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

Blue Brain Project Update

Here at Technology Report we recognize that a conscious computer is likely to 1. happen within decades and 2. bring the most profound transformation of humanity in the history of … humanity.    Two of the major projects working towards the goal of a general artificial intelligence are DARPA SYNAPSE and BLUE BRAIN.   DARPA’s funding is much higher but they are newer and approaching the problem more along the lines of *computer programming* rather than *reverse engineering*.     Blue Brain’s approach is more along the lines of copying the observed neural structure of the human brain and creating a computer simulation based on those observations and activity.    Here, from their website, is a progress report on Blue Brain:

The Blue Brain Project plans to reverse engineer the human brain as a supercomputer simulation.

The project was founded in May 2005 by Henry Markram at the EPFL in Switzerland and has made notable progress in its first decade.

As of August 2012 the largest simulations are of mesocircuits containing around 100 cortical columns (image above right). Such simulations involve approximately 1 million neurons and 1 billion synapses. This is about the same scale as that of a honey bee brain. It is hoped that a rat brain neocortical simulation (~21 million neurons) will be achieved by the end of 2014. A full human brain simulation (86 billion neurons) should be possible by 2023 provided sufficient funding is received.

Latest news

July 9, 2012  – The FET Flagship Pilots final conference took place in Brussels today. Results of the recently-completed one-year pilot phase of the Human Brain Project (HBP) were presented. See the 108-page HBP report, as well as the conference statement by EC vice-president Neelie Kroes. During autumn 2012 the EU will consider the HBP and five other candidate science projects. In February 2013 a decision will be made on which of the two candidates will each receive €1 billion in funding over ten years. The chosen two projects will then run from 2013 to 2023. If the HBP is chosen, the Blue Brain Project will become a central part of it.
Jun 20, 2012  – Two newly published video talks which share lots of detail about the Blue Brain Project simulations and visualisations. The talks were given at the INCF Multiscale Modeling Program Workshop in Stockholm on May 31 and June 1, 2012.

Jun 11, 2012  – Scientific American has published a featured article by Henry Markram. Available online behind a $6 paywall: A countdown to a digital simulation of every last neuron in the human brain. See also the associated video animation: Neuron to cortical column.
May 24, 2012  – New video of Henry Markram talking about the Blue Brain Project. Includes Markram’s thoughts on consciousness, autism, and the Human Brain Project. Recorded in Barcelona on May 22, 2012.
Mar 30, 2012  – The ETH Board has requested CHF 85 million (€70 m) from the Swiss government to fund the Blue Brain Project during 2013 to 2016.
Jan 3, 2012  – FET Flagships mid-term conference presentation is now available online: Introducing the Human Brain Project

IBM’s Artificial Intelligence – is the cat brain out of the bag or not?

We’ve profiled two of the world’s most promising AI efforts here at Technology Report.     Blue Brain in Switzerland and DARPA SyNAPSE here in the USA, a newer project that appears to be getting better funding thanks to backing from the US Defense Department.   Both of these projects rely on IBM supercomputers for their simulations of neurons and their interactions, and both are optimistic about the potential to develop thinking machines within the next decade.

The project leader of Blue Brain, Dr. Henry Markram, has been very vocal and very critical of claims by  the IBM team leader Dr. Dharmendra S. Modha.    Markram’s concerns are expressed here in his Technology Report guest post about the IBM project claims.

We asked Dr. Modha for a response but didn’t hear back, so I’d like to refer folks to the Modha blog here, especially to the post called ‘The Cat is Out of the bag and BlueMatter”, which details progress in the SyNAPSE project and explains the claims made that they are simulating brain activity that is roughly equivalent to that we’d see from a cat.  Here’s an excerpt from that post:

Towards this end, we are announcing two major milestones.

First, using Dawn Blue Gene / P supercomputer at Lawrence Livermore National Lab with 147,456 processors and 144 TB of main memory, we achieved a simulation with 1 billion spiking neurons and 10 trillion individual learning synapses. This is equivalent to 1,000 cognitive computing chips each with 1 million neurons and 10 billion synapses, and exceeds the scale of cat cerebral cortex. The simulation ran 100 to 1,000 times slower than real-time.

Second, we have developed a new algorithm, BlueMatter, that exploits the Blue Gene supercomputing architecture to noninvasively measure and map the connections between all cortical and sub-cortical locations within the human brain using magnetic resonance diffusion weighted imaging. Mapping the wiring diagram of the brain is crucial to untangling its vast communication network and understanding how it represents and processes information.

Finally, here is an excellent presentation by Dr. Modha that outlines in simple terms what they are trying to do with DARPA SyNAPSE, which is build a human scale brain by 2018.