Creating an Artificial Brain




Dr. Henry Markram recently announced that he expects to have a computer model of the human brain in ten years. As part of the Blue Brain Project, he is part of a team trying to “reverse-engineer the mammalian brain.”

The human brain is exceedingly complex. There are about 100 billion neurons within the human central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) with an estimated 100 trillion synapses (connections between neurons). However, the brain grows and prunes synapses constantly, so that number is fluid. In addition there are probably 1 trillion glial cells that serve as support among other roles to the neurons. This web of densely-connected cells produces all behavior, thoughts, movements, and emotions. The human brain is the most complex organ on earth and one of the most complex things in the universe, especially gram for gram.

Because it is so complex, the brain does not always function properly. Sometimes various chemicals or substances act as teratogens, which interfere with the normal development of a fetus and often result in serious and permanent neural deficits, such as fetal alcohol syndrome. Other times, genetic abnormalities like trisomy 21 produce Down’s Syndrome. Other abnormal brain developmental pathways can result in anything from mild, even grossly unnoticeable deficits, to death. For the most part and for most people, however, the human brain develops normally and functions as nature intended.

The researchers at the Blue Brain Project are working towards simulating the entire human brain with its billions of neurons and trillions of synapses. How feasible is the project? Currently it takes the equivalent of one computer — one microprocessor — to model a single neuron. The goal of the project is to accurately model individual neocortical columns (a cylindrical volume with a diameter of 0.5 mm and height of 2 mm that contains about 10,000 neurons) in series and then extrapolate that model out to the entire cortex, which should simplify the overall model and reduce needed computing power. Currently to model a single neocortical column the researchers utilize a supercomputer with 10,000 processors. As you can imagine, modeling the entire brain of 100 billion neurons is a mind-boggling task. However, with advances in computer hardware and software, we are moving closer to such models, especially as researchers are able to simplify the overall brain model by modeling it at a more macro level than individual neurons.

One reason the researchers give for wanting to model the entire human brain is so they can hopefully better understand brain diseases and abnormal brain development. Imagine being able to simulate a brain of someone with Down’s Syndrome, or better yet, the development of a brain of someone with Down’s Syndrome! We could then hopefully understand exactly what goes wrong and when and try to correct it genetically or through some other means. Or, researchers could model the brain of an autistic child to try and understand how it functions. There are myriad possibilities.

However, is creating a complete model of the human brain ethical? Would the model develop into a self-aware and potentially sentient entity? If the model has self-awareness would it be ethical or moral to turn off the simulation? Would the model or simulated brain be considered alive? What are the potential pitfalls, if any, to creating a fully-functional brain simulation? What happens if treatments or policies are created based on the simulated brain and those treatments prove deleterious or the models miscalculated? Could we plug a simulated brain into a body and create a new “person”?

I think this research is exciting and ground-breaking should it come to full fruition. On the other hand, I do not believe we should proceed without serious ethical discussions. This is not just cloning a sheep or a rat, this is creating a full simulation of the human brain that would ostensibly grow, develop, feel, and mature.

  • Sally

    So, his name is Henry Markram, and he was speaking at the TED conference.

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  • Henry Markram appears to be carrying on in that great 50-year tradition of Artificial Intelligence: Announcing every ten years that a computer that thinks like a human will be a reality…. in ten years.

    I would recap the litany of failed promises stretching back to MIT’s Marvin Minsky in the 60’s, but it’s a dreary litany of unrealized bright ideas.

  • Thanks for the clarification Sally. I’ll get the article fixed as soon as possible.

    I agree with you Dirk. We won’t have a simulated human brain in 10 years but we might at some point. We are much closer than we were 50 years ago. I wrote my post mainly to raise some of the ethical questions that come as we seek better AI – specifically AI that is virtually indistinguishable from humans, should that ever occur.

  • Jared: I find the (so far theoretical) ethical questions fascinating as well. I think ethics and morality are to some extent tied to having a body, involving somatic as well as semantic experiences with other thinking organisms. That’s a serious mountain of simulation to climb, but always fascinating stuff, from Turing to Kurzweil.

  • Henrik S

    I don’t see why the ethics of this would be that much different from trying out drugs that may or may not work on mice, slugs and other critters.

    Not to mention all those electrodes we keep sticking into the heads of primates.

