A $1.3B Supercomputer Replica of the Human Brain

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Markram’s first ‘Blue Gene’ IBM supercomputer could simulate a single neocortical column in a rat, which has 100,000 of them. The Human Brain Project will need far larger power to simulate the 86 billion neurons, and the 100 trillion connections that link them.

Wired Magazine introduced this project with an emphatic “Even by the standards of the TED conference, Henry Markram’s 2009 talk was a mindbender”.

His plan is to build a complete model of a human brain – down to synapses, and to simulate it on a supercomputer to deliver a fully sentient (i.e. conscious) hologram of the brain. This endeavour has several remarkable features:

Whilst they consider some of his ultimate goals unrealistic, leading figures in neuroscience and computing (including Nobel-prize winners) believe this initiative is important because of the data it will amass, the collaboration it will foster between labs around the world, and the learnings gathered on the way, including data 3D visualisation.

This has convinced the European Union to award Markram 1 billion Euros.

This program goes further than the ‘BRAIN project’ funded by Obama, which is looking at mapping brain circuits but is leaving out what happens at the molecular level; and also further than ‘Human Connectome’, another major project looking at the correlation between specific genes and brain structures.

Markram’s project is deliberately designed to approach the brain as a complex system. His goal is “not just about understanding one brain
disease, but about understanding a complex system that can go wrong in 600 different ways, about finding the weak points.” In doing so, it will lay the ground for cross-disciplinary effort beyond neuroscience, and deliver benefits and learnings irrespective of whether the simulation of a whole brain is ultimately successful.

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