Robot brain dream could be real within decade

Mind over matter: IBM's Blue Gene Supercomputer runs the Blue Brain simulator.

Scientists in Switzerland are working on a ‘fantastic new scientific instrument’: a working virtual simulation of a human brain. The consequences of success might stretch the limits of imagination.

The IBM Sequoia supercomputer is huge. The world’s most powerful computing machine is built from thousands of individual nodes, spread over 96 racks, covering more than 3,000 square feet – enough floor space for a decent sized mansion.

By contrast, the human brain is a lump of soft pinkish jelly that fits into a space the size of two clenched fists. And yet, no one has ever succeeded in teaching the supercomputer how to do what every brain can do without even trying. Supercomputers don’t know how to think.

But that might be about to change. In the small university town of Lausanne, in Switzerland, a team of neuroscientists and computer experts is working on a big project. Led by Dr Henry Markram, the research group are attempting to build an accurate, working virtual model of the human brain.

It will not be easy. The brain may be small, but it is an incredibly complex organ. Brain cells, called ‘neurons’, connect to each other through long electrically conductive tendrils which transmit signals from one cell to another. Each neuron can have dozens of connections. With 80 billion neurons in a normal human brain, the number of possible connections is around 100 trillion.

Building a ‘virtual brain’ means simulating the behaviour of all those billions of neurons, and all the trillions of connections. To run such a simulation would take a computer capable of handling one quintillion operations per second: an ‘exaflop’.

With current technology, a computer running at exaflop speed would literally melt. And yet, such is the speed of advance in modern computing that Dr Markram thinks his virtual brain could be ready within a decade.

What would that mean? Markram is hoping that a virtual brain model could be used to treat diseases and mental disorders.

But some are already imagining more than that. After all, they argue, if a computer could one day simulate the workings of a human brain, surely a human mind – the thinking, feeling part – could be effectively transferred to a computer.

In this imagined future, powerful supercomputers could ‘host’ someone’s brain, in virtual, simulated form, after that person’s body had aged and died. By ‘uploading’ perfect copies of brains, humans could enter a sort of electronic afterlife.

Ghosts in the machine

For some, this represents an astonishing possibility. Could science and technology one day help humans to defeat death itself? In the future, will we live not on spaceships or distant planets but deep within the code of enormous computing machines?

But many will remain unconvinced. A machine can get as sophisticated as it likes, they will argue, but it will never be able to replicate life. No one will ever simulate emotions. There is no such thing as a virtual soul.

You Decide

  1. Should a thinking computer have human rights?
  2. If you could live forever by being uploaded to a computer, would you choose to do so?

Activities

  1. Write an imagined dialogue between the first human ever uploaded onto a computer and the scientist who made it happen.
  2. Can science ever go too far? Write down three key ethical principles that you think should guide science in the future and compare them with others in your class.

Some People Say...

“One day, thinking computers will rule the world.”

What do you think?

Q & A

This all soundsvery far fetched!
Perhaps not as much as you might think. After all, in a way we have already transferred parts of our minds into machines.
Erm... I don’t think so!
Well – think about how people use sites like Facebook, for example. If you have a store of images somewhere online of things that have happened to you in the past, you are letting a computer take over some of the work of your memory. If you use a calculator, you are letting a computer take over the function of mental arithmetic. Sites like Wikipedia extend our natural knowledge, while instant messaging and video-calling sites boost our ability to communicate with each other. These are all natural functions of the brain.

Word Watch

Exaflop
FLOPS, standing for Floating-point Operations Per Second, is a standard measure of computer speed. A pocket calculator might run at around 10 flops. A home computer can usually handle tens of gigaflops (a gigaflop = one billion flops). Top supercomputers can run at two or three petaflops (one petaflop = a million gigaflops). An exaflop (the speed thought necessary to simulate a brain) is one thousand petaflops.
Literally melt
One of the main factors holding back the advance of supercomputer speeds is the amount of heat generated by all the millions of electrical signals being processed at the same time. Powering a supercomputer can cost millions of pounds per year, and the heat generated must be absorbed by a sophisticated cooling system. The human brain is much more efficient, but it still consumes a huge amount of energy compared to other parts of the human body. Around a quarter of the food humans eat is used to power the brain.
Speed of advance
The evolution of computers has, for decades, followed a pattern known as Moore’s Law. Every two years, the law predicts, the amount of computer power you can squeeze into a given space will double. It is unknown how long this pattern will continue, but progress in computing shows no signs of slowing down yet.

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