The Frontal Cortex

The Blue Brain

Via Vaughan at MindHacks, comes this link to a preview of a documentary-in-progress on The Blue Brain, that epic attempt to create a conscious supercomputer.

I was fortunate enough to profile the Blue Brain in 2008:

In the basement of a university in Lausanne, Switzerland sit four black boxes, each about the size of a refrigerator, and filled with 2,000 IBM microchips stacked in repeating rows. Together they form the processing core of a machine that can handle 22.8 trillion operations per second. It contains no moving parts and is eerily silent. When the computer is turned on, the only thing you can hear is the continuous sigh of the massive air conditioner. This is Blue Brain.

The name of the supercomputer is literal: Each of its microchips has been programmed to act just like a real neuron in a real brain. The behavior of the computer replicates, with shocking precision, the cellular events unfolding inside a mind. “This is the first model of the brain that has been built from the bottom-up,” says Henry Markram, a neuroscientist at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and the director of the Blue Brain project. “There are lots of models out there, but this is the only one that is totally biologically accurate. We began with the most basic facts about the brain and just worked from there.”

Comments

  1. #1 jbc
    February 3, 2010

    Thanks for the post Jonah. I saw Markram talk about blue brain when I was in grad school. He’s a very compelling speaker and unnervingly smart. But at the end of the day this all just seems like bicep-flexing, ‘look what we can do’ science that’s unlikely to tell us much new about human cognition. Having an exact simulation of a cortical column down to the level of ion channels seems rather like the perfectly useless map that Borges described in ‘On Exactitude in Science’:

    “..the Cartographers Guild drew a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, coinciding point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography saw the vast Map to be Useless and permitted it to decay and fray under the Sun and winters.”

    On the plus side though, Blue Brain will let us generate huge virtual data sets that we’re not likely to obtain experimentally any time soon. Those data might tell us something cool – but we’ll probably still be talking about spike statistics/synchrony/etc rather than saying much about where the scent of a rose is found in cortex.

  2. #2 Zoasterboy
    February 3, 2010

    My two favorite brain blogs, I love how they both reference each other!

  3. #3 stripey_cat
    February 4, 2010

    jbc@1 – sometimes it’s good just to see what we can do, and not get too bogged down in economic returns or specific goals.

  4. #4 spidey_man
    February 4, 2010

    However …
    1) We still do not know how the real brain works. We do not have a database of neural activity to which we could compare the output of the Blue Brain simulations. If we had said database, we would already know how the brain works and there would be little point in building a simulation, right?
    2) Given that the connectivity of the brain is unknown, and there are huge efforts trying to create the connectivity map of the brain, the chances that , even if the single cells properties were accurate, that a simulation with patched up connectivities of several brain put together would resemble a real brain activity are …nil. But we might not know, because of point 1).