The Human Brain Project is an attempt to build completely new computer science technology that will enable us to collect all the information we have built up about the brain over the years,” said Prof Henry Markram, Director of the HBP at EPFL (Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne), in Switzerland.
“We should begin to understand what makes the human brain unique, the basic mechanisms behind cognition and behaviour, how to objectively diagnose brain diseases, and to build new technologies inspired by how the brain computes.”
The HBP can be viewed as the neuroscience equivalent of the Human Genome Project, which involved thousands of scientists around the world working together to sequence our entire genetic code. That took more than a decade and cost hundreds of billions of dollars.
But whereas that involved mapping every one of the three billion base pairs found in every cell that make up our entire genetic code, the Human Brain Project will not be able to map the entire human brain. It’s simply too complex. The brain has around 100 billion neurons, or nerve cells and 100 trillion synaptic connections.
Scientists at the University of Manchester are building a model which will mimic 1% of brain function. The SpiNNaker project is led by Steve Furber, a pioneer of the computer industry
A working draft of the genome was announced in 2000 and a complete one in 2003, with further, more detailed analysis still being published. The Human Genome Project started in 1987.
Genome engineering could arrive around 2023.
The Human Brain Project seems to be aspiring to kick off a ramping up of neuroscience over 15-40 years.
1 – Design, develop and deploy the ICT platforms
The HBP will develop six ICT platforms, dedicated respectively to Neuroinformatics, Brain Simulation, High Performance Computing, Medical Informatics, Neuromorphic Computing and Neurorobotics. In all cases, the platforms will build on existing capabilities, some but not all developed by the HBP partners.
2 – Demonstrate the scientific value of the six ICT platforms
During the ramp-up phase, the HBP will conduct a number of small pilot studies designed to test the capabilities of the platforms. The projects – which will span the three key areas of neuroscience, medicine, and computing – will test how the platforms can work together on specific scientific problems and allow developers to benefit from user feedback on the functionality provided. The pilot studies will cover only a tiny proportion of the full range of scientific questions the platforms will ultimately address. Nonetheless each study will attempt to make significant advances beyond the state of the art.
3 – Research for future versions of the platforms
During the ramp-up phase, the HBP will collect data, develop theoretical frameworks and perform technical development work necessary for the future development of the platforms during the operational phase.
4 – Ethical research and responsible innovation
The HBP Foresight Lab will study the views, attitudes and strategies of key stakeholders with methods from the empirical social sciences involving interviews, focus groups and other assessment methods, while simultaneously using systematic foresight techniques such as modelling, horizon scanning and scenario planning, a strategy which has reached its highest stage of development in the UK (www.bis.gov.uk/foresight) . Studies of the philosophical and conceptual implications of HBP will contribute to on going debates about a broad range of issues ranging from the neural bases of human selfhood and higher mental functions to the concepts of personhood, free will, and consciousness. Attempts to achieve public dialogue and engagement during the development of new technologies have used a range of methods and approaches including consensus conferences, citizen juries, stakeholder workshops, deliberative polling, focus groups and various forms of public dialogue. It is important that the HBP Ethics and Society Programme respects scientists’ legitimate desire to inform the public about their research, while avoiding self-conscious attempts to steer public opinion in a particular direction.
5 – Transdisciplinary education
Despite frequent calls to broaden the scope of academic education programs, a lot of undergraduate education and most post-graduate education is highly specialised. As a consequence, it is highly unusual that a life sciences student receives more than a superficial introduction to medicine or computing; similarly medical students learn little about computing and have only a limited training in biology; computer scientists have virtually no training in any discipline outside their own. Very few young scientists receive any training at all on issues related to innovation, i.e. IPR management, legal and organisational solutions for exploiting research results, how to write a business plan, etc. In a situation in which ICT and the life sciences are converging, the specialist nature of current curricula makes it difficult for the HBP and for society to recruit personnel with the transdisciplinary skills they need.
An important goal for the HBP is therefore to design and implement a broad programme of transdisciplinary education that helps to train the young scientists the project requires, while simultaneously meeting broader societal needs. A key role in the programme will be played by MOOCs (Massive Open On-line Courses), involving video documentation of lectures as well as formal on-line examinations with certificates awarded by the affiliated universities. HBP will establish a multi-university certification process. While MOOCs will be targeted toward the estimated 5,000 students over the ten years of the project, MOOCs are additionally open to any student world-wide. MOOCs will also serve as a selection process for new students to be recruited into the HBP.
6 – Develop a framework for collaboration
The European Commission’s goal is to turn the FET Flagship Programme into a new model of research funding that optimises collaboration among different sources of funding, reduces administrative overhead and provides effective support for long-term visionary projects such as the HBP. The project’s planned European Research Programme’s activities will support this goal.
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
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