Human Brain Project Launches in Switzerland

The Human Brain Project kicks off this week with a gathering of researchers at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne campus in Switzerland.

The Project, which brings together some 80 partners, will concentrate on Information and Computing Technology (ICT), which integrates neuroscience data from all over the world into working models and simulations of the human brain. Researchers will compare those digital models with the biological brain before releasing the data to the broader scientific community.

The project—which is scheduled to extend over the next decade—will include construction of an experimental facility for developing new models of the brain’s operations. The budget is at least 1.9 billion Euros, contributed by the Swiss government and a variety of private partners; that money will support the Swiss Supercomputing Center in Lugano, which will power the Brain Simulation Platform, as well as neuroscientist and project leader Henry Markram’s laboratory at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.

“Europe’s position as a knowledge superpower depends on thinking the unthinkable and exploiting the best ideas,” European Commission vice president Neelie Kroes wrote in February 2013, when the project was first announced. “This multi-billion competition rewards home-grown scientific breakthroughs and shows that when we are ambitious we can develop the best research in Europe.”

How does this help broader industry? In theory, the models developed by the Human Brain Project could result in robots and computing platforms that “think” in very human-like ways. In order to reach such a goal, however, the Project will need to crunch a whole lot of data, develop some very sophisticated models, and figure out an optimal way to distribute the results to the world.

The Europeans could also face some stiff competition from the United States. Earlier this year, the federal government began gearing up for the Brain Activity Map project, which will diagram an active human brain (the better to cure diseases such as Alzheimer’s). In February, representatives from Google, Microsoft and Qualcomm met with government representatives (including a few from the National Institutes of Health) at the California Institute of Technology to discuss the massive computing needs of such a project.

In light of that cross-Atlantic competition, the next few years could see the emergence of a “brain race,” one that could enormously benefit the medical field.

 

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