Sunday, April 6, 2008

Reverse Engineering the Brain

The Blue Brain Project, a collaboration of IBM and a Swiss polytechnic school called EPFL, might be leading to the first product that equals humans in terms of intelligence.

This ambitious project aims for an understanding of the human brain by modelling it from the bottom up. The team is trying to match the behaviour of individual simulated neurons with behaviour of real neurons by studying the brain of a living rat. So far, they have succeeded in simulating the behaviour of an entire neocortical column. This is the basic building block of which every brain is made up; ours contains a few thousands of these elements, each highly specialized in one function like recognizing the taste of cheese. After stimulating the model with impulses the simulated neocortical column just seemingly spontaneously began to grow dendrites, connecting neurons in an optimal way. Many entities, each of them behaving according to simple rules, can generate beautifully complex, highly intelligent, and seemingly unpredictable behaviour as a mass. The virtual model is now even so accurate to the behaviour of biological neurons that studying the model delivers better results than studying a real brain.

So the brain is simply a highly interactive network of these entities, and the major current limitation for the project is computing power. This is where IBM plays its role, by providing one supercomputer for simulating all neurons, and one to visualise the process. This results in spectacular imagery.

I'm pretty sure that this development will lead to the next humiliation of man, of a similar significance as the Copernican revolution. We will see that the brain is physically explainable, there is nothing metaphysical to it, that we can create artificial brains, and in the end, that technological organisms can be built that are as intelligent as humans. There already is the plan to build a robotic rat that would develop by interacting with the world, just like a real rat. Professor Henry Markram, director of the project, even believes that in the end, the model of the brain can let us experience what it experiences.

I myself do not believe in this latter prediction. The model will allow brains to communicate more easily and directly, as an alternative to language based communication about our experiences, but still it will remain communication, so there is inherently a gap caused by misinterpretation. You can never align two minds completely, so they can never share experiences, I think. The model can show us what it experiences, but then still our own consciousness selects what it picks from what is communicated. I, following the philosophy of embodiment, also feel that the project underestimates the importance of the physical form of an organism's body in generating its experiences and in the development of the inner structure of the brain. How you think is directly related to how your body is able to interact with the physical world, and this is different for every body. But I remain open for surprises, of course.

The project will have huge implications for designers of technological products. Like already with some other organs, we will possibly be able to create fully artificial human brains. But in contrast to organic brains, these technological brains could be networked electronically, via the internet for example. Brains become transparent, understandable, and rationally controllable. How can we make sure that humans still experience it as pleasurable if they become directly networked and others can directly monitor and influence them? I think to accept this, people first need to undergo a spiritual transformation, for example that of losing their egos, so they don't feel attacked but instead they feel helped by the technology.

Furthermore, how can we make sure our fellow artificially intelligent physical entities on this planet constructively and empathically interact with us? Still, biological brains are quite primitive, and need to go through great struggles to transform their internal configuration into one that works best in creating a fulfilling life. Egotism and territorialism, our present-bias, instinctive behaviour, our inclination to get stuck in self-reinforcing negative spirals, are just a few of the undesirable traits of the human brain, resulting from how we evolved in a primitive environment while these traits don't work anymore in our new, highly networked world. I think our task is not just to reverse engineer the brain, but rather already transform it so these brains more easily reach states like enlightenment. For example by equipping it with new hardwired couplings, like a new instinct. Or by giving it the additional function of being directly able to compare itself against the minds of others. Also, for people themselves to understand their brains, the electrical processes inside them must be translated for the senses, and not just remain abstract visualizations, so they can be easily interpreted and used in social communication in everyday life.

In my view, reverse engineering the brain is just a small start that will help catalyze a huge development: the complete convergence of the artificial and the natural.

More via Seed Magazine and the website of the Blue Brain Project.

Make sure you also watch this video where you can have a virtual flight through a model of the neocortical column. This will give you a feeling for the actual complexity of the human brain, and the scale on which thoughts occur; an entire neocortical column is only 2 mm long and 0.5 mm in diameter. For me this is extremely beautiful, because it confirms that thoughts are nothing but physical processes.


SayHiThere said...

Suppose Markram turned out to be right and that in ten to twenty years we knew and could duplicate the human brain. Wouldn't that be the most shocking event that humanity has ever experienced?

xcellent said...

Nice and useful post about Reverse Engineering Our Brains.

Have also given a link to it from my related post

Reverse Engineering Our Brains.


Ralph Zoontjens said...


Also Ray Kurzweil points to this by the way. I think this event will make people really see that they are just processes in some larger whole. Nothing special about us. And that would necessarily force people to expand into a different mindset, that of accepting to just be part of it, and seeing the beauty of just being there. Shocking, but good.