The Blue Brain project represents the most promising effort to date to reverse engineer a human brain. In phase one of this project, completed last year, the team has modelled a rat neocortical column using an IBM Blue Gene supercomputer. Contrary to popular misconceptions there is little reason to believe that a human brain differs all that dramatically from that of many other animals. Many scientists now believe that the most significant difference between human and other animal brains is mainly the larger number of interconnections via a denser brain neocortex region. Surprisingly, the neocortex is a hugely redundant structure where billions of neurons are densely packed into interconnected neocortical columns.
Although it is not the stated goal of the project which is designed primarily to help understand the brain and diagnose brain disorders, the Blue Brain project may be the first to deliver a true “Artificial Intelligence” via this process of reverse engineering.
Thankfully the recent rumor reporting a problem between IBM and the Blue Brain project appears to be false. Technology Report has confirmed with IBM Switzerland that the Blue Brain project is waiting for Phase II funding from the Swiss Government. See the statement from Blue Brain project director Henry Markam below.
A recent intriguing development with Gamma oscillations and the Blue Brain AI simulation is reported here at Neuronism.
Henry Markram, Project Director as quoted by IBM Switzerland to Technology Report on January 19, 2009:
There is a serious misconception that IBM somehow funded or donated to
support the Blue Brain Project. The BBP project is funded primarily by the
Swiss government and secondarily by grants and some donations from private
individuals. The EPFL bought the BG, it was not donated to the EPFL. It was
at a reduced cost because at that stage it was still a prototype and IBM
was interested in exploring how different applications will perform on the
machine – we were a kind of beta site.
The Blue Brain Project is a project that I conceived over the past 15
years. I chose the name because of the Blue Gene series which is a
fantastic architecture for brain simulations. When we bought the BG, we
also had to make sure that we have the computer engineering and computer
science expertise to run the machine and optimize all the programs. So BG
came to us with IBM’s full support as a technology partner. This component
of the collaboration is invaluable to the Project and will continue and
grow as long as we have a Blue Gene or other architectures from IBM. This
is by far the major component of the collaboration.
IBM Research at T.J. Watson, also contributed a postdoc that was sent to
work with us at the EPFL and assigned a researcher at Watson to work on
some computational neuroscience tasks. The research and term assigned to
these postdocs is done, a success and published. Actually, the term expired
almost a year ago, and the IBM postdoc, Sean Hill, actually transfered and
is now an employee of the BBP and not IBM. The researcher at TJ Watson
worked on a specific problem of collision detection between the axons and
dendrites and this is done very well and already published. Although very
important projects and contributions, this is a small part of the BBP which
is carried out at the EPFL and involves, neuroscience, neuroinformatics,
vizualization, and a vast spectrum of computational neuroscience.
BBP needs BG’s to continue the project. The architecture is perfect for
brain simulations. When we manage to get our funding to buy the next BG/P
finalized, we will start Phase 2 and that will of course involve the basic
(and most significant) technology collaboration, and most likely also many
new collaborations on specific research targeted topics where we see that
IBM can, and would like to, contribute. So this is an intermediate phase
while we get ready for phase 2 – molecular level modeling.
BBP sees IBM as a key partner in the BBP and I do think that IBM also sees
the value in the BBP. We are getting ready for Phase 2, but it has not
started until we get the next BG series.