Meet the Blue Brain Project.
The project is a massive undertaking by IBM with a team of highly skilled neuroscientists. Led by Henry Markram–the project is attempting to create a functioning digital model of the whole human brain within 10 years. The simulation should be able to do anything the human brain can. This, according to a TED talk blog entry includes consciousness, [http://blog.ted.com/2009/07/henry_markram_a.php] “He’s done a proof of concept by modeling half of a rodent brain. Now he’s scaling up the project to reach a human brain.”
Take a look at the attached picture. All this work so far has only brought about 1 sq mm of brain. This is certainly a very complicated business.
Jonah Lehrer explains how this project works. “In the basement of a university in Lausanne, Switzerland sit four black boxes, each about the size of a refrigerator, and filled with 2,000 IBM microchips stacked in repeating rows. Together they form the processing core of a machine that can handle 22.8 trillion operations per second. It contains no moving parts and is eerily silent. When the computer is turned on, the only thing you can hear is the continuous sigh of the massive air conditioner. This is Blue Brain.
The name of the supercomputer is literal: Each of its microchips has been programmed to act just like a real neuron in a real brain. The behavior of the computer replicates, with shocking precision, the cellular events unfolding inside a mind. “This is the first model of the brain that has been built from the bottom-up,” says Henry Markram, a neuroscientist at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and the director of the Blue Brain project. “There are lots of models out there, but this is the only one that is totally biologically accurate. We began with the most basic facts about the brain and just worked from there.”
This will take significant time and effort–but I am not sure the benefits would be worth the costs.
Here are a few objections to the project.
First, a counterplan. As explained in a seed magazine article, http://seedmagazine.com/content/print/out_of_the_blue/
“Scientists criticized the project as an expensive pipedream, a blatant waste of money and talent. Neuroscience didn’t need a supercomputer, they argued; it needed more molecular biologists.”
This project seems like it will probably fail, and will end up wasting tons of resources.
Second, an interesting reason why it might fail.
Lehrer wrote an interesting book review of Alva Noe’s book, Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons From the Biology of Consciousness
In a nutshell, the book argues that a brain is entirely reliant upon a functioning body in order to properly work. This is true, at the very least, for consciousness. “Consciousness requires the joint operation of the brain, body, and world. … It is an achievement of the whole animal in its environmental context.”
If this is true, than a computer cannot become conscious.
As human beings–we are simply too contingent to be simmered down into a formula–despite the size of the processor.
As Lehrer concludes, “In many respects, Noe’s ideas mark a return to an earlier tradition of American philosophy, represented by people like William James and John Dewey. These thinkers insisted that the attempt to reduce the mind to its fleshy source was inherently flawed: The Brain is part of an organism, and that organism is part of a culture. ‘Man is more than a psychical machine,’ Dewey wrote. ‘His life is bound up with the life of society.’ For the most part, modern scientists brushed aside such skepticism, as they embarked on an epic search for the cellular circuits that give rise to our conscious mind. Although much has been learned, little has been found.”
This reminds me of Rorty’s critique of epistemology; in the event of an impasse with no clear route out–maybe a more preferable alternative would be to simply investigate another problem.
This being said–the Blue Brain project is truly awesome. I am simply not willing to say whether or not it is worth its costs. Quonundrum? I think so.