The Blue Brain of Lausanne

The Blue Brain of Lausanne

(Update Nov. 2009): German Article on Zeit Online

On futur:plom I stumbled over a link to an article „Out of the blue“ on seedmagazine which describes the Blue Brain Project (with some nice simulation videos) from Lausanne here in Switzerland. It started in 2005 and aimed in a first step at creating a digital model of a single neuron.

In December 2006 the project reached the goal of simulating 10’000 neurons, which equivalents a 0.5 x 2 mm slice of a rat brain. To get me right: This project is not about emulating a brain by translating brain work into digital code in form of a tamagotchi – this is a supercomputer with 22.8 teraflops to simulate neuron networks on a biological level. The computer doesn’t think like a brain, the computer is acting as a neuron network.

Neuron with simulation data mapped in color.

Neuron with simulation data mapped in color.

Next step will be simulating a whole rat brain, then a human brain. The road map of ten years to this point may be a bit scary, but I like the approach because this is not reductionist science. By digitally rebuilding a brain we may get a better understanding of nature, which is more a holistic system than a four-dimensional machine. We may enjoy a paradigm shift in the near future… :please:

Now the really interesting part is about consciousness. Will this computer get one? Today I think possibly yes, because I don’t see consciousness as something mystical – thinking words, imagine pictures and planning strategies is simply an evolutionary advance. But there’s too this kind of consciousness one can reach by hushing the brain. In ordinary words: Will this computer get charity? Mercy? Will it see dying soldiers simply as collateral damage?

I guess so. In fact, from a certain point of view, the individual is not important – only the surviving of the system is. Valuation of individuals is a relatively new phenomena and actually bad for the gen pool.

It depends on what is defined as the system. Is it a tribe or an ethnic group, humanity or the earth, the universe? At this point Stanislav Lem comes to mind, especially his story „Golem XIV„. This technological singularity judged war simply as illogical (By the way: „Golem XIV“ is a must read in many ways!). However, I don’t think such computers will find a benefit in meditation – aside from standby mode.

Since „Out of the blue“ is a nine page read, you can get a small excerpt if you click on read more. And what do you think: Can a technological singularity reach higher consciousness? Speaking in the concept of souls: Can a machine get a soul? Or can humans „bewitch“ machines and get them a soul? Or is anyway everything illusion, including me typing this?

(Relatively) short excerpt from „Out of the blue“ on seedmagazine:

„You need to look at the history of physics,“ Henry Markram says. „From Copernicus to Einstein, the big breakthroughs always came from conceptual models. They are what integrated all the facts so that they made sense. You can have all the data in the world, but without a model the data will never be enough.“

By analyzing the genetic expression of real rat neurons, the scientists could then start to integrate these details into the model. They were able to construct a precise map of ion channels, figuring out which cell types had which kind of ion channel and in what density. This new knowledge was then plugged into Blue Brain, allowing the supercomputer to accurately simulate any neuron anywhere in the neocortical column.

In theory, this meant that once the Blue Brain team created an accurate model of a single neuron, they could multiply it to get a three-dimensional slice of brain.

After assembling a three-dimensional model of 10,000 virtual neurons, the scientists began feeding the simulation electrical impulses, which were designed to replicate the currents constantly rippling through a real rat brain.

It didn’t take long before the model reacted. After only a few electrical jolts, the artificial neural circuit began to act just like a real neural circuit. Clusters of connected neurons began to fire in close synchrony: the cells were wiring themselves together. Different cell types obeyed their genetic instructions. The scientists could see the cellular looms flash and then fade as the cells wove themselves into meaningful patterns. „This all happened on its own,“ Markram says. „It was entirely spontaneous.“

„We have already shown that the model can scale up,“ Markram says. „What is holding us back now are the computers.“ Markram estimates that in order to accurately simulate the trillion synapses in the human brain, you’d need to be able to process about 500 petabytes of data (peta being a million billion). That’s about 200 times more information than is stored on all of Google’s servers. (Given current technology, a machine capable of such power would be the size of several football fields.). The human brain requires about 25 watts of electricity to operate. Markram estimates that simulating the brain on a supercomputer with existing microchips would generate an annual electrical bill of about $3 billion . But if computing speeds continue to develop at their current exponential pace, and energy efficiency improves, Markram believes that he’ll be able to model a complete human brain on a single machine in ten years or less.

Once the team is able to model a complete rat brain—that should happen in the next two years — Markram will download the simulation into a robotic rat, so that the brain has a body. He’s already talking to a Japanese company about constructing the mechanical animal. „The only way to really know what the model is capable of is to give it legs,“ he says. „If the robotic rat just bumps into walls, then we’ve got a problem.“

„There is nothing inherently mysterious about the mind or anything it makes,“ Markram says. „Consciousness is just a massive amount of information being exchanged by trillions of brain cells. If you can precisely model that information, then I don’t know why you wouldn’t be able to generate a conscious mind.“ Consciousness is a binary code; the self is a loop of electricity. A ghost will emerge from the machine once the machine is built right.

And yet, Markram is candid about the possibility of failure. He knows that he has no idea what will happen once the Blue Brain is scaled up. „I think it will be just as interesting, perhaps even more interesting, if we can’t create a conscious computer,“ Markram says. „Then the question will be: ‚What are we missing? Why is this not enough?'“

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