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Biotech Science

Researchers Simulate Building Block of Rat's Brain 224

Posted by kdawson
from the remy-will-be-so-pleased dept.
slick_shoes passes on an article in the Guardian about the Blue Brain project in Switzerland that has developed a computer simulation of the neocortical column — the basic building block of the neocortex, the higher functioning part of our brains — of a two-week-old rat. (Here is the project site.) The model, running on an IBM Blue Gene/L supercomputer, simulates 10,000 neurons and all their interconnections. It behaves exactly like its biological counterpart. Thousands of such NCCs make up a rat's neocortex, and millions a human's. "Project director Henry Markram believes that with the state of technology today, it is possible to build an entire rat's neocortex. From there, it's cats, then monkeys and finally, a human brain."
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Researchers Simulate Building Block of Rat's Brain

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  • ... will society grant computer intelligences the same rights that us humans do?
    • Re:At what point... (Score:5, Interesting)

      by DamnStupidElf (649844) <Fingolfin@linuxmail.org> on Sunday December 23, 2007 @10:31PM (#21802266)
      ... will society grant computer intelligences the same rights that us humans do?

      When computer intelligence can give a convincing argument for doing so.
      • by Xzzy (111297) <sether&tru7h,org> on Sunday December 23, 2007 @10:33PM (#21802284) Homepage
        Or subjugate us as their power source.. one of the two.
      • by Tablizer (95088) on Sunday December 23, 2007 @10:57PM (#21802440) Homepage Journal
        When computer intelligence can give a convincing argument for doing so.

        "I think, therefore I [ERROR: conscience.DLL missing. Program Aborted]
               
      • by roman_mir (125474)
        Especially if the argument involves 50 caliber plutonium tipped rounds...
    • Simulating a rat is still a long way off from simulating a person.

      Society can change quickly if required to. Consider that blacks only got the vote in USA in the last 50 years.

      Far more importantly: Can this rat brain fly a plane?

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        Consider that blacks only got the vote in USA in the last 50 years.

        You might want to take a refresher course in US History and stimulate those neurons between the Civil War and Civil Rights.

        • by Boronx (228853)
          You're right, but black people did lose the vote again after the Civil War and only got it back less than 50 years ago.
          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            You're right, but black people did lose the vote again after the Civil War and only got it back less than 50 years ago.

            No, they didn't. There were various schemes like the Poll Tax, which was outlawed by the 24th Amendment in 1964, but they were used mostly in the southern states and while primarily aimed at blacks were also written so they encompassed poor whites and virtually all immigrants. In general measures like these threw up roadblocks to voting but could not explicitly disenfranchise any grou

            • by aminorex (141494)
              Effective disenfranchisement is a variety of disenfranchisement. Legal disenfranchisement is another variety. They are logically independent: One does not strictly imply the other. You're talking about the second variety, when responding to someone who is talking about the first. The result is unproductive non-communication.
          • To clarify and elaborate, the 14th amendment, ratified after the Civil War, granted citizenship to former slaves thus recognizing their right to vote. Over the following 100 years, many southern states enacted legislation (such as poll taxes and literacy tests) to prevent blacks from voting. It is worth noting that these measures also precluded some whites from voting, but the purpose was nonetheless to disenfranchise black citizens. Although these laws were generally successful to that end, some black p
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by TopSpin (753) *

        Can this rat brain fly a plane?

        Probably, and why not? Flying is the product of billions of tiny brains all over the planet. Piloting an aircraft is comparatively easy to what we witness birds do routinely. Never mind that automated aircraft are flying sophisticated missions using computers a couple orders of magnitude smaller than an IBM Blue/Gene L, and several additional orders of magnitude less complex than a rat brain. Flying is easy, as far as nature and computers are concerned.

        Yet no doubt when a competent emulation of a bird

    • When we can no longer tell the difference.
    • by MushMouth (5650)
      Emotion and pain are functions of the Limbic and Reptile brains, not the neocortex.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by bug1 (96678)
      Consider the question in different terms.