    Besides, to get a “working” human brain you’d need all the sensory input that we have so pretty much the only thing a simulated brain can give us is the answer to philosophical questions like “If a child lives for 18 years without any sensory input, would you still consider it human?”

    What strikes me most, however, is that so called “ethical” implications of something like this are never taken one step further: What makes it morally right to “fix” things like autism?

    You seem to not have considered this at all. Many autistic people like what they are, just as you probably like what you are. If the majority had been autistic, would you like it if they made you autistic?

  • Thanks for the comments and relies.

    Henrik,

    Your point about autism is great. That’s an excellent question. Autism by its very definition is an abnormal state/path of development. Many but not all autistic children have intellectual deficits (of course, autism is not even necessarily of a single etiology; we have a whole spectrum of autism-like disorders). People might argue that our understanding and measurement of intelligence is flawed (it is) but currently it is the best we have.

    Because psychologists, doctors, and researchers understand autism as abnormality of development, it is right to deny people the opportunity of a normal development?

    Let’s turn it around as you did. So if most were “autistic” and only a minority non-autistic that minority would not be “normal” – it would be abnormal. From an evolutionary perspective in that case there must have been some benefit for “autism” over non-autism. This would mean that it probably would be positive to have autism. In any case, because autism is a developmental disorder, being “given” it or preventing it from occurring occur before a person has any self-awareness (such treatments would have to be done in utero or even before that; maybe after birth but that is not as likely). This means that you wouldn’t know anything else so it most likely wouldn’t matter to you (it could but that’s not likely).

    Autistic people might like what they are but what’s to say they would not like NOT having autism more? I do not have autism and I like who I am but would I like to be smarter or more athletic or more musical or more artistic or more articulate? Of course I would; at least I believe I would. That does not mean I am malcontent with who I am though.

    Should we do away with autism? Can we engage in what amounts to a form of positive eugenics? Our Western medical ethical tradition dictates that it would be unethical not to do away with autism if we could. Should we force a treatment on people? No. But it should be offered.

    So what if we had a treatment that turned an “older” (let’s say age 8 and up) autistic person into a non-autistic person? Would it be right (and by right I mean ethical and moral – they are separate issues) to force that on people? No. Should it be offered? Yes. However a treatment in utero is a little different (although I do not think it should be forced on anyone even then) because the directly affected person would be “fixed” before they knew it. That means they would not have been anyone different than who they develop to be.

    Some would argue this from a cost-benefit perspective. Does the good of removing autism outweigh the bad of doing so? I already briefly discussed a moral approach to the question; it basically boiled down to that it would be immoral to force the treatment on anyone (although some could argue that the needs of society should be accounted for, in which case it might be immoral to not eradicate autism – note: I’m not making that argument; I’m just throwing arguments out there).

    I’d love to continue on with this comment; there is so much more that could be discussed. I’ll come back to the issue later, when I have time and if you are anyone have more questions or arguments or counter-arguments or corrections to anything. 🙂

  • Henrik S

    I’d forgotten about this comment. Luckily my e-mail reminded me 🙂

    That autism is an abnormal development doesn’t really matter. Ever since we “found out” about the condition and know how to take care of the people afflicted, evolutionary aspects are irrelevant, wouldn’t you say?

    I understand your point about treatments being optional – I agree on that. However, curing abnormalities in utero comes dangerously close to social engineering in my eyes. What about dyslexia, is that to be cured in utero too? Or left-handedness?

    If everything must be so normal and everyone have to be alike – why not make everyone into a blonde woman with huge boobs and a brain excelling that of Einstein’s? Then we’d have “normal” people that’d look exactly the same, think exactly the same and act exactly the same.

    The point I’m trying to make is this: We should value different perspectives of the world and not eradicate them.

  • I agree Henrik that diversity can be important; we could very easily take any genetic engineering too far. However, it’s important to distinguish between “different perspectives” (i.e., hair color, body size, handedness, etc.) and abnormalities. To come back to autism, yes, we do know a lot more about it than we used to and can manage people with autism much better than we used to but does that mean that we shouldn’t “cure” autism just because we know how to better deal with it? I know not all people view autism as something that needs curing but I also don’t believe anyone would say, “I sure hope one of my future kids has autism!” I don’t believe anyone would even want their children to have Asperger’s.

