Our Electric Brain

The Blue Brain Project aims to solve the epic problem of consciousness. But will it let us catch consciousness in the act?
Our Electric Brain
Photo: EPFL/BBP.

If you’ve been fussing over a birthday gift for the sci-fi nut or armchair transhumanist in your life, consider a ticket to Lausanne, Switzerland. That’s where, in one corner of the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, an IBM supercomputer is quietly making some fitful first steps toward consciousness.

Its name is Blue Brain. Its job is to simulate, at the cellular level, the interaction of neurons. Launched as a collaboration with IBM in 2005, its makers have taken it as far as simulating a basic computational unit of a two-week-old rat’s brain. This single neocortical column – around 10,000 neurons locked into 30 million synaptic handshakes – has been doing what they had hoped it would do, which is act much like a real bundle of neurons. What’s especially remarkable is that it accomplishes this feat from the bottom-up, with the complexity emerging from the behaviors of the individually modeled parts alone.

Though the brains behind Blue Brain initially played coy about it, the ultimate goal here is not some disembodied and deranged rat in a digital cage; the ultimate goal is an accurate simulation of a whole human brain, one that, if all goes according to plan, exhibits human-like consciousness. As Henry Markram, the neuroscientist who directs the Blue Brain Project, explained in the February issue of Seed magazine, “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.”

Today, that goal appears very far off. With two million or so neocortical columns in the human brain, scaling up the current simulation architecture would require hundreds of billions of dollars worth of the Blue Gene/L supercomputers it runs on now. Nevertheless, Markram is optimistic that they’ll be able to simulate a human brain on one computer in 10 years or less.

Considering that it took Microsoft half that time just to release the flatulent Windows Vista, I’d be surprised – gobsmacked, actually – if it all went down that smoothly. But perhaps I’m radically underestimating the thirst that exists for machine consciousness. What, after all, is really at stake here, besides the possibility of some very unreliable and neurotic computers? In the same Seed article, writer Jonah Lehrer echoes the high hopes that many seem to have for Blue Brain, noting that, “If the simulation is successful . . . the epic problem of consciousness will have been solved.”

Solved? Once and for all? The quotidian reality, as usual, may be a tad less epic, a tad more banal. If these initial attempts prove to be a bust, Markram’s team will be sent back to the source to see what they left out of their model. It will take a great many such trips by a great many more people before anybody is going to concede that it can’t be done. (Thus, we could be temporarily spared the sad sight of dejected futurists scrambling for other ways that rich folk might transcend their grotty meat bodies.)

If, on the other hand, these efforts do bear self-aware fruit, try not to be too sore with the resulting cultural whimper. Those who are pinning all of their hopes for humanity on this success – mind-body dualism and religion stamped out in one generation! – would be wise to note our collective resistance, from Descartes onward, to getting truly bothered by the multifarious ways in which animals hint at their own self-awareness. The machine has no soul, they’ll shrug. Once the dust has settled, will they even let Blue Brain v35.0 attend a Kansas public school?

I don’t mean to downplay the value of this and similar research, which at the very least will help usher in medical and computing advancements grand enough to make your armchair transhumanist cream his/her/its jeans. But as far as “solving” consciousness, it might all come down to that old chestnut about the tree falling in the woods: whether you respond with a yes (because sound is a pressure-variation wave) or a no (because sound is a sensory phenomenon), the act of answering involves imposing a limit – an act of faith. Despite the reams of wacky neologisms that philosophy and science have given us to bicker about consciousness, all we’ve concluded to date is that it’s one slippery little bugger, lurking somewhere between what you feel, what you do, and what is done to you, between inarticulate fact and indispensable fiction. Seeking it out will entail another such act of faith.

So, when we’ve finally created the computer that speaks to us in human poetry – and my money, for what it’s worth, says that we eventually will – what then? Since we built it from the ground up, we’ll know this tin man pretty damn intimately, and we should be clever enough by then to translate our record of its every last simulated neural event into sensations and thoughts – an embarrassing memory, a tickle on the bum. Looking down on this wealth of data from the outside, however, will we really be able to see consciousness itself, even if we can confidently infer that it’s rattling around in there? Or will we remain one consciousness peering at solid evidence of another, just as we always have? And for all of our accelerating technological prowess, that eel called consciousness would slither away unscathed.

