Europe’s Human Brain Project – can a billion Euros buy a brain?

In January Henry Markram got a late Christmas present.  After intense international competition, Markram’s quest for a brain simulation received one of the largest grants in the history of science – 500 million euros from Europe’s new Technology “Flagship” program.

The European Human Brain project is a large expansion of Markram’s “Blue Brain” efforts which have made amazing progress over the past several years.  With this level of funding the HBP appears to have left the USA’s DARPA SyNAPSE as something of a funding pauper.    However as politicians begin to recognize the significance of thinking computers DARPA is likely to get much higher funding.

From the HBP Executive Summary: 

We propose that the HBP should be organised in three phases, lasting a total of ten years.
For the first two and a half years (the “ramp-up” phase),
the project should focus on setting up the initial versions of
the ICT platforms and on seeding them with strategically selected data. At the end of this phase, the platforms should be
ready for use by researchers inside and outside the project.
For the following four and a half years (the “operational
phase”), the project should intensify work to generate strategic data and to add new capabilities to the platforms, while
simultaneously demonstrating the value of the platforms for
basic neuroscience research and for applications in medicine
and future computing technology.
In the last three years (the “sustainability phase”), the
project should continue these activities while simultaneously
moving towards financial self-sustainability – ensuring that
the capabilities and knowledge it has created become a permanent asset for European science and industry

The Goldilocks Planets and SETI

Two extraordinary technology items this week are the identification of a new “goldilocks planet” named Kepler-22b.  Kepler-22b may have attributes so similar to earth it could harbor life that is “like us”.   This isn’t the first such planet, and researchers in this field are increasingly optimistic about finding many, many planets that could harbor life something like what evolved here on earth.  Generally they are looking for stable temperatures that allow for the presence of liquid water, thought to be a good “breeding ground” for the building blocks of evolution – increasingly complex molecular structures that change through random mutations over long periods of time into simple and then into complex organisms… like us.

SETI, the “Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence”, has been around for some time but thanks to new funding and tech and discovery advances it will have a better chance of success.  Many believe that other life is more than 99.99% likely (we are NOT that special!), but *finding it* with our primitive technologies is going to be difficult.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA – The Allen Telescope Array (ATA) is once again searching planetary systems for signals that would be evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. Among its first targets are some of the exoplanet candidates recently discovered by NASA’s Kepler space telescope.

The SETI array of radiotelescopes will be able to focus on planets like this, hoping to pick up a signal from other civilizations that may have evolved on these other planets. A


Computer Consciousness – let the games begin!

Over at the Neurdon blog we’re following a great series about Artificial Intelligence “AI” in general and about developments in Darpa SyNAPSE, the best funded project to date that is working on a “general artificial intelligence” – in short a machine that can think pretty much like we do.

This is the article, about a new chip called a “Memristor”  that seemed to spawn a lot of discussion.   It’s a new approach under development as part of the DARPA SyNAPSE project.  [thanks to my good pal Roy K who always forwards me very interesting stuff!]

It’s encouraging to see the debate over computer consciousness take such a serious tone as this topic is arguably one of the most intriguing in all of human history.    Many experts believe we’ll see machines become self-aware within 10-20 years.    Given the massive computational superiority computers already enjoy over humans, one can make a strong case that a conscious computer – or more likely a computer + human brain hybrid – will  clone its intellect and improve that intellect over and over in a very short time, leading to levels of intelligence far beyond that of “normal” humans.

Also encouraging that pioneers in the field like the article’s authors:  Sean Lorenz, Heather Ames & Massimiliano Versace are willing to discuss this topic rather than shelve it as so many in computer research have done.    I think early inflated optimism about artificial intelligence led to so much disappointment in the computer community that the “old guard” programmers are being too stubborn now, especially in the face of very significant advances in the understanding of human neurobiology and in computational speeds and memory capacities.

From the post ” Moneta_And_The_C_Word”

Although Searle has argued for biological embodiment as a necessity for causation of consciousness, this paper puts forth the argument that biological embodiment is not the only embodiment that can produce consciousness. Instead, we argue that the brain is an optimal form of embodiment giving rise to consciousness because it can produce observable reports, oral reports, and observed and measured activity. The first two qualifications of consciousness can be replicated with computer simulations as discussed by the proponents of WBE. However, the third qualification requires a unique stipulation for embodiment that is able to self organize and generate unique global and local patterns of activities within its constituent elements. At this point in time, this is only achievable within brain tissue. However, with the advancement of neural chip development, we would argue that embodiment necessary for consciousness would be achievable in a new medium, the neuromorphic chip.

Brain Chips from DARPA

Wired’s  Danger Room is reporting on a new DARPA project to build brain implant chips that will fix brain injuries.    The focus appears to have come from the large number of  returning veterans who suffer from brain injuries.

However the implications of this type of research go far beyond simple repair.   As science improves the current state of the art of brain implants (which now offer only rudimentary connections to actual brain functions), we are likely to see a spectacular increase in human intellectual capabilities.   Our current limitations to information processing include the very slow speeds with which we can interact with computers – usually via keyboards.   When implants will allow brains to *directly* interface with, for example, internet information, we are very likely to experience an explosion of human capabilities.

Artificial Life created with Synthetic DNA – a major science milestone?

A team  led by Dr Craig Venter has announced what is potentially a huge genetics engineering breakthrough – using synthetic DNA to drive the reproductive processes of cells.     The team created a synthetic copy of real DNA, planted this back into a cell, and initiated a reproduction process based on the copy.

The potential of this technology is vast as it will eventually allow genetics engineering of organisms created to address specific needs such as pollution control.

Critics are worried that the technology also poses substantial risks since releasing synthetic organisms “into the wild” may lead to unintended and even catastrophic results.

More from the BBC

SyNapse and Blue Brain Projects Update

As noted before I think the two most promising “Artificial Intelligence” projects are Blue Brain and DARPA SyNAPSE and I’m happy to see in this Boston blog “Neurdon” by some of the SyNAPSE project folks a few of the DARPA bucks going to elaborate on some of the technical goals of the SyNAPSE project:

SyNAPSE seeks not just to build brain-like chips, but to define a fundamentally distinct form of computational device. These new devices will excel at the kinds of distributed, data-intensive algorithms that complex, real-world environment require…

It’s very exciting stuff this “build a brain” competition.  Although I think the theoretical approach taken by Blue Brain is more consistent with what little we know about how brains work, I’d guess SyNAPSE’s access to DARPA funding will give it the long term edge in terms of delivering a functional thinking machine in the 15-20 year time frame most artificial intelligence researches believe we’ll need for that ambitious goal.

My optimism is greater than many because I think humans have rather dramatically exaggerated the complexity of their own feeble mental abilities by a quite a … bit, and I’d continue to argue that consciousness is much more a function of quantity than quality.

Another promising development in the artificial brain area is in Spain where  Blue Brain project partner universities are working on the project:  Cajal Blue Brain

Blue Brain Project – IBM has not withdrawn support.

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:

The funding:
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 Collaboration:
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.

More about Blue Brain is here

ASIMO Demo at Disneyland’s Innoventions

ASIMO Demo at Disneyland’s Innovations

Originally uploaded by JoeDuck.
This was an impressive but simple demo of an amazing technological achievement. The locomotion was very realistic and impressive as ASIMO walked around and went up and down some stairs.

I fear a lot of young folks get jaded to how cool this stuff is by the wonders of “entertainment” technologies, but I couldn’t help but think that this Robot will *some day* be used to mark the beginning of when human-like robotics really took hold of the collective mindset.