    Again, there is a difference between a disorder and normal human variation. Should we get rid of normal human variation? No. Should we get rid of disorders if we can? Probably. If we could eradicate schizophrenia or dementia or Parkinson’s or Huntington’s or any number of different problems, it would be great. I view autism in the same way. This does not mean that people with autism or any autism spectrum disorder are “worth” less than a “normal” person or that we can’t find great joy and meaning in dealing with those with autism (or any other disorder or disease or disability), but would not it be better to “cure any of those disorders and prevent much suffering? Maybe it wouldn’t be better but I think there are few who would bemoan the eradication of small pox or polio or other diseases so why should we mourn the eradication of severe cognitive/psychological/neurological disorders?

  • Henrik S

    Maybe that’s the problem, that nobody would say: “I sure hope one of my future kids has autism!” because it’s viewed as a disease.

    Because not all autistic people wants to be “normal”, just like some blind people don’t want to see.

    So in practicality, I think I agree with you – that of course we should find a treatment for those who suffer from their autism or whatever it is that they got.

    My best case scenario is that the decision to be treated can be left to the afflicted person her/himself. But since there’s a whole growing-up period to make through, this decision will always be left up to parents. Which is both good and bad, if you understand my not very pragmatical point of view 🙂

  • writeronly

    Should we do away with autism? Can we engage in what amounts to a form of positive eugenics? Our Western medical ethical tradition dictates that it would be unethical not to do away with autism if we could. Should we force a treatment on people? No. But it should be offered.

    So what if we had a treatment that turned an “older” (let’s say age 8 and up) autistic person into a non-autistic person? Would it be right (and by right I mean ethical and moral – they are separate issues) to force that on people? No. Should it be offered? Yes. However a treatment in utero is a little different (although I do not think it should be forced on anyone even then) because the directly affected person would be “fixed” before they knew it. That means they would not have been anyone different than who they develop to be.

    Some would argue this from a cost-benefit perspective. Does the good of removing autism outweigh the bad of doing so? I already briefly discussed a moral approach to the question; it basically boiled down to that it would be immoral to force the treatment on anyone (although some could argue that the needs of society should be accounted for, in which case it might be immoral to not eradicate autism – note: I’m not making that argument; I’m just throwing arguments out there).

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  • Zahra

    hope of success to Blue brain from bottom of my heart.

  • Anonymous

    There are a lot of things inherent to neurotypicalism that I think are pathology, should I call all of you diseased?

  • Jagdish

    People,
    Firstly and basically simulate the Neuron on a processor in a computer, model the Brain, make it successful, make it work, and then we will talk about the rather seemingly secondary issues concerning ethics whatever autism ……………k

  • manaia3

    i think this idea of creating an artificial brain is stupid, people have gone way too far.
    this will eventualy lead to creating artificial people, people based on someones idea of normal or even perfection.

    people need to learn to love the diversity and variation in people even if it is an illness.
    because this is what makes a person who they are, these are the things that define us.

    i dont believe we could ever be human or normal, if we dont let nature do what it always has.

    creating an artificial brain may solve things we see as problems. but ultimately, it will also create more problems

    • leigh boyd

      I couldn’t agree more.

      See my post below yours!

  • leigh boyd

    What possible good can come out of making a machine smarter than a person.. Just think of the future 500 or 5000 years from now.

    It is inevitable, however, that we will devise such a machine. It will eventually destroy us all, in its own evolution.

    In the future, computers will be developing their own computer programs, robots will replicate themselves, and nanites will be thier “white blood cells”. It must be in our own ridiculous human nature to destroy ourselves in our quest to improve ourselves.

    Maybe its because we are selfish, and want to have our names in the encyclopedia as “great scientist who pioneered AI in the early 2010’s” so that, 500 years from now, the robots will read about you and call you thier granddaddy.

    We’re so stupid it kills me, litterally.

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Jared Tanner, PhD

Jared Tanner has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology with an emphasis in neuropsychology. His interests are mainly neuroimaging and neuroanatomy. He spends his research time looking at the structure of gray and white matter in the brains of people with Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease. With a focus on neuropsychology, he is also interested in how normal and abnormal brain structure relates to cognitive and behavioral functioning.
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