Electronic Thinking, Feeling Artificial Lifeform 10 Years Away?

August 12, 2009

(ChattahBox)—Are we just a decade away from developing an electronic copy of the human brain that may experience conscious self-awareness, to the point of a thinking feeling new artificial life form? The creation of artificial intelligence may no longer reside only in the realm of science fiction, with the recent announcement from Henry Markram of the IBM Blue Brain project, at the TED Global conference in Oxford, England that he plans to build an electronic model of the human brain within 10 years.

The concept of a “ghost in the machine” has long pervaded frightening science fiction tales; the moment when computers become so advanced that they develop consciousness and embark on the destruction of the human race. However, Henry Markram, a South African neuroscientist is not interested in developing a bigger and better computer. He seeks to reverse-engineer the mammalian brain, to explore how it functions and to serve as a future tool for medical researchers to someday discover cures for diseases of the brain.

The brain contains billions of neurons, connected by dendrites and axons, giving off electrical and chemical impulses through the brain’s biological “wiring.” The brain processes information by sending electrical signals from neuron to neuron along these wires.

If Markram were successful in replicating all of the human brain’s complex circuitry, would the unit think and feel emotion like a human person? Or is there something unseen that makes us human, like a soul, which Markram and his team of brain engineers could never reproduce with their mathematically precise neurological patterns.

Markram and his Blue Brain team at the Ecole Poltechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland, have already achieved phase I of their ambitious project, by developing a simulation model of a component of a rat’s brain known as a cortical column, comprised of 10,000 working neurons.

Individual electronic neurons were modeled mathematically and then virtually wired together, like a real brain. Markram and his team were able to process the swirling electronic neurons, using a powerful computer and compare the activity to a model of a real brain.

The working model provided proof-of-principle of a replica of the neocortical column at the cellular-level. Since the model of the rat neocortical column was created, something unusual has been occurring within the complex circuitry, as the neurons have started to, all on their own, self-organize into a more complex pattern.

Previously, the rat brain only powered up when triggered with an electrical current. Markam believes this is the beginning of a complex process of self-organizing neurological patterns, which in a more advanced brain represents consciousness and personality.

The Blue Brain project is not an artificial intelligence project, but there is no question that once the Pandora’s box is opened with a working electronic human brain, scientists may be dealing with the concept of a new life-form with a unique form of consciousness and self-awareness, before the world is ready to accept it.

Scientists with IBM’s Almaden research lab at Nevada University created a working model of half of a mouse brain, consisting of about eight million neurons. During a short ten-second simulation of the mouse brain, scientists believe they detected similar patterns to thoughts or consciousness viewed in scans of a real mouse brain.

Markram believes when he finally completes a full model of an artificial human brain that it may begin to self-organize like the rat brain and develop consciousness. If he succeeds, he promises to bring the artificial self-aware brain in a box to speak at the TED conference.


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