“The plan is to engineer the mind by reverse-engineering the brain,” says Dharmendra Modha, manager of the cognitive computing project at IBM Almaden Research Center.
In what could be one of the most ambitious computing projects ever, neuroscientists, computer engineers and psychologists are coming together in a bid to create an entirely new computing architecture that can simulate the brain’s abilities for perception, interaction and cognition. All that, while being small enough to fit into a lunch box and consuming extremely small amounts of power.
The 39-year old Modha, a Mumbai, India-born computer science engineer, has helped assemble a coalition of the country’s best researchers in a collaborative project that includes five universities, including Stanford, Cornell and Columbia, in addition to IBM.
The researchers’ goal is first to simulate a human brain on a supercomputer. Then they plan to use new nano-materials to create logic gates and transistor-based equivalents of neurons and synapses, in order to build a hardware-based, brain-like system. It’s the first attempt of its kind.
Related is the project at Harvard and UCLA to map the “connectome” — the actual neural circuitry of the central and peripheral nervous system. That’s 100 billion neurons and several trillion synaptic connections; it’s equivalent in scale and scope to the Human Genome Project. The key discovery is the Brainbow, a technique for stimulating neurons so they took up different colored fluorescent probes; for the first time, tangled neurons can be visually distinguished.
The Connectome project is a kind of science that often gets short shrift these days: “inductive” reasoning, collecting a vast library of observations first, in the hopes that they will suggest theories and future questions. It’s very much in the tradition of Victorian naturalists (Darwin was an inductivist). The idea is that the brain is so complicated and so little understood that we don’t yet know what to theorize about or where to look; the humbler and ultimately more fruitful approach is to look around. This is a high-tech version of going back to biology’s beetle-pinning roots.