One of the big philosophical questions could be answered soon; “What is consciousness?”. Perhaps, in the process, a more unexpected question may be also answered; “Can we build it?”
After 15 years and more than 150 000 neuroscientific experiments exploring anatomical, electrical and genetic properties of the rat’s neocortex, Henry Markham and his team at Blue Brain project could finally start building the most complex structure known to man – a brain. The goal of the project is to simulate the rat’s neocortex which is the most recently evolved brain structure and could be found only in mammals. Any neocortex is the center of higher cognitive processes, and as such, very complex even in such a small creature.
Neocortex is organized in six layers, with thousands of columns that span through all of them. Each column consists of thousands of neurons, which create tens of millions of neural connections. To simulate a single neuron, in its full functionality, the amount of energy needed is equal to that of a lap-top computer. An estimate of annual electrical bill was put at $3 billion. Apart from that, very powerful computing was necessary to simulate even of the cortical columns. The problem was obvious, and so was the solution – talk to IBM.
The project received a green light (in form of the Blue Gene supercomputer), and is go from 2005. In just two years, Mr. Markham and his team managed to simulate the works of a rat’s cortical column, and noted behavior already observed in years of neuroscientific experiments. What this means is that the Blue Brain team managed to create a working, self-determined, virtual part of a rat’s brain. Implications of this success are immense, one of the obvious being – the technique for simulating the work of any brain is established! With a bit of juice and some computing power, the Emancipation of the Machines is just around the corner.
But, taking it slowly, it’ll suffice to simulate an entire rat brain first.
Blue forest; A forest of neurons
The neurons from the fifth layer of neocortex
Images © IBM/EPFL