Of Interest: the Human Brain Project

Threads of research aimed at reverse engineering the brain overlap at the edges with both longevity science and strong artificial intelligence. The knowledge and efforts required to simulate a human brain will probably help work aimed at building the means to repair and rejuvenate an aging brain, and certainly provide a path to the development of artificial minds. When it comes to fixing the damage of aging in the human brain, the research community may find that some combination of repair biotechnologies in the SENS model and unleashing stem cells to do their work is sufficient, even in an absence of full understanding of the processes by which the brain ages and degenerates. But more knowledge never hurts.

Considering the very long term, we will need to understand the workings of the brain and become very capable at emulating them in order to progressively replace the neurons of a flesh brain with more durable and resistant machinery. Given present mortality rates for perfectly healthy young individuals, we might live for thousands of years if protected from aging by suitable biotechnologies. To last longer, we'd need to change ourselves - such as through replacement of the body. But that all lies a long way past the field of immediate and pressing problems related to aging. First things first.

Nonetheless, efforts like the Allen Institute for Brain Science and the Human Brain Project are worth keeping an eye on:

The brain, with its billions of interconnected neurons, is without any doubt the most complex organ in the body and it will be a long time before we understand all its mysteries. The Human Brain Project proposes a completely new approach. The project is integrating everything we know about the brain into computer models and using these models to simulate the actual working of the brain. Ultimately, it will attempt to simulate the complete human brain. The models built by the project will cover all the different levels of brain organisation - from individual neurons through to the complete cortex. The goal is to bring about a revolution in neuroscience and medicine and to derive new information technologies directly from the architecture of the brain.

The Human Brain Project will impact many different areas of society. Brain simulation will provide new insights into the basic causes of neurological diseases such as autism, depression, Parkinson's, and Alzheimer's. It will give us new ways of testing drugs and understanding the way they work. It will provide a test platform for new drugs that directly target the causes of disease and that have fewer side effects than current treatments. It will allow us to design prosthetic devices to help people with disabilities. The benefits are potentially huge. As world populations grow older, more than a third will be affected by some kind of brain disease. Brain simulation provides us with a powerful new strategy to tackle the problem.

You might take a few minutes to peruse the Human Brain Project web site, and take a look at the various PDFs they have available for download. It all makes for interesting reading. One of the points to take away is that potentially transformative research programs are cheap when compared to the budgets of nation states: the Human Brain Project seeks something on the order of $1.5 billion for their vision. The Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence is on the order of a $1 billion over a decade for a good shot at realizing rejuvenation in a mouse - all the necessary biotechnologies made ready to the point at which clinical development for humans could begin.

Importantly, and thanks to ongoing progress in technology, the amounts needed for these and similar projects have fallen to a level at which motivated high net worth individuals can - individually - decide to shape these fields, as Paul Allen is doing in the case of brain research. There are hundreds of such people in the world, and all of them are just as subject to aging, frailty, and age-related disease as the rest of us. We're still waiting for someone to decide that SENS is the rational use for large-scale resources, but I think that this is only a matter of time and persuasion.


"We're still waiting for someone to decide that SENS is the rational use for large-scale resources, but I think that this is only a matter of time and persuasion"

I think someone who is influencial and respected should pursue these wealthy individuals who have the resources to help with SENS projects. Ray Kurzweil?

Posted by: Robert Church at October 15th, 2012 5:25 PM

I'm sceptical that they can muster the computational resources to simulate a whole human brain. The architectural mismatch between brain and computer would lead to vast inefficiencies in the simulation. Furthermore, that idea is ethically fraught. What about moral rights of the simulated individual?

However, lofty and perhaps unattainable or undesirable goals aside, this sort of research could help with the development of brain-machine interfaces by enriching our understanding of the way information is encoded and processed by the brain. The technology to replace individual neurons with analogous machines is perhaps the most advanced conceivable application, and it would be unimaginative to disregard more near-term and feasible benefits of brain-machine interfaces. Among other things, the very problem of inefficiency mentioned above has a corollary that the brain and electronic computers are actually quite complimentary to each other.

Posted by: José at October 16th, 2012 5:47 AM

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