A human brain — which can think, reason and have experiences — can be created in a supercomputer in the next 10 years, says neuroscientist Henry Markram.
Dr. Markram, who is heading the Blue Brain Project that seeks to reverse-engineer the mammalian brain, told press persons here that his team has already put in place a template for creating a human brain inside a computer. Eventually, the team hopes to replicate the functioning of each of the brain’s synapses — junctions between two nerve cells in the brain across which impulses pass.
The director of the Swiss Federal Institute’s Brain Mind Institute was in town at the invitation of the Technopark-based firm PIT Solutions, which will offer IT support to the Blue Brain Project.
Since the initial stages of the project necessitated invasive gathering of data, the team started by working on the brain of a rat. From this basic framework, the Blue Brain Project started studying how data is gathered and stored in brains of higher species. Once all the circuitry of the computerised brain is put in place, it would be driven by a bio-processor fashioned by IBM. The ‘brain’ could be operational by 2018 or by 2020 and the project could cost U.S. $3 billion, Dr. Markram said.
The immediate benefit of such a brain would be felt in field of medical diagnosis. The computerised brain can be used to simulate the dysfunctions in a patient’s brain. This will enable doctors to offer highly customised treatment and prescribe drugs that give effective results. The brain inside the supercomputer would be accessible over the Internet to scientists and doctors. Though there may be commercial spin-offs, the project itself would remain essentially academic in nature, he said.
Replying to a question, Dr. Markram said mind is a term used by man to describe the expressions of the capabilities of the brain. In that sense, the brain inside the computer too would have a mind of its own. There is no danger, however, of that brain becoming ‘intelligent’ in any undesirable manner because the inputs that allow the computerised brain to develop can be controlled by man. “This is essentially a tool, a toy,” he elaborated.
The development of a brain inside a computer may also provide insights into how and at what point of time a human being develops self-awareness.
“If we find that putting together such and such things results in self-awareness for the computerised brain it would be a crucial discovery. On the other hand if we find that even putting together such and such components together isn’t enough to generate self-awareness, we would have learnt much more,” he said.
Over 1,000 scientists are expected to be involved with the project by the time it is completed, he added.