Understanding the human brain is one of the greatest challenges facing 21st century science. If we can rise to the challenge, we can gain profound insights into what makes us human, develop new treatments for brain diseases and build revolutionary new computing technologies. Modern computing technology has brought these goals within sight. ICT is ready to give us a completely new understanding of the brain and its diseases; understanding the brain will lead inevitably to radical innovation in computing.
Neuroscience is generating exponentially growing volumes of data and knowledge on specific aspects of the healthy and diseased brain, in different species, at different ages. Yet despite these incredible advances, we still lack a unified understanding of the brain that