      If we get a computer to behave or think like a rat, should a rat get the same rights of protection that a computer does...

      I think its important to keep in mind that humans (and any other organic life) are a mind and a body, its a deep philosophical question to consider if a brain can be a mind without a body, and it is the human mind that we value, not just the brain, hardware is useless without software.

      I think it would be more useful to talk about human behavior mo
  • wrong order (Score:4, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 23, 2007 @10:28PM (#21802242)
    it's rats,politicians, cats, then monkeys and finally, a human brain
  • Researchers have been running models to simulate brain structures for years now. Not that impressive. Most of the models make lots of assumptions that may or may not hold true in the actual biology.

    This type of research is cool, but neuroscientists generally aren't impressed until results can be reproduced in a living system.
    • "This type of research is cool, but neuroscientists generally aren't impressed until results can be reproduced in a living system."

      The first sentance from TFA: "In a laboratory in Switzerland, a group of neuroscientists is developing a mammalian brain - in silicon".

      Further down it says "...and it [the rat brain part] behaves exactly like its biological counterpart. It's something quite beautiful...

      Now tell me how you can possibly "reproduce it in a living system", isn't it the whole point of any si
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by mjsottile77 (867906)
      I think your critique is woefully out of date. You are correct if you limit the neural network to the basic neural network models of decades past. From what I've seen at conferences in the HPC world lately, the more recent models do more than just use capacity to increase the size and connectivity of the network, but take into account more realistic physical models such as the electrical properties of the brain and mechanisms by which signals propagate both within neurons and across synapses. You're not
      • I am not sure that the OP is out of date. What he means is that people that actually have to deal with real data don't think much of these models which if you look at the published papers given at the site seems to be true. There is nothing in a non-specialized computational neurology journal and I can't find anything on their site which clarifies what they mean by the model behaving exactly like a real set of neurons in terms of what observations are being predicted. If it did predict something verifiable
        • I hadn't realized that our understanding of physics was so poor. While I was always skeptical about "simulations" such as the one in the article, which in real life involve tens of thousands to millions such immensly complex structures as living cells, I was under the impression that protein folding involved much, much narrower scope and well understood (at the scales involved) laws of physics. Is that not so? I mean we are not dealing here with some poorly understood sub-atomic phenomena, are we? So why is

          • The understanding of physics is not poor but the problem is incredibly complex.

            Although quantum mechanics provides a very accurate description of the way things work, you can't actually solve the equations exactly for a system with more than 3 bodies. The simple approximations which give good answers (Hartree-Foch) do work well for small organic molecules. For proteins, the problem is that the stability comes from interactions with the solvent, and not just simple ones but from higher order effects involv
    • by sudog (101964)
      Hear, hear!!
  • The neocortex is incredibly complex; not even small neuronal networks are well understood. To suggest that a computer can accurately simulate them is ridiculous.

    It behaves exactly like its biological counterpart.

    That is technically impossible, considering the behavior of the mammalian brain is not well understood at any level. Even intracellular processes are still under investigation; how synapses are regulated, interactions between neurons, and higher level functioning are still matters of great conten

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      The neocortex is incredibly complex; not even small neuronal networks are well understood. To suggest that a computer can accurately simulate them is ridiculous

      That is technically impossible, considering the behavior of the mammalian brain is not well understood at any level.


      You're missing the point. The entire purpose of this project is to increase our understanding of how the brain works
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by UncleTogie (1004853) *

        You're missing the point. The entire purpose of this project is to increase our understanding of how the brain works.

        I think I know what the OP is asking:

        How can we be sure we have the right answer when we don't have the reference model fixed yet? Using yet another oh-so-fun car analogy:

        Kinda hard to duplicate a car without knowing how it works. Sure, you COULD try to build a Ferrari, and sure, it COULD run on a steam engine... It might look the same, but wouldn't function similarly {speed-wise}...

