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Biotech Technology

Complex Living Brain Simulation Replicates Sensory Rat Behaviour (cell.com) 63

New submitter physick writes: The Blue Brain project at EPFL, Switzerland today published the results of more than 10 years work in reconstructing a cellular model of a piece of the somatosensory cortex of a juvenile rat. The paper in Cell describes the process of painstakingly assembling tens of thousands of digital neurons, establishing the location of their synapses, and simulating the resulting neocortical microcircuit on an IBM Blue Gene supercomputer. “This is a first draft reconstruction of a piece of neocortex and it’s beautiful,” said Henry Markram, director of the Blue Brain Project at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. “It’s like a fundamental building block of the brain.”
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Complex Living Brain Simulation Replicates Sensory Rat Behaviour

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  • I for one welcome our Simulated Rat-Brain Overlords.

    (1st pest?)

  • by Giant Electronic Bra ( 1229876 ) on Thursday October 08, 2015 @05:45PM (#50689511)

    So I guess the implosion of the Human Brain Project has FINALLY gotten Dr Markram to publish something on brain simulation? He might have deflected a lot of criticism and saved himself a lot of grief if he'd done this 2 or 3 years ago.

    • by SuricouRaven ( 1897204 ) on Thursday October 08, 2015 @06:12PM (#50689717)

      They are trying to reverse engineer one the most complicated structures in the known universe, which operates on principles unlike those of any construct of human engineering. Even greatly simplified simulations of the most miniscule parts require a supercomputer to run - and that's just for rats. Do you expect progress to be rapid?

      • I think you should read up on the Human Brain Project. Markram has been doing this rat brain thing for 10 years now, and he's launched a billion Euro super project based on it, yet this is the FIRST time he's ever published any results. The HBP is also crashing and burning right now, bigtime. In fact it looks like Markram is pretty much been kicked off it.

        • I'm fascinated by this field of research but haven't been keeping up. News of HBP crashing and burning right now is indeed news to me. Aside from the objections from the computational neuroscience crowd (that I would summarize as "we don't fully understand the brain yet, so simulating it to gain a better understanding doesn't make any sense!") and Markram's unwillingness to entertain that claim, is there anything actually wrong with it?
          • Well, the whole rest of the neuroscience community pretty much rose up in rebellion. It turns out the structure of the HBP was pretty much entirely whatever Markram wanted it to be, it was his little dictatorship and he was answerable to nobody in effect due to the way he structured things. The EC gave him virtually carte blanc, didn't properly oversee the project, etc etc etc. There's a long and complex litany of issues. Finally the outcries of the rest of the field became so deafening that they HAD to loo

            • So, basically, management issues, not technical ones?

              Personally, I'm eager to see what happens with a brute-force approach to simulating a human brain, and I thought that was the sole goal of HBP. If it's being turned into a project developing technological support and software/hardware infrastructure to support neuroscience research, I'm definitely disappointed. While I'm sure that's a worthwhile endeavor also, I also suspect that there's lots of other people contributing towards that type of work also.
              • Well, I reserve judgement on whether his ideas have merit or not. I might have some slight insight into models and certainly software and such. Still, its an interesting project in one sense, and yet in another sense I understand the objections perfectly. If you end up with a simulation that is as hard to understand as the actual brain, what have you gained? The value MUST all be in the process, not the result, so why fix now on one specific result which may not prove to be the best choice?

                My guess is this

                • If you end up with a simulation that is as hard to understand as the actual brain, what have you gained?

                  Determining the presence/absence of interesting emergent properties alone would be invaluable.

                  The value MUST all be in the process, not the result, so why fix now on one specific result which may not prove to be the best choice?

                  See, this is where I disagree entirely. There are those who seek to gain some fundamental understanding of the brain, and then there are those who believe that a brute-force approach to simulating the brain might lead to the creation of virtual brains with emergent properties similar to those observed in biological brains. I fall into the latter camp. I just want to see what happens.

                  Granted, I can see why people

                  • Yes, but what you fail to understand is these "emergent properties" would be what? Intelligence? Suppose you simulated a human brain and it talked to you intelligently. What have you learned about intelligence that you can't learn from talking to me? The learning process involves the ability to analyze and control your simulation, not just to make it. In essence if you can 'instrument' this brain simulation in a way that lets you 'dissect' its process and decompose it into more abstract representations then

                    • Yes, but what you fail to understand is these "emergent properties" would be what? Intelligence? Suppose you simulated a human brain and it talked to you intelligently. What have you learned about intelligence that you can't learn from talking to me?

