By 6 May 2009 | Categories: feature articles


From the Jewish legend of the Golem – a mythical monster created from clay, and the little boy sculpted from wood called Pinocchio; through to the monster constructed by Dr Frankenstein and given life by the power of electricity, our literary creations seem to follow our technological advances. Now movies like A.I., The Matrix, iRobot seem to suggest that machines can attain a level of human like intelligence.Two big scientific attempts the past number of years show that ­recreating the human brain might just be achievable.

The Blue Brain

The first kicked off in 2005 and is called the Blue Brain project. It is a joint collaboration between scientists from the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland and computer group IBM. What they set out to do is reverse engineer the brain and recreate a biologically accurate cerebral cortex using a super computer. They are coming pretty close. Each microchip used in the computer acts just like a brain neuron would, and is arranged similarly to pathways found in the brain. The first phase of the project was completed in just under two years, with them managing to simulate a neocortical column, which can be seen as the basic repeating processing unit the larger cerebral cortex is made from. Last month it was reported that the Blue Brain is being integrated into a virtual animal so that the column can be observed while the animal interacts with a virtual environment. Astoundingly the Blue Brain already shows signs of remembering and learning.

Brain on a chip?

While the Blue Brain Project utilises the massive processing power of IBM’s Blue Eye supercomputer to simulate a brain, another group have actually built a silicon chip that works like a brain. The Fast Analog Computing with Emergent Transient States project, or FACETS, has come up with a computer chip that recreates the neurons and synapses found in the brain using circuits of capacitors and transistors. The chip contains far less neurons than the human brain (200 000 vs 100 ­billion), but it can be upscaled. FACETS do point out that the chip is not a brain but rather an aim to harness the parallel computing powers of the brain. The next step in the project is to improve the chip up to a level where it contains a billion neurons.

While the jury is still out on whether these projects can lead to artificial intelligence or even humanlike consciousness, it does appear that our tales of objects becoming humanlike, are becoming increasingly real.



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