Build a Brain Project

Even by the standards of the TED conference, Henry Markram’s 2009 TEDGlobal talk was a mind-bender. He took the stage of the Oxford Playhouse, clad in the requisite dress shirt and blue jeans, and announced a plan that—if it panned out—would deliver a fully sentient hologram within a decade. He dedicated himself to wiping out all mental disorders and creating a self-aware artificial intelligence. And the South African–born neuroscientist pronounced that he would accomplish all this through an insanely ambitious attempt to build a complete model of a human brain—from synapses to hemispheres—and simulate it on a supercomputer. Markram was proposing a project that has bedeviled AI researchers for decades, that most had presumed was impossible. He wanted to build a working mind from the ground up.

In the four years since Markram’s speech, he hasn’t backed off a nanometer. The self-assured scientist claims that the only thing preventing scientists from understanding the human brain in its entirety—from the molecular level all the way to the mystery of consciousness—is a lack of ambition. If only neuroscience would follow his lead, he insists, his Human Brain Project could simulate the functions of all 86 billion neurons in the human brain, and the 100 trillion connections that link them. And once that’s done, once you’ve built a plug-and-play brain, anything is possible. You could take it apart to figure out the causes of brain diseases. You could rig it to robotics and develop a whole new range of intelligent technologies. You could strap on a pair of virtual reality glasses and experience a brain other than your own.

The way Markram sees it, technology has finally caught up with the dream of AI: Computers are finally growing sophisticated enough to tackle the massive data problem that is the human brain. But not everyone is so optimistic. “There are too many things we don’t yet know, ” says Caltech professor Christof Koch, chief scientific officer at one of neuroscience’s biggest data producers, the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. “The roundworm has exactly 302 neurons, and we still have no frigging idea how this animal works.” Yet over the past couple of decades, Markram’s sheer persistence has garnered the respect of people like Nobel Prize–winning neuroscientist Torsten Wiesel and Sun Microsystems cofounder Andy Bechtolsheim. He has impressed leading figures in biology, neuroscience, and computing, who believe his initiative is important even if they consider some of his ultimate goals unrealistic.

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