                      Nothing.

                      The learning process involves the ability to analyze and control your simulation, not just to make it.

                      This statement is misleading on account of its overly narrow scope. From the abacus all the way to the integrated circuit, we've been simulating (at a very low level of fidelity) some subset of the human brain for ages. The goal has never been to learn how the human brain does math, for example, but instead to augment natural human mental abilities. Gaining an understanding of the human brain is not the only valid goal to chase after, as it is evident that the pursuit of better computational technol

                    • To be clear, what I think is that you have to develop conceptual models, not just simulations. If all you did was literally make a neuron simulation and wire a huge number of them together you would learn what? Nothing much really, because you'd then have the same questions about how that simulation works that you have about how a real brain works. What we need are the equivalent of Kirchhoff's Laws and Ohm's Law, etc for neurology. That is a set of principles from which you can engineer functionality that

                    • To be clear, what I think is that you have to develop conceptual models, not just simulations. If all you did was literally make a neuron simulation and wire a huge number of them together you would learn what? Nothing much really, because you'd then have the same questions about how that simulation works that you have about how a real brain works. What we need are the equivalent of Kirchhoff's Laws and Ohm's Law, etc for neurology.

                      If your goal is to gain a fundamental understanding of how the brain works, I agree. If your goals are to simply duplicate the functional properties of a human brain, I disagree.

                      Much like we didn't need to gain a fundamental understanding of materials science or chemistry (or even a table of elements) to develop bronzeworking, ironworking, even steelworking (which are practically valuable in their own right, even without any deeper understanding of the how or why) it's entirely plausible that we don't nec

                    • I would argue that it took 1000's of years, in fact if you go back to the invention of fire it took almost 4 hundred thousand years to go from there to bronzework by simple process of blind experimentation, and almost 10 thousand more years to go from there to iron, and another 2 thousand to get to a sophisticated steelmaking process. That's a very tough row to hoe, very slow progress. We would be in the same position if we're just fiddling with some brain model. Brains are also a LOT more complex than stee

                    • That's a very tough row to hoe, very slow progress.

                      And yet, with the hindsight that we have today, can you say that we likely would've more quickly progressed to the point of steelmaking by, instead of blindly experimenting, waiting until sufficient understanding of chemistry was achieved? I don't. I think that the absence of metal tools would've delayed scientific progress, pushing back the date at which we really understood how steel works (which itself was preceded by the first development of steel either way). It's unlikely that an absence of metal tool

                    • I think you are presenting a false analogy at multiple levels here. We might say today that maybe the world progressed faster to steelmaking one way vs another, but AT BEST that's 20/20 hindsight, you can't actually prove it, the analogy shows no particular connection with AI, etc. There was no 'plan' to 'get steelmaking' this is the real world not Civ IV tech trees, and people 1000's of years ago didn't even have a concept of progress as a general thing. Nor is anyone proposing that we halt everything, Mar

                    • I grant that the analogy is far from perfect and depends on many probably-flawed assumptions. While I wasn't suggesting that the only alternative was to halt everything, I think about this subject in the context of "which approach is most likely to yield a virtual human brain soonest". Looking at [what I call] the brute-force approach of understanding how neurons work, understanding how neurons are interconnected, and simulating them, it seems like this ought to be possible in a few decades, maybe even in a
                    • Well, we have the ability to map a very small number of neurons. Actually do we even have that? We still don't EXACTLY understand how the potentiation of each synaptic junction works. There are something like 700 TRILLION of them in a human brain too, so we're not even remotely close, even assuming we can determine the weight for each one individually, to scanning even a tiny fraction of an actual brain. We couldn't even do that fruit fly, so even assuming we know where the synapses are that's like having j

            • by physick ( 146658 )

              Let's examine a few points:

              1) " the whole rest of the neuroscience community pretty much rose up in rebellion."

