August 13, 2009

Computers Closing In On The Human Brain

Scientists are attempting to engineer a human-like brain with the help of powerful supercomputers.

It's called the Blue Brain project, led by computer genius Henry Markram, who is also the director of the Center for Neuroscience & Technology and the Brain Mind Institute.

Markram has worked on the project for the past five years. Last month he claimed at a conference in Oxford, that he plans to build an electronic human brain 'within ten years'.

Many questions surround this controversial research, including how to make a machine think.

Experts say this problem is one of the central questions of modern philosophy and goes to the very heart of what we know, or rather do not know, about the human mind.

Mail Online writer Michael Hanlon writes that in some ways a brain is quite different from a computer. Although computers are brilliant at calculating the weather forecast and modeling the effects of nuclear explosions, they still cannot 'think'.

He writes that possibly computers, being machines not flesh and blood, will never think. A robot will never be built that will feel pain or get angry, and the Blue Brain project will fail.

However, others argue that if you build something that works exactly like a brain, consciousness, at least in theory, will follow.

In fact, several teams are working to prove this is the case by attempting to build an electronic brain.

They are using powerful mainframe computers to 'model' a brain. But, they say, the result will be just the same.

Two years ago, a team at IBM's Almaden research lab at Nevada University used a BlueGene/L Supercomputer to model half a mouse brain.

Half a mouse brain consists of about eight million neurons, each of which can form around 8,000 links with neighboring cells.

This virtual version pushes a computer to the limit, even machines which, like the BlueGene, can perform 20trillion calculations a second.

IBM's 'mouse' simulation was run for about ten seconds at a speed a tenth as fast as an actual rodent brain operates.

Scientists claim they detected tell-tale patterns believed to correspond with the 'thoughts' seen by scanners in real-life mouse brains.

Many neuroscientists claim the human brain is too complicated to copy. They say building a thinking, remembering human mind is difficult.

Markram's team is using one of the most powerful computers in the world to replicate the actions of the 100billion neurons in the human brain.

Moral questions weigh on this experiment, according to Hanlon. Would turning it off constitute murder? Would performing experiments upon it constitute torture?

The nature versus nurture debate would also take center stage. Would this human mind, for example, automatically feel guilt or would it need to be 'taught' a sense of morality first? And how would it respond to religion?

If the Blue Brain project succeeds, in a few decades we will be looking at the creation of a new intelligent lifeform on Earth.

Hanlon writes that the ethical dilemmas we face when it comes to experimenting on animals in the name of science will pale into insignificance when faced with the potential torments of our new machine mind.


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