Tuesday, 7th June, 2005

Mission to build a simulated brain begins

Duncan Graham-Rowe
06 June 2005
NewScientist.com news service

An effort to create the first computer simulation of the entire human brain, right down to the molecular level, was launched on Monday.

The “Blue Brain” project, a collaboration between IBM and a Swiss university team, will involve building a custom-made supercomputer based on IBM’s Blue Gene design.

The hope is that the virtual brain will help shed light on some aspects of human cognition, such as perception, memory and perhaps even consciousness.

It will be the first time humans will be able to observe the electrical code our brains use to represent the world, and to do so in real time, says Henry Markram, director of Brain and Mind Institute at the Ecole Polytecnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Switzerland.

It may also help in understanding how certain malfunctions of the brain’s “microcircuits” could cause psychiatric disorders such as autism, schizophrenia and depression, he says.

Until now this sort of undertaking would not be possible because the processing power and the scientific knowledge of how the brain is wired simply was not there, says Charles Peck, IBM’s lead researcher on the project.

“But there has been a convergence of the biological data and the computational resources,” he says. Efforts to map the brain’s circuits and the development of the Blue Gene supercomputer, which has a peak processing power of at least 22.8 teraflops, now make this possible.
Mapping the brain

For over a decade Markram and his colleagues have been building a database of the neural architecture of the neocortex, the largest and most complex part of mammalian brains.

Using pioneering techniques, they have studied precisely how individual neurons behave electrically and built up a set of rules for how different types of neurons connect to one another.

Very thin slices of mouse brain were kept alive under a microscope and probed electrically before being stained to reveal the synaptic, or nerve, connections. “We have the largest database in the world of single neurons that have been recorded and stained,” says Markram.
Neocortical columns

Using this database the initial phase of Blue Brain will model the electrical structure of neocortical columns - neural circuits that are repeated throughout the brain.

“These are the network units of the brain,” says Markram. Measuring just 0.5 millimetres by 2 mm, these units contain between 10 and 70,000 neurons, depending upon the species.

Once this is complete, the behaviour of columns can be mapped and modelled before moving into the second phase of the project.

Two new models will be built, one a molecular model of the neurons involved. The other will clone the behavioural model of columns thousands of times to produce a complete neocortex, and eventually the rest of the brain.

The end product, which will take at least a decade to achieve, can then be stimulated and observed to see how different parts of the brain behave. For example, visual information can be inputted to the visual cortex, while Blue Brain’s response is observed.

Mission to build a simulated brain begins
logged by alf at 16:59, Tuesday, 7th June, 2005

The ultimate postmodern spectacle

Michael Jackson and his trial hold a mirror to modern western civilisation and its blurring of fact and fiction

Terry Eagleton
Wednesday May 25, 2005
The Guardian

Celebrity trials, like those of OJ Simpson and Michael Jackson, are sometimes loosely called postmodern, meaning that they are media spectaculars thronged with characters who are only doubtfully real. But they are also postmodern in a more interesting sense. Courtrooms, like novels, blur the distinction between fact and fiction. They are self-enclosed spheres in which what matters is not so much what actually took place in the real world, but how it gets presented to the jury. The jury judge not on the facts, but between rival versions of them. Since postmodernists believe that there are no facts in any case, just interpretations, law courts neatly exemplify their view of the world.

Another thing which blurs the distinction between fact and fiction is Michael Jackson himself. There is a double unreality about staging the fiction of a criminal trial around a figure who has been assembled by cosmetic surgeons. Jackson's freakish body represents the struggle of fantasy against reality, the pyrrhic victory of culture over biology. Quite a few young people are not even aware that he is black. If postmodern theory won't acknowledge that there is any such thing as raw nature, neither will this decaying infant.

It is hardly surprising that he has expressed a wish to live forever, given that death is the final victory of nature over culture. If the US sanitises death, it is because mortality is incompatible with capitalism. Capital accumulation goes on forever, in love with a dream of infinity. The myth of eternal progress is just a horizontalised form of heaven. Socialism, by contrast, is not about reaching for the stars but returning us to earth. It is about building a politics on a recognition of human frailty and finitude. As such, it is a politics which embraces the reality of failure, suffering and death, as opposed to one for which the word "can't" is almost as intolerable as the word "communist".

If Michael Jackson is a symbol of western civilisation, it is less because of his materialism than because of his immaterialism. Behind the endless accumulation of expensive garbage lies a Faustian spirit which no object could ever satisfy.

Like Jackson's cosmetic surgeons, postmodernism believes in the infinite plasticity of the material world. Reality, like Jackson's over-chiselled nose, is just meaningless matter for you to carve as you choose. Just as Jackson has bleached his skin, so postmodernism bleaches the world of inherent meaning. This means that there is nothing to stop you creating whatever you fancy; but for the same reason your creations are bound to be drained of value. For what is the point of imposing your will on a meaningless reality? The individual is now a self-fashioning creature, whose supreme achievement is to treat himself as a work of art.

Ethics turns into aesthetics. And just as there are no constraints on the individual self, so there are no natural limits to promoting freedom and democracy across the globe. What looks like a generous-hearted tolerance - you can be whatever you like - thus conceals an imperial will. The tattoo parlour and George Bush's foreign policy may seem light years distant, but both assume that the world is pliable stuff on which to stamp your will. Both are forms of narcissism for which the idea of reality putting up some resistance to your predatory designs on it, whether in the form of the Iraqi opposition or a visit from the local district attorney, is an intolerable affront.

Postmodern culture rejects the charge that it is superficial. You can only have surfaces if you also have depths to contrast them with, and depths went out with DH Lawrence. Nowadays, appearance and reality are one, so that what you see is what you get. But if reality seems to have dwindled to an image of itself, we are all the more sorely tempted to peer behind it. This is the case with Jackson's Neverland. Is it really the kitschy, two-dimensional paradise it appears to be, or is there some sinisterly unspeakable truth lurking beneath it? Is it a spectacle or a screen?

If courtrooms are quintessentially postmodern, it is because they lay bare the relations between truth and power, which for postmodernism come to much the same thing. Truth for them, as for the ancient Sophists, is really a question of who can practise the most persuasive rhetoric. In front of a jury, he with the smoothest tongue is likely to triumph. On this view, all truth is partisan: the judge's summing up is simply an interpretation of interpretations. What determines what is true for you is your interests, which in turn are determined by gender, class, ethnicity and the like. The Simpson trial gave a new twist to the claim that truth is black and white: whether you thought the defendant guilty or innocent depended to a large extent on your skin colour. But the other interests in question are financial ones. Just as the scientist with the fattest research grant is most likely to produce results, so truth in the Simpson and Jackson trials is a commodity to be knocked down to whoever has the deepest pockets. In this sense, a good deal of postmodern theory can be illustrated by a single time-worn phrase: get yourself a good lawyer.

  Terry Eagleton is professor of cultural theory at Manchester University

The ultimate postmodern spectacle
logged by alf at 16:56, Tuesday, 7th June, 2005