An excerpt from The Guide to the Future of Medicine.
The brain is a unique organ, the most developed organ in the universe with some very interesting features based on psychological studies. In a classic study, students found a boring task more interesting if they were paid less to take part. The unconscious mind reasoned that if they did not do it for money they must have done it because it was interesting. Multi–tasking skills, hallucinations, obedience to authority (e.g. the Milgram Experiment), and the placebo effect all underscore what a special system we have to deal with when researching the brain.
Japanese scientists could map one second’s worth of activity in the human brain with K computer, the fourth most powerful supercomputer in the world. It has 705,024 processor cores and 1.4 million gigabytes of random access memory (RAM) at its disposal. Simulating the neural network of 1.73 billion nerve cells and 10.4 trillion synapses requires such petascale computers; simulating the whole brain at the level of individual nerve cells and their synapses will probably be possible with exascale computers within the next decade.
Stanford University announced that it has been working on a circuit board that can mimic the behavior of the human brain. The so–called Neurogrid circuit is now able to replicate the processes of 1 million human neurons, resulting in computer chips that are 9,000 times faster than a desktop computer. The human brain consumes only three times as much power as NeuroGrid with 80,000 times more neurons than that. Their long–term goal is to develop this technology further so that its prosthetic interaction with the human mind could look like science fiction. One of the lead researchers said that due to exponentially powerful technologies which are transforming our sphere of possibilities, we are no longer subject to Darwinian natural selection. We will be able to extend our reach.
The Human Brain Project, funded by the European Commission, aims at building a completely new computing infrastructure for neuroscience and brain–related research, catalyzing a globally collaborative effort to understand the human brain and its diseases and, ultimately, to emulate its computational abilities. The project involves hundreds of researchers and will cost an estimated €1.1 billion. Sebastian Seung and his team work on mapping the brain’s connectome under the OpenWorm project. Their mission is to simulate a nematode worm in a computer. In 2014, European scientists produced the first ultra–high resolution 3D scan of the entire human brain. In the US, President Barack Obama recently approved a $100 million brain mapping initiative. These examples show that the pace at which brain research is moving forward is extraordinary.
IBM’s Cognitive Computing Group has developed chips that can simulate how neurons and their connections work by being able to simulate the creation of even new connections. A chip called “SYNAPSE” can simulate 256 neurons with about a quarter of a million synaptic connections. The project’s long–term goal is to simulate 10 billion neurons with their 100 trillion connections, representing approximately the power of the human brain but using less and less power.
In the 19th century, punch cards were used to control automatic textile looms, enter data and commands into computers from 1896 and were used well into the 1970s. Keyboards were only introduced in the 1960s, as well as the first mouse in 1963 containing a block of wood with a single button and two gear–wheels. The first optical mouse appeared in 1980, multitouch was introduced in 1984; and natural user interfaces such as the Nintendo Wii or Microsoft Kinect were released in the 2000s. These are the ways we have been expanding our minds in the form of communicating with digital devices. The next logical step is designing brain–computer interfaces that could be controlled by thought.
We are getting closer to understand in detail how the brain really works. It is the biggest quest humanity has ever gone on. Simpler obstacles and almost unsolvable technical difficulties are on the way.