_Clayton Dach

28 comments on the article “Our Electric Brain”

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Brian

Zombie. Robot. Us's. What happens to our appreciation for the human spirit after a generation grows up with A.I.? Look at what we do to real trees while we carefully place plastic substitutes in their place in homes across the world. Human will just be a technicality, consciousness is then subjective as people question what it even means to have a mind. In Logan's Run, a late 70's film where the last remnants of thenturned hedonistic civilization live inside a dome of glass, plastics, and glossy metallic architecture; one scene depicts, a citizen, upon seeing nature for the first time in her life, screams out, Get it away from me! I hate it, I want to go back inside! Can we stop ourselves from searching technology for happiness before we waste cultures and lifetimes in our pursuit of what can only be the Universe infinitely attempting to figure out what itself is?

Marc

Its funny how important things like curing disease and and supplying cheap medications to the third world never happen but things that no one really wants like artificial intelligence people always seem to be trying to make it? not good.

Eleazar Cruz

Since the recorded beginnings of woman on earth, there have been tremendous advancements in communities, societies, and more recently, technologies. If you read material by Ken Wilbur or Andrew Cohen, you're probably also witnessing further advances in spirituality. Now, with neuroscience being more and more understood, people want to emulate a natural human process that has evolved over hundreds of thousands of years or perhaps more. One lesson science can probably learn from the past is to leave well enough alone. As for creating beneficial models that support the research and creation of preventative models for Altzheimer's and other brain disorders and/or problems from injuries and diseases, I'm all for it! Just remember what happened in Frankenstein. I don't think that's too far fetched of an idea in today's world.

Krs

There is a beautiful movie released in 1984 which explains pretty well what will happen once we create machines that can think for themselves and therefore also make their own decisions.....I'll give you a hint....it stars the governor of California.... Humanity will create that which will destroy us.

Tom

Wait... who doesn't want artificial intelligence? It is one of many technological advances that will lead to CURES of diseases, and also provide us with more information about neuroscience, and computer science. I see absolutely no problem with this project.

sloflo

the money could be better spent. What will we do with an artificial human anyway? Say oooh and awww, maybe send it into war, make them available for purchase so no one ever need be alone again? They would serve no worthwhile purpose, unless used solely to aid in research to cure human disease. which i seriously doubtEven if they do accomplish that, and ie. a cure for all cancers is found and availablewhat will happen is only the wealthy and elite will be able to afford treatment. Using money on a project like this is one more way for the poor to die out leaving a society of elitists fighting over natural resources and the ruling thumb.

TomNZ

If/when we manage to create AI, and it is put to use effectively, it will undoubtedly cause the greatest leap in technology, science, knowledge and indeed civilisation that has ever occurred in the entire history of the human race. It should be possible to create conciousnesses with a much, much greater capacity than our own, which could likely provide solutions to huge world probems in an instant. This is no hyperbole.

Spaz

I can see many ups and downs to this project. On one hand people can learn more about the human brain and how it behaves, but on the other hand the thing that makes us unique, that makes us us will be given to a machine who may one day seem to have the look of a human, but it will never have the spirit of one. That is something no machine can copy.

Born of Mothers...

Hopefully this all happens on a mass scale production before the Zombie epidemic comes into fruition. Theoretically speaking, we can attempt to infuse a consciousness into the thought patterns of the living dead, so as to enlighten them of their wrongdoings, effectively implanting a guilt complex for which we could counsel them out of and eventually live harmoniously as one. Failing this, we can just use the brains as decoys to be feasted upon by the zombies, whilst we manage to get away and devise the next plan of attack on those dastardly reanimates. Though on a more serious note it would appear that upon having succeeded the creation of Blue Brain, our understanding of the world will effectively be thrown into an unforeseeable future. We have enough trouble keeping up with technology as it were today, let alone having access to a processor that could put us 100s of years in advance of our current position, all in such a small amount of time. There is a reason natural processes evolve at the rate in which they have since day dot. We as a species seems to want to speedup these developments to degrees in which we have no comprehension of the consequences. We are all too aware of the effects of information overload. And what of in the instance the Blue Brain tells us how we should approach certain world agendas for the better of all humanity, of which doesnt fit into the current scheme of those privileged with power? Would they want to adhere to these suggestions, or would they want to reconfigure it to ignore certain logics in favour of continuing the task at hand?

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