Mechanical Brains

Science and Technology

The Blue Brain Project is an attempt to reverse-engineer mammalian brains and create virtual interactive simulations. Its aim is to allow scientists to conduct experiments that cannot be performed in living organisms due to animal testing regulations. The project was founded in May 2005 by the “Swiss Federal Institute of Technology” and headed by Henry Markram. Markram believes that mapping the brain will enable us to understand it in its entirety and the complex mechanisms behind it.

On the 8th of October the Blue Brain Project released their first significant publications after nearly a decade of silence. Henry Markram, along with an international team of 82 people, managed to construct a digital emulation of a third of a millimetre cubed of a rat’s brain. This tiny bit of tissue contains 207 different types of brain cells, 31,000 neurons and their 37 million synapses.

Markram commented: “Together, these neurons make up a microcircuit… It’s the minimum size of a society of neurons.”

The simulation algorithm is based on data accumulated over 20 years. It predicts how the neurons are linked with one another and what pathways are triggered upon firing. It is the most detailed digital reconstruction of a brain to date. When the model is simulated, its reaction is very similar to that of a real brain. Mimicking the touch of a whisker will induce identical electrical behaviour patterns in the rodent and the emulation, with the same delay. There are also different states of activity which alter the functioning of the neurological pathways depending upon whether the rat is sleep or alert.

Markram has referred to the rodent brain simulation as a “first, imperfect draft”: “Ultimately we want to understand the mechanisms behind cognition, and what makes us do what we do.”

Ian Sample, The Guardian Science Editor, wrote: “Scientists might have a hope of understanding the neural mechanisms that underpin such extraordinary phenomena as consciousness, love and the antics of the Bullingdon Club.”

The European Commission has invested over 1 billion euros in the Human Brain Project which has been the cause of much controversy among the scientific community. A lot of academics have voiced their skepticism and described the project as overly ambitious and premature. Some researchers are afraid that it might deflect funding from more imminent neurological research. Last year hundreds of scientists signed a petition threatening to boycott the project.

Neural simulations tend to be considered as a panacea of all ethical dilemmas, surrounding animal experiments. However, loads of animals are murdered and probed in order to collect the information needed to create such a complicated comprehensive software. Another significant question is whether we have enough confidence in the simulations to trust the data they produce in trials of pharmaceutical drugs.

Anders Sandberg, from the Future of Humanity Institute, has published an opinion article for New Scientist, raising an interesting point about the ethical implications of virtual brain reconstructions: “Would emulations feel pain? Do we have to care for them like we do for animals or humans involved in medical research?”

American philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett argues that we do not have a good enough grip on pain to build a machine or a programme that can feel pain. He, however, concedes that we might eventually reach the required level of understanding. John Searle, an Oxford alumni, on the other hand, dismisses the idea of hurting simulations, insisting that they are just a long stream of 0s and 1s.

But are the 0s and 1s any different than the seemingly endless intertwined spirals of As, Ts, Gs and Cs that make up our DNA? After all, the digital reconstructions of the brain have the exact same connections and electrical signals conduction.

Sandberg writes: “It is better to be safe than sorry – assume that any emulated system could have the same mental properties as the organism or biological system it is based on, and treat it accordingly. If your simulation just produces neural noise, you have a good reason to assume there is nothing in there to care about. But if you make an emulated mouse that behaves like a real one, you should treat it like you would treat a lab mouse.”

This means avoiding experiments that produce strong pain signals and providing good quality of virtual life. It also brings up the issue of euthanasia. As softwares do not die of natural circumstances, shutting them down or upgrading might be considered equivalent to murdering them because all their memories and experiments from previous sessions will be irreversibly lost. If brain simulations can experience pain and some form of consciousness, successful reverse engineering of the human brain might lead to the creation of Artificial Intelligence



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