Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Building A Computer Model Of the Human Brain


An article in the Los Angeles Times says that scientists have built a working computer model of the human brain:
A new computer model of the brain can perceive, process and act on visual information, such as questions from an IQ test. The model, published Thursday in the journal Science, only simulates about 2.5 million of the estimated 60 billion to 100 billion cells in the brain, but it is the first to connect simulated activity of those cells to actual behaviors.
Over the last decade, an increasingly ambitious group of neuroscience researchers has focused its energies on using computers to model the activity of the brain. For the most part, those researchers have attempted to expand the number of cells the models include while maintaining the biological accuracy of the simulations.
But the new model takes a different tack. Rather than focus on how many cells the model includes, the researchers have focused on getting from simulated brain activity to observable actions. And instead of just being comprised of a set of computer chips, the model includes a camera to "see" and a robotic arm to "act."
The artificial brain can use these tools to carry out eight different tasks, including counting, memorizing numbers, and answering questions from an IQ test. The research team, led by Chris Eliasmith of the University of Waterloo in Canada, named the model Spaun.
What makes the model different from your iPhone or laptop, which can also take in information, process it, and act? While hardware and software engineers couldn't care less about how our brains work, the model's creators designed their model to replicate the properties of a small group of brain areas and the neurons contained within them, making all information processing and behavior the result of simulated brain cell activity. The areas were chosen because they are directly involved in visual perception, decision-making and movement.
While this is a notable or least interesting scientific and engineering achievement, I am not sure what or where it will lead to in the advancement of humanity. Not all scientific or engineering feats make us better human beings; some make us worse, and thinking and acting non-humans are the chief narrative components of dystopian science fiction.

Leaving that argument aside for now, I find it puzzling that computer scientists would want to replicate the human brain, with all its imperfections and limitations. Or perhaps it might be that science allows that human imperfection is an acceptable and perhaps an ideal state.

You can read the rest of the article at [LA Times].