Christian Long

Henry Markram: Builds a Brain in a Supercomputer

In TED Talks on May 9, 2010 at 9:43 pm

Reflection by TREVOR A.

Original TED page w/ speaker bio, links, comments, etc:

Henry Markram:  Builds a Brain in a Supercomputer

Henry begins his talk by advertising his mission to build a detailed and realistic computer-generated model of the human brain. He informs the audience that proof of this possibility has been shown by his studies in the past four years experimenting this concept with a rodent brain, and that doing this would simply be a larger scale version of that project. He justifies his reasoning for doing this with three elements:

“It’s essential for us to understand the human brain if we do want to get along in society.”

He justifies this by stating his belief that understanding the human brain is a “key step” in evolution. In my opinion, we already know the basics of the human brain. It enables thought, and it controls all of our body’s senses. It is the processor for humans. But don’t we already seem to get along fine? Many people can get along with others by simply understanding that they don’t think the same way, and that everyone has their own views on different issues. If you ask me, if we understood the human brain in its entirety, the next thing you know there would be scientists discovering ways for everyone to think in the same way and believe in the same things, and the world would be like an assembly line of humans. What fun would that be?

“We can not keep doing animal experimentation forever.”

Obviously, Markram has the guts to go up on stage in front of a large audience and explain that what he has been doing for the past four years is wrong. Obviously we can’t continue to conduct experiments on animals forever, based on the fact that the human brain is unique to us, and that rodent brains wouldn’t make the cut if we ended up using this CGI brain as an aid in the medical field. Imagine going in for brain surgery, and watching the doctor explain his procedure to you on a mouse brain. Comfortable?

“There are two billion people on the planet that are affected by a mental disorder.”

Although there may be two billion people on the planet that are affected by a mental disorder, how would creating a computer model of the human brain help past diagnosis? You would be able to go up to your patient, show them the location of the mutation in their brain, and then what? Ask them what they think of the technology? I was pretty sure the risk in operating on mental disorder was the location of the problem. It’s your brain. Think about it.

He then begins to describe a theory on how the brain works. Although I thought this was complete bogus, I’ll explain what he says. He theorizes that the brain creates an image version of the universe and projects this image all around us. He argues that the reason why the moon seems so large on the horizon is because apparently, our “perceptual bubble” isn’t capable of stretching out 380,000 kilometers, and it runs out of space. Then, we decide, based on the buildings we see that fit in our bubble, that our bubble is that big, when in ‘reality’, it’s not. This shows that decisions are the key supports for our perceptual bubble, and without them we can not see, think, or feel. To sum up the next part of the theory, he says that what your brain says you see is not what enters through your eyes. This all leads up to his next question:

“Can the brain build such a perception?”

To begin to answer his question he starts with the subject of the evolution of the brain, and goes through the beginnings of the brain from the time billions of years ago up to now. He focuses mostly on the development of the neocortex throughout time. He goes into detail about the neocortex and describes to the audience how it is made up of millions of these modules, these G5 processors. The neocortex is important because of these processors, which have made it to the millions stage by their success in evolution, and have duplicated throughout time to get to this large amount. It got to the point where these processors filled up the skull, and the the brain started to fold into itself, explaining the compacted, column structure of the neocortex. He makes the analogy of this structure to a grand piano and says, “You simulate it, it produces a symphony. But it’s not just a symphony of perception. It’s a symphony of your universe, your reality.”

This leads him to the subject of the “holy grail” of neuroscience, which is to understand the structure of the neocortical column. He believes that his studies and works in the past 15 years have achieved this, and shows the crowd a computer generated model of the neocortical column, which consists of tens of thousands of branches of neurons. The model shows the millions of intersections between these branches, and he explains that all these intersections form synapses, which are chemical locations where the neurons can communicate with each other. And when these synapses work together, they form the circuit of the brain.

All of this leads up to the requirements for his project. He states that although you only need a handful of calculations to simulate the activity of the neocortex (as well as a very big computer), every single neuron in the neocortical column also requires one laptop for calculations, in other words, 10,000 laptop computers. He then tells of how he approached IBM with his mission, and how they were able to build a supercomputer consisting of the tens of thousands of processors needed for each of the neurons. After they fired it up, the image on the screen showed the working motion of the neocortical column, and their project was a success.

Overall, I wish this talk would have been more about the supercomputer and the computer generated model of the human brain as opposed to being mostly about a theory on how the brain works. I hate to be so critical, but has it not been proven that things exist? I admired Mr. Markram’s passion towards his subject and his knowledgeable speech about the brain and its functions, but I’m not open enough to ideas like the one he presented to allow myself to think differently about the universe, and its existence.

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