Human Brain Project brings Doctor Who one step closer to reality

Promotional image for “Bells of Saint John”

Series 7 of hit BBC science fiction serial Doctor Who continued on Saturday, March 30, with the airing of “The Bells of Saint John.” In this episode, the Doctor again runs into another incarnation of his mysterious new companion Clara Oswin Oswald. After finding her, trouble brews when she is almost uploaded into the network called the “data cloud” like many denizens of London have been in the preceding weeks. The episode centers around the efforts of Clara and the Doctor to figure out what is going on and how to stop the virtual brain capers.

Although the show is (rightfully) labeled science fiction, I wondered to myself if such a notion were feasible in today’s increasingly digital world. Could the information in someone’s brain be taken – or at least replicated – in a virtual environment?

The Human Brain Project is making efforts in that direction. The study aims to create a virtual human brain to advance knowledge of neurobiology and neuroscience and general.

HBP’s first goal is to build an integrated system of six ICT-based research platforms, providing neuroscientists, medical researchers and technology developers with access to highly innovative tools and services that can radically accelerate the pace of their research. These will include a Neuroinformatics Platform, that links to other international initiatives, bringing together data and knowledge from neuroscientists around the world and making it available to the scientific community; a Brain Simulation Platform, that integrates this information in unifying computer models, making it possible to identify missing data, and allowing in silico experiments, impossible in the lab; a High Performance Computing Platform that provides the interactive supercomputing technology neuroscientists need for data-intensive modeling and simulations; a Medical Informatics Platform that federates clinical data from around the world, providing researchers with new mathematical tools to search for biological signatures of disease; a Neuromorphic Computing Platform that makes it possible to translate brain models into a new class of hardware devices and to test their applications; and a Neurorobotics Platform, allowing neuroscience and industry researchers to experiment with virtual robots controlled by brain models developed in the project.

— “Vision,” HBP

The project has yet to make significant strides, as the proposal was only submitted in October 2012. However, recent breakthroughs in the fields of artificial intelligence and logical programming indicate at least the possibility of promising results. For example, researchers at an Indian university have programmed a computer to identify different fruits and vegetables, down to specific strains, with 99 percent accuracy. The Human Brain Project was, however, chosen as one of the European Commission’s two major funding interests as part of the FET Flagship Program.

Clearly, modern science has a long way to go – if there is even a feasible destination – before it can functionally move neural information from a biological environment to an electronic one, or even fully recreate a specific organism’s knowledge and personality. A newly created virtual human brain is another story; only time will tell the status on that project.

For more information on the Human Brain Project, visit http://www.humanbrainproject.eu/.

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