              156 people signed an open letter that was started by a tiny number of neuroscientists who disagreed with the HBP premises; fair enough. Disagreeing is good. But this is hardly " the whole rest of neuroscience". There are, I believe, more than 80 universities and research institutes in the HBP, and several hundred people work on it. So, several hundred people disagreed with several hundred other pe

              • I don't think your point 2 actually is fair. HBP is not 'a research project', at least that isn't how the EC CONCEIVED of it, they conceived of a large-scale multi-disciplinary project with many different research groups working on related issues. So it wasn't intended to be simply a research project that was proposed by Markram, it was intended to be an umbrella program that directed the overall high-level goals. But Markram and a very small group of his people had an outsized influence on the direction, a

                • by physick ( 146658 )

                  Thanks for your comments. I think maybe a lot of the management problems arose because the FET flagships were a new funding mechanism, and the EC may not have had clear ideas how they should be managed. Management problems have certainly loomed large in the HBP, but I think they have still been blown out of proportion. I wonder if the FET mechanism is only a beta version, and next time the EC will devise the release version. After all, the EC has many goals that are not only scientific, and 0.5 billion is

                  • Thanks for your comments. I think maybe a lot of the management problems arose because the FET flagships were a new funding mechanism, and the EC may not have had clear ideas how they should be managed. Management problems have certainly loomed large in the HBP, but I think they have still been blown out of proportion. I wonder if the FET mechanism is only a beta version, and next time the EC will devise the release version. After all, the EC has many goals that are not only scientific, and 0.5 billion is not in european terms a huge amount (think Greece bailout funds). From the EC point of view, if side products of the HBP research led to a 1% increase in european employment and proved that brain simulations were not possible, the EC would be delighted.

                    Yeah, its nice to have actually intelligent conversations ;) Thx. I think you may be right, and it is certainly true that as a govt institution EUR 1 billion must not seem like a very big stake. The other flagship project it seems has been quite successful so far though, so its not clear that the issue is entirely the overall mechanism, it seems more likely that project's individual characteristics are a really important aspect of the equation. Certainly I think people will agree that in the future the less

                    • by physick ( 146658 )

                      "AT LEAST Dr Markram failed to manage the project in a way that allayed these fears and objections. I suspect that earlier publication of substantial results from his own project would have helped, but I could be wrong, maybe there was no avoiding this crisis, it was just purely a product of politics and ego."

                      I agree, but there were external pressures that meant that it was not easy to direct the project in a way that would prevent what happened. Some decisions were forced. And now that it has happened, peo

    • by jcdr ( 178250 )

      From the page 487:
      Received: December 16, 2014
      Revised: May 4, 2015
      Accepted: September 11, 2015
      Published: October 8, 2015
      Add to that the time needed to redact a 30+ pages paper in coordination with all the authors.
      That said, I don't know if it's a normal timing or not in that research field.

      • I'm just saying, its been 10 years since Markram began this line of research, and NOTHING has been published in the formal literature up to now. One might question whether or not they've actually ACHIEVED anything, and if 10 years of effort isn't enough to publish a paper if the project is worth funding at a huge level going forward (Because the HBP is essentially just funding Markram's project as he's in complete control of all its funds, or was until recently). I think a year for a publication to be revie

        • by jcdr ( 178250 )

          Now that the paper is out, did you think there archived sometime or not ?

          • I'm not sure. I have read the popular reports. They sound interesting in some ways, and I don't think the effort is worthless. I may not be qualified to say exactly whether it is the best way forward or if other initiatives, which now seem to have gotten the upper hand, are better options. I will read the paper though if I can. I have an open mind about it, and 'simulate the human brain' certainly has a certain visceral appeal.

  • But the obvious question is:

    Can it drag a slice of pizza down the stairs?

  • Real science is cute, too.
  • NUMBER OF NEURONS
    Rat Brain 200,000,000
    Human Brain 86,000,000,000

    If a Moore's law type progression occurs in this field we'll get human brain simulation within a decade. If so, watch out because everything will change. Of course the researcher is only simulating a portion of the rat brain and technology rarely moves in straight lines, so let's be reasonable and call it twenty years.
  • Complex Living Brain Simulation

    So much disambiguation needed.

    Complex-Living Brain Simulation ... the brain simulation lives in a complex.

    Complex Living-Brain Simulation ... it's complex and simulates a "living brain".

    Complex-Living-Brain Simulation ... a simulation of brains which live in complexes.

    I'd like to say I expect better from the Guardian. I'd like to, but I can't.

  • Great, now we have sentient rats on the ARK. What devastating plagues will they bring along this time?!?

C for yourself.

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