Can We Reverse Engineer The Human Brain

The drive to understand and replicate the workings of the human brain is leading to unprecedented collaboration between academia and the public and private sectors, says David Cox, a participant at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting of the New Champions 2014.

He outlines the groundbreaking work taking place and explains how this has made computer science and neuroscience two of the fastest-moving research fields in the world.

Here are some quotes from the clip. You can watch the full video at the top of this page.

On the idea that humans are special:

We might even be tempted to think that we are some kind of pinnacle of evolution. But it turns out that biology teaches us otherwise: we’re just one out of millions of species on this planet, each of which is exquisitely adapted to its niche. We’re not the most numerous species, we’re not the largest, we’re not the fastest or the strongest, we’re not the longest lived, we’re not the most resilient.

What makes us special is the complexity of our brains. We, more than any other species, can learn and adapt and shape our environments, pass on culture, and we’ve spread to every corner of the planet and even beyond it.

On the importance of neuroscience:

Increasingly, we’re able to treat many of the diseases and disorders that afflict humanity, but mental disorders, diseases, are in many ways the last frontier. And part of the reason for that is that the tools we use to treat them are relatively crude.

Complex disorders, like schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder and depression, aren’t caused by any overt, obvious damage to the brain. They are probably more like miswirings and problems with the software. Increasingly, we’re starting to get to the point where we do understand at a computational level some of the codes that the brain uses that we can then interface with.

On the computational power of the brain:

The processing power of the brain is actually quite a bit more than the processing power of a computer. There are at least petaflops of computational power in the brain, which is remarkable considering that it dissipates somewhere between 15 and 20 watts. So it’s using about as much power as your laptop and yet it’s as powerful computationally as some of the most powerful supercomputers in the world.

It turns out the human brain has 100 billion neurons in it and it has 100 trillion connections.

On building an artificial brain:

We’re basically looking and asking: ‘Can we reverse engineer the brain? Can we study the brain’s wiring and circuitry so that we can build computer systems that work the same way?’

On the challenge of recreating the brain:

This really is the key, the crux of our humanity. Even if we’re studying it in rodents, it really is one of the greatest challenges of our time: to go to the frontier and see if we can figure out how these brain systems work and then figure out if we can build them ourselves.

Credit: illustration by ZEISS Microscopy

Original article available at World Economic Forum