Henry Markram: A brain in a supercomputer (TED Talk)

Henry and his team want to recreate the brain. This is important because it’s essential to understand the human brain if we want to get along in society, it’s a key step in our evolution; we cannot keep doing animal experimentation forever, we have to have a working model of the brain; and finally, there are 2 billion people on the planet affected by mental illness, and we can come up with very concrete ways to treat those disorders with a replica brain.

The brain creates a version of the universe, and projects this version all around us. Our brain constantly makes decisions based on the perception we have – the moon looks bigger when on the horizon, and our brain makes that decision based on what else it has in sight. Without decisions we cannot do very much at all.

You may think that anaesthetics work by sending you into a deep sleep, but in fact they actually introduce a noise into the brain which confuses it, so you cannot make a decision. While you’re trying to make up your mind about what you’re experiencing, the surgeon is hacking away at your body.

When you walk up to a door, open it, and look inside, your brain makes thousands of decisions, about the shape of the room, the high of objects within it. 99% of what you see is not what comes in through the eyes, it’s what you infer about the image coming in.

It took the universe 11 billion years to build a brain, it had to keep adding to the front of the brain, and the big step was the addition of the neocortex – because mammals needed it, they had to cope with parenthood, social interactions, and complex cognitive functions. The neocortex is the ultimate solution of today, that the universe has produced.

It’s been so successful, that from mouse to man, it has expanded 1,000 fold the number of neurons. The neocortex is still adapting and improving.

The most important secret to the brain is diversity – every neuron is different. Like in a forest, every tree is slightly different. Each brain has different amounts of neurons, in different places – the fabric of every brain is different. So how we can possibly create a reality where we even understand each other?

Turns out that the patterns are the same across the different configurations of the fabric. But these patterns are species specific – which may explain why we cannot communicate fully with other species.

The brain creates electrical patterns when you stimulate it. This enables us to see what the brain is doing depending upon the reality it is perceiving.

It’s not impossible to build a brain – and Henry and his team want to achieve it in 10 years. This talk is truly astonishing.

(Part of TED a day for June)


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