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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els

the rich and powerful destroy the world and then live on as machines genius! in a backward way it could save the human race, though i doubt a synthesised mind would clone a human for 'purely research reasons' as the people peddling blue brain claim they are creating consciousness for the sake of answering intolerable questions. the very nature of consciousness is that it is uncontrollable .

B

As great a concept as this is, the type of technology presented here has to be strictly controlled. If it was givin and sort of control, strength weapons maybe even mobility it could cause many more problems than it would be worth.

Alice

Hows about they stop touting technology as the end all be all soloution to our sickness, diseases and general discontent. Would it be so hard for people to stop being so lazy and realize that their cancers etc... are coming from things like stuffing our faces full of crappy food, smoking, drinking, inactivity & walking around with a cell phone glued to our ears. It's stuff like creating computer brains that is ruining our world. I thought by now it had become blatantly obvious that this bullshit isn't working. Perhaps it's a nice time for us to take two steps backwards and embrace a much simpler life. Hopefully we'll start seeing that soon.

Macky

Eleazar, what do you mean woman on earth? All women give us is reproductive capacity and Communist ethics. That is how the vast majority of nature works. Indeed, the advancements you speak of in consciousness, technology, law, language and art only really happened as the male of the human species asserted himself. Conversely, as we slide back into the anarchic and Communist Matriarchy, these progressions will come to a halt.

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.

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