Get Ready To Witness Your Dreams On the Computer

Imagine a computer on which you can see your dreams, analyze every thought process that goes on inside your brain and every sense you feel. Imagine that your memory is on the computer's hard disk. If your entire brain can be mapped onto the computer, your thoughts can become immortal. Seems like a fantasy, doesn't it? May be not anymore.

The brain remains the most complex and mysterious part of the human anatomy.To help solve this mystery, on sixth of June 2005, IBM in collaboration with EPFL (Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne), announced the most ambitious project to date for brain research and rightly called it the Blue Brain Project. The project aims to create a detailed model of the circuitry in the neocortex ? the largest and the most complex part of the human brain.

By expanding the project to model other areas of the brain, scientists hope to eventually build an accurate computer based model of the entire brain. The first phase of the Blue Brain Project which involves making a software replica of the neocortex ( almost 85% of the brain's total mass) is expected to take two to three years. The next phase of the project which includes simulating the entire brain will take at least a decade.The Blue Brain Project will make use of IBM's eServer Blue Gene supercomputer. Blue Gene was recently rated as the fastest supercomputer in the world.

It has a peak speed of about 22.8 teraflops which means it can theoretically spit out 22.8 trillion floating point operations every second. Certain computer simulations that require a full day of research and calculations can be done in a matter of seconds on Blue Gene. In a real brain, a neocortical column is a cylindrical element about a third of a millimetre in diameter and three millimetres long, containing some 10,000 nerve cells.

It is these columns which make up the famous "grey matter". The EPFL's contribution to the Blue Brain Project will be to create a digital description of how the columns behave. The Blue Gene supercomputer consists of enough independent processors for each to be programmed to emulate an individual nerve cell in a column.

Blue Gene architecture has 8000 Processors and by mapping one or two simulated brain neurons to each processor, the computer will become a silicon replica of 10,000 neurons. Then scientists will interconnect them with the rules that they have worked out about how the brain functions. The result will be a full-fledged model of 10,000 neurons jabbering back and forth, a simulation 1,000 times larger than any similar model to date. Biologists and computer scientists will collaborate to connect the artificial nerve cells up in a way that mimics nature. They will do so by assigning electrical properties to them, and telling them how to communicate with each other and how they should modify their connections with one another depending on their activity.After the first phase of Blue Brain Project is completed, scientists will be able to study the functions of neocortex in language, learning and complex thought.

When the second phase is completed and the entire brain has been modelled, it will also shed light on other internal processes such as perception, memory and senses. Moreover, by running accurate simulations of brain processes, scientists will be able to investigate questions about psychiatric disorders and how they arise, Scientists believe that autism, schizophrenia, depression, and other psychological problems are caused by defective or malfunctioning circuitry in the brain.Scientists around the globe have conflicting opinions on what the researchers hope to achieve with this project. Some just don't realise the gravity of the proejct and feel mapping a brain onto a computer is meaningless. Some academics, such as Roger Penrose of Oxford University, argue that brains do not work in a way comparable with a computer, so any kind of simulation that is built on digital architecture and uses traditional programming techniques is bound to failure. Henry Markram, the head of the Brain Mind Institute, and the leader of the EPFL's side of the project, stresses that Blue Brain's formal goal is not to build an artificial intelligence system, such as a neural network but to make a computer simulated model of the human brain.

Well, if the Blue Brain Project turns out to be successful, we could soon be gearing towards a real 'Matrix.' The bigger question that we need to ask is: What if something goes drastically wrong and the machines take over the human brain, wouldn't this bring us one step closer to annihilation?.


By: Siddharth Gupta

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