September 06, 2009

Replicating the Human Brain

Prof. Henry Markram of the Brain Science Institute in Switzerland says that it's possible to replicate the functions of the human brain on a supercomputer in the next ten year.

This has many interesting possibilities. For neuroscientistss grappling with the mysteries of the human brain and the many diseases that afflict the brain, the modelling of the brain might offer insights into its workings that in turn will help to develop treatments.

On a more subtle level, understanding the neuronal mechanisms might offer some clues to understanding complex human emotions and "higer order" skills that only humans have.

Might we someday understand the physiological basis of such uniquely human attributes such as fear, anger, love, envy, anxiety, hatred and many others?

And how does one allocate scare financial resources to such a project with uncertain benefits? We live in times when communities and nations have to choose between conflicting priorities: some priorities seem obvious as they have direct implications for the wellbeing of that society and some other priorities are difficult to go for as their benefits are more nebulous.

Consider a few cases in point: when it comes to human diseases — such as AIDS or the more recent swine flu — allocating resources to the 'war' against them is a no-brainer as the benefits are self-evident.

Then there are other challenges such as the looming food scarcity facing the ever increasing population of the planet. Again, the attempts to increase food production are completely understandable.

Basically, no one would argue when more and more resource is allocated to finding cures for human diseases or fighting other existential challenges.

The challenging decisions are those which involve projects which do not have an obvious benefit. Some of these projects include: the entire space program, from the days of the Apollo moon landings to the Shuttles and the International Space Station and the explorations of the Solar System.

Much of pure science work doesn't provide immediatte benefits as well. The Hubble Space Telescope is a wonder of science but with no explicit benefits in terms of improving the lives of human beings.

So, what does one do? Does one stop supporting such endeavors? Or, pursue such projects as a last resort, with utmost reluctance?

I believe humanity would be well served to find as much resource as possible rather than as little to devote to research initiatives which are theoretical and fundamental in nature rather than practical research inititiatives. The push for fundamental research should not be at the expense of practical or applied science but decision makers should have the foresight to look beyond the horizon at possible benefits of such research.

The danger lies in having an attitude too mired in shortsightedness ... where all the resources are merely devoted to solving the problems of today with no resources whatsoever being devoted to fighting unseen challenges.

The poorer nations of the world (such as India and China) tend to be laggards in fundamental science for obvious reasons. It's up to the advanced and rich nations to devote more resources to such projects.

As long as somebody is doing that, humanity will hopefully be okay. I have in mind such 'pure' science as these: the continuous and vigorous research into the mystery of what led to the extinction of the dinosaurs, the evolution of stellar structures (including galaxies), the probability of large meteors striking the Earth and the NASA/US Air Force project which tracks large near Earth orbits to prvent this likelihood.

The efforts to 'model' various systems and processes are all in the spirit of this endeavor: whether it's brain modelling or climate modelling or any other type of modelling. Hopefully, with ever increasing computing capabilities at our disposal, we will continue to venture ever forward in our modelling expertise ...

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