Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Wham BAM Thank You, Man!

We now have the technology to make a digital model of the human brain. We need but to will it to happen. If we do not, someone else will. Sooner than you may think. Scientists have devised a practical plan to do accomplish this amazing feat. We must fund them.

From humble beginnings in 1987, scientists began to model the human genome. They wanted to make map of the entire sequence of genes that make a human being. With government funding starting in 1990, the project was expected to take 15 years. They accomplished the project in 2003 with international assistance from scientists in the Europe and Asia.

Calling the project Brain Activity Map (BAM) the scientists propose to step-by-step build models of the human brain using software. They would start with a simple worm brain and work up through increasingly complex creatures until they can model a human brain. Brain mapping is sometimes also know by the term “connectome”.

The Science

Imaging techniques would be used to see what is happening with individual molecules in the brain's cells. This imaging technology already exists. Computer manufactures believe they can continue their decades long exponential growth in machine processing power using Moore's Law. This means the hardware to run the imaged brain models will be available before the brain model is completed.

Existing technology to image the brain at the molecular level

The well understood C. Elegans
The plan involves five major stages. Each stage attempts a more complex brain. The plan allows five years for each stage in order to image and model larger and larger brains. Several “brain observatories” would be constructed to allow for competition between research teams.

The first phase would start with C.Elegans, a simple worm that has already been under study for decades. The worm has 302 neurons with about 7,000 connections between them.

The humble Fruit Fly
Scaling up from the worm brain model, the scientists would then attempt a Fruit Fly (Drosophila) next. The Fruit brain has about 135,000 neurons. Current computer hardware is capable of this feat already, the scientists need only do the imaging to make the model.

Depending upon what is learned with the first two phases, the third phase would attempt either the common home aquarium zebrafish brain, a section of the human brain called the hippocampus or perhaps both. Both of these brains have just under a million neurons to image, model, and put into software.

The fourth stage would be to model the entire brain of an awake mouse. This would provide a brain model that could be tested in real time against live beings. Then the project would go on to the fifth stage to map and model an entire, working human brain. The 25 year estimate to finish this entire project is very conservative.  If structured smartly, competition could work for like it did for the human genome project and results could be achieved even sooner.


The plan calls for a mix of private and public funding in the order of about $300 million a year. Over the proposed 20 years of of the project it would cost about $6 billion to accomplish. This is on the same scale as was the Human Genome project. Even if the real costs double, it will be cheap at the price.

A billion dollars seems like a lot. To understand the scale of this investment, consider that just to build a single aircraft carrier costs almost $27 billion. We have 11 of these ships. The Transportation Security Administration has a budget of $8 billion annually. The Hubble Space Telescope costs $10 billion over its lifetime.

Putting in the Golden Spike
The Payoff

The human genome project has had staggering economic benefits. The under $4 billion invested over 13 years on research returned $796 billion in economic activity. The genome investment generated 310,000 jobs. It also launched a revolution in the bio-sciences that will be felt for generations to come.

The return on investment for mapping the human brain could be much, much greater. There is no accurate way to predict just how many jobs or how much new economic activity this project could generate. Even if the Brain Activity Mapping project were to only break-even in financial terms, the benefits to our knowledge, medicine, and computers will be far reaching.

A man, a plan, a canal: Panama.
Knowledge of how the brain works will have many impacts we know about and more we can only guess at. Understanding how mental illness works. Scientists believe that they can model the effects of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, schizophrenia and autism in the brain leading to better treatments and perhaps even cures.

Advances in artificial intelligence could boost our information processing capabilities. Understanding how consciousness emerges from the brain would allow to understand what we humans are even better. We may even be able to build our own new kinds of minds.

Just Do It

As when we decided to put a man on the moon, connect the Pacific Atlantic oceans by rail, and build the interstate system; this project must be done. The benefits to our country and mankind are too great to turn away from.

Already the European Union is funding similar research in Switzerland. We should not give up on this research like we did with the Superconducting Super Collider.  We should lead the world, not follow it into this new frontier.

We should ensure our children and grandchildren benefit. It is a small investment. We should fund this now.

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