our entire genetic code, the Human Brain Project will not be able to map the entire human brain. It's simply too complex.”

Markram told Brandon that IBM, Intel and other computer manufacturers have committed to having the first exascale supercomputers available sometime around the year 2020, and thus HBP scientists are “confident” they will have the technology available to conduct their simulations. In addition to exponentially greater processing power, he said these supercomputers will consume massive amounts of power and require new forms of memory.

“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,” Brandon said. “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.)”