Henry Markram is director of Blue Brain, a supercomputing project that can model components of the mammalian brain to precise cellular detail -- and simulate their activity in 3D. Soon he'll simulate a whole rat brain in real time.
In the microscopic, yet-uncharted circuitry of the cortex, Henry Markram is perhaps the most ambitious -- and our most promising -- frontiersman. Backed by the extraordinary power of the IBM Blue Gene supercomputing architecture, which can perform hundreds of trillions of calculations per second, he's using complex models to precisely simulate the neocortical column (and its tens of millions of neural connections) in 3D.
Though the aim of Blue Brain research is mainly biomedical, it has been edging up on some deep, contentious philosophical questions about the mind -- "Can a robot think?" and "Can consciousness be reduced to mechanical components?" -- the consequence of which Markram is well aware: Asked by Seed Magazine what a simulation of a full brain might do, he answered, "Everything. I mean everything" -- with a grin.
Now, with a successful proof-of-concept for simulation in hand (the project's first phase was completed in 2007), Markram is looking toward a future where brains might be modeled even down to the molecular and genetic level. Computing power marching rightward and up along the graph of Moore's Law, Markram is sure to be at the forefront as answers to the mysteries of cognition emerge.
"Markram refers to the robot as "science on an industrial scale," and is convinced that it’s the future of lab work. "So much of what we do in science isn’t actually science," he says, "I say let robots do the mindless work so that we can spend more time thinking about our questions.""Jonah Lehrer, Seed Magazine