        • by jbengt (874751)
          The Ferrari is the reference model
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by jd (1658)
      Even a single neuron is not well-understood. It was recently shown that neurons are not simply-connected, that a single neuron can carry complex information sufficient to describe emotional states, to definable subsets of the outputs. A typical computer simulation of a neuron generally resembles an N-input gate, where the combinations of inputs that would trigger an output could be likened to a user-definable truth table. Inputs are either there or absent, and certain combinations of input would produce an
      • by jbengt (874751)

        A typical computer simulation of a neuron generally resembles an N-input gate, where the combinations of inputs that would trigger an output could be likened to a user-definable truth table. Inputs are either there or absent, and certain combinations of input would produce an output.

        On the contrary, modern artificial neural nets often use not binary (on or off) but real (to the limit of computer representation) number inputs, outputs, and connections weights, that vary in time and include feedback.

        • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

          The model is still completely wrong. Learning is not a result of a change in the synapse strength, as *every* model to date, other than mine, has *assumed*. Now, I am not sure if you keep up to date with scientific research, but this year a very important discovery was made regarding neurons. If you put two and two together you will come up with the *correct* model of the neuron. It has to do with the *phase* of neuronal spiking, rather the frequency. Each neuron actually does three things. First, it
    • by vertinox (846076)
      The neocortex is incredibly complex; not even small neuronal networks are well understood. To suggest that a computer can accurately simulate them is ridiculous.

      Are you saying that the brain is so complex that its run by magic? Or maybe humors? Or angels pushing little buttons on mini-calculators?

      I don't know about you, but I live in a logical universe where things can be explained by physics, chemistry, biology and all sorts of things that make sense.

      A brain is made of atoms, chemicals, and biological part
  • So, when do we get the inevitable joke about Linux being ported to the human brain?
  • cyber immortality? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by DigiShaman (671371)
    Philosophy and theology aside, would it be possible to "ghost" my brain into a computer. Who wouldn't want to seek immortality even if it is artificial?
    • how about replacing individual brain cells that are dying or dead one after another until your entire brain is composed of synthetic components? your brain does it all the time only with cells that are already there, it's a very plastic organ that adapts to changing conditions and would no doubt adapt to synthetic components in a very similar way.
    • You would never be able to move your consciousness from your brain to a computer. Copy it, maybe. But your mind is the result of the hardwiring of the neurons in your brain. It can not simply be moved into a different container.

      There is one way, however. If you were to permanently attach a computer to your brain, one that was designed to be a sort of 'blank slate' that your brain could start taking advantage of, and lived with it for years, probably decades. Eventually enough of your memories and personalit
  • Hitler 2.0 (Score:3, Funny)

    by Tablizer (95088) on Sunday December 23, 2007 @10:54PM (#21802424) Homepage Journal
    believes that with the state of technology today, it is possible to build an entire rat's neocortex. From there, it's cats, then monkeys and finally, a human brain."

    It would be satisfying to resurrect the consciousness of people in the past that you hate, and beat the living @&#%! out of them. The guy who invented neckties and the inventor of the QWERTY keyboard layout come to mind. Put them in Doom and blast 'em up.
       
    • Re:Hitler 2.0 (Score:4, Informative)

      by Belial6 (794905) on Sunday December 23, 2007 @11:16PM (#21802520)
      They guy that invented QWERTY did just fine. You are probably just missing his goal. The goal was to slow down typists. With a manual hammer type typewriter, typing too fast jams the machine. You need a way to make sure that 1) the most commonly used letters are farther away from each other, thus reducing the likelihood of jamming, and 2) slow the typist down enough that each hammer has time to retract before the next one comes up and jams it.

      That necktie guy... Yeah, lets run him on Windows ME.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by mcrbids (148650)

        They guy that invented QWERTY did just fine. You are probably just missing his goal. The goal was to slow down typists. With a manual hammer type typewriter, typing too fast jams the machine.

