The Human Brain Project

17 November 2014

Interview with

Professor Henry Markram, École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland

Over 1 billion Euros invested by the European Union. Their goal? To simulate the Lung-on-a-chiphuman brain on a supercomputer. We meet the man in charge of the project.

I next met with Professor Henry Markram who is leading the human brain project in Lausanne, Switzerland where the European Union have invested almost 1 billion pounds to develop technologies with the goal to simulate the human brain on a super computer. I started by asking Henry why this whopping investment is happening now, what it hopes to achieve and if he thinks it will be successful?

Henry - Well, the goal of the project is three-fold. One is to establish the technology that we need to integrate data from the genetic level, all the way to the behavioral level. We do that using computer models. The second goal is to be able to analyze clinical data and to cluster it so that we can have a much more objective way of classifying brain diseases and point to targets so that we will be able to develop drugs more effectively. Giving varied tools to pharmaceutical industry so that they can actually reengage in discovering of new drugs. And the third initiative is to develop new kind of computing technologies based on how the brain functions. We are largely as software initiative building tools to get to this future. The future that we see of understanding the brain is to be able to understand it as an integrated system. 

Hannah - We spoke earlier with the congressman on the American brain initiative. Now will you be working in synergy, in collaboration with the American funded project or will it be more like a space mission or competition if you'd like.

Henry - I think that there's no time for competition in the brain. There is time for collaboration, collaboration is essential. The problem is too vast, too complex, it's too diverse, too specialized that we cannot afford to approach the brain in isolation in a silo. We absolutely have to collaborate. In terms of the US initiative, they will be developing technologies that will allow you experiment and map the brain and get a much deeper understanding of the actual structure of the brain. In terms of the human brain project, we will have the tools that will allow integrating that data in a much more effective way in the context of all the other data being generated around the world, so it's entirely complimentary.

Hannah -  And how will you ensure that there is synergy and collaborative complimentary research going on? How will you facilitate that?

Henry - The direction is to establish what we see as a global network of brain initiatives where different countries, the Japanese are launching a brain initiative around the non-human primates, the Chinese are launching an initiative also by the end of the year. The Australians, Canadians, we think that many countries are going to be raising the priority for brain research built on this momentum established by the US brain initiative and the European brain initiative. This Collaboration framework is something that would allow much easier implementation between scientists. There's an open data policy. This is one of the key things that we see as an impediment to success, is that we actually have to make data that is being collected by scientists all over the world open to all. So, nobody is gonna to "own" data. It's gonna be a community resource worldwide, international resource and I believe the US brain initiative has it in their mandate to make the data open. So, of course scientists come up with inventions, new algorithms, new analysis methods, and they will file patents on those particular ones and they will drive commercial industries. If it's a new target for a disease, there will be initiatives around that and hopefully that does spark an industry around the basic and clinical science of the brain.

Hannah - And Henry, your goal is to create a human brain using a super computer. Could you flip your results the other way around and turn iPhones into a cognitive thinking being?

Henry - Flipping it around, of course with that, we will have a deep understanding of circuitry, of mechanisms, principles of operation, of computing that aim and will use them to implement them into computer chips. These are, however, vastly reduced forms of the brain. They're not going to be anything like a brain on a chip for many, many decades, perhaps centuries. So, they will be powerful the same way a calculator can do better calculation than we can. This does not mean they are more advanced that human beings. It just means that we are making certain kinds of analyses much more accessible and put them on your Iphone of the future.

Hannah - Henry Markram, 

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