Researchers at the University of Waterloo have built the largest human brain simulator ever. University of Waterloo professor Chris Eliasmith, the Canada Research Chair in Theoretical Neuroscience, and his colleagues are credited with the achievement.
Mr. Eliasmith and his team say that their brain model, called Spaun, can see, remember, think and write with a mechanical arm. Although Spaun and its environment are housed in a computer (a simulated world with simulated physics), the brain model still utilizes the same processes that your brain uses to pick up a cup of coffee.
“It has been interesting to see the reactions people have had to Spaun. Even seasoned academics have not seen brain models that actually perform so many tasks. Models are typically small, and focus on one function,” Mr. Eliasmith says.
Most large-scale brain models mimic neurons, but Spaun is also designed so that those neurons actually think about patterns it encounters.
Researchers used methods from engineering, computer science, biology, philosophy, psychology and statistics to create specific brain systems that were essential for the construction of their human brain simulator.
“The reason that the Spaun model is so compelling, is that it brings all of this work together,” Mr. Eliasmith says. “Human cognition isn’t interesting because we can recognize visual patterns […] move our arms in an integrated way […] solve a particular task or puzzle. It’s interesting because we can do all of this with the same brain, in any order, and at any time.”
Researchers believe that Spaun could help scientists with real world problems. Spaun’s ability to simulate how the brain deals with medical issues such as stroke or Alzheimer’s disease, for example, could give researchers a better understanding of the human brain.
“There are not only deep philosophical questions you can approach using this work — such as how the mind represents the world – but there are also very practical questions you can address about the diseased brain,” Mr. Eliasmith adds. “I believe that critical innovations are going to come from basic research like this. I can’t predict what specific industry or company is going to use this work or how — but I can list a lot that might.”
Although Spaun is still “miles away” from being as intricate or sophisticated as a human brain, the human brain simulator’s ability to perform multiple tasks is a major breakthrough for scientists trying to understand more about how the human brain functions.
You can view a video of Spaun performing several simulated tasks here.
Details on the achievement were recently published in the journal Science.