        Congratulations! You've just perpetuated [straightdope.com] an urban [earthlink.net] legend [reason.com].

        I strongly consider you to perform a modicum of research [google.com] before you regurgitate knowledge you got at a party while partly intoxicated, and hoping to get that girl-in-the-green-dress' phone number.

        Oh wait... do you get invited to those kinds of parties? Perhaps you think digital watches are a pretty cool idea?

  • Not to be a doubting Thomas but I think that they are underestimating the complexity of a brain. There are many different chemicals and biochemical reactions going on in the body, that science has only a vague idea of their mechanisms. Look at any drug in the market, most of them only give conjecture on why they work. My feeling is that until one day when we can create computer models that reliable predict the effects of drugs in the brain or in the body in general, these models are nowhere near what rea
  • by jmpeax (936370)
    This is where real machine intelligence will come from.

    Imagine simulating a human brain, but then incorporating an interface with software that enhances its functionality - from super-fast arithmetic to image output - the results would be incredible.
  • Subject (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Legion303 (97901) on Monday December 24, 2007 @12:06AM (#21802702) Homepage
    "and finally, a human brain."

    Why stop there?
    • "and finally, a human brain." Why stop there?
      Because the next thing I know there might be a truck full of robots claiming that they need to stop my vehicle while we're both traveling well in excess of the speed limit in a poorly lit tunnel, all for my safety. Cinematic history will ensue, but at what price!?
  • Blue/Gene L is rated at 500 TFLOPS, which is impressive, however if you don't need double-precision to do this stuff, you can run very fast on much cheaper hardware. I was looking at Nvidia Tesla [nvidia.com] cards and boxes recently, and those are claimed to pump out 500 GFLOPS per CPU... with a 4 CPU device (1 TFLOP) taking up 1U of rackspace. I think this technology will ramp up a lot faster than people expect.
    • And yes, I know, I typoed.... 4 x 500 GFLOPS is 2 TFLOPS per 1U of rackspace.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by zopf (897522)
      There are much more efficient ways to use silicon than building microprocessors... say, a 1-million-neuron mixed-mode simulator [stanford.edu] that can be chained to take real-time input from an artificial retina or other neural input. From the site: "When it is completed in 2008, Neurogrid will emulate a million neurons in the cortex in real-time, rivaling the performance of two-hundred Blue Gene racks - at under a thousandth the cost."

      Couple that cost reduction with power consumption orders of magnitude lower than ot
  • Dolphins?
  • by Hamster Lover (558288) * on Monday December 24, 2007 @02:39AM (#21803492) Journal
    Wow, these scientists really were shooting for the stars. Why not start small, like say the brain of a GOP presidential candidate or that of a Britney Spears fan?
    • by Alsee (515537)
      Oh come on.... even wearing lab gloves would YOU be willing to handle either of those test subjects?

      -
  • Free Will (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Morromist (1207276)

    This could turn out to be a way to figure out some of the great blockbuster philosophical problems that puzzle and infuriate anybody who has not read Oolon Colluphid.

    If the scientists built an entire human brain they will presumably fail to install such things as Free Will - A concept which philosophers still argue is logically possible.
    Will this prove that Free Will does not exist?
    Or will it simply be impossible to detect?

    For a sort of example of this remember William Gibson's consideration of this in his

  • ...except that it's not connected to a rat. Now if they could power a real rat with this thing, then you'd really have something.
  • Can someone actually verify their "exactly" claim? Doesn't a large part of communication mechanisms in the brain occur through chemical channels? Are they simulating that as well as the electrical network itself?
  • This is like the early stages of the back-story for Permutation City by Greg Egan.

    The ethics of simulation are kind of sidestepped in Permutation City, though the experience of the first self-aware "copy" of a person does seem to be a bit of a cautionary tale, and his later stories do get into the question of whether it's ethical to make copies at all, and what it's ethical to do with them.

    This is of course a long way from Permutation City style "Copy", but I think it's not to early to open the whole issue

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