The Human Brain Project (HBP) is the EU’s £899 (€1billion) flagship science initiative working on developing human-machine hybrids. The ambitious enterprise’s primary aim is to simulate the human brain using computers, improving science and technology on the way. Professor Katrin Amunts, HBP’s scientific director, believes tangible results are starting to arrive, halfway through the Human Brain Project’s ten-year tenure.
She said: “We are trying to emulate the capabilities of the brain, we are trying to understand the brain’s principles and the organisational rules behind cognitive function.”
We are trying to emulate the capabilities of the brain
“What we are trying to do at HBP is try and understand how we can use our knowledge about brain organisation and transfer it, for instance, to new computing devices called neuromorphic devices.”
The Human Brain Project is developing two major neuromorphic machines; Manchester University’s SpiNNaker and the University of Heidelberg’s BrainscaleS.
The Spiking Neural Network Architecture aka SpiNNaker is the world’s largest neuromorphic supercomputer designed and built to work in the same way a human brain does.
Human Brain Project: The science initiative working on developing human-machine hybrids
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SpiNNaker is unique because, unlike traditional computers, it does not communicate by sending large amounts of information from point A to B.
Instead, it mimics the massively parallel communication architecture of the brain, sending billions of small amounts of information simultaneously to thousands of different destinations.
The BrainScaleS project aims to understand information processing in the brain at different scales ranging from individual neurons to whole functional brain areas.
The project also wants to extract generic theoretical principles of brain function and to use this knowledge to build artificial cognitive systems.
Neuromorphic hardware – emulating brain function – is the more likely candidate for creating effective and efficient next-generation computers, believes Professor Amunts.
She said: “Artificial intelligence is playing an increasing role in industry, society, education and medicine – everywhere – but when we look at the structure of these networks, they look rather simple, as compared to what we have in the brain.
“And to understand how these natural networks in our brain are so efficient at some tasks would be a very natural way to also provide input for AI and for new computers.
“And this is what we are trying to do, we want to make computers more neuro-inspired than ever.”
Human Brain Project: Two major neuromorphic machines are being developed
Human Brain Project: Neuromorphic machines mimic the brain’s parallel communication architecture
But Professor Amunts also believes it is the collaborative process as well as scientific successes that are important.
The expert said: “We have quite a few success stories in terms of brain medicine, basic neuroscience theory, computing technology, and these can be seen in the science publications which are coming out, the patents that are being submitted, to the research.
“But perhaps even more important, we have created a research community that is united by the need to understand the brain, and that is prizing the development of new ICT (Information, Communication and Technology) tools and benefits from these tools.
“And perhaps one of the biggest successes is that we achieved this – we created this environment where we research the human brain benefiting medicine and technology – we have found a fantastic framework to create these synergies.”
The scientific director listed two recent success stories from the five-year-old project, saying: “One of the HBP’s big advantages is we have different sciences work together, which has resulted in a new personalised approach for patients undergoing surgery for epilepsy.
“Epilepsy is a very bad disease and the outcome of surgery is uncertain.
“So what we did at HBP is use new imaging to scan the patients before the surgery and then make a very individual model of their brain connections, added some theory, then suggested to the surgeon how the operation should best be performed.
“This illustrates our work; the neuroscience approach, neuro-imaging models, theory and resultant medicine all coming together in this project.”
Human Brain Project: The scheme has created a collaborative environment
Human Brain Project: Scientists want to understand how networks in our brain are so efficient
And another example offered is the development of a neural prosthesis for the blind.
A fellow researcher in Amsterdam is develioing a brain prosthesis which can help peopel without sight.
Professor Amunts said: “He is using basic neuroscience knowledge explaining how visual information is processed the brain.
“He then develops a physical prothesis, and uses AI to guide him, and at the end you have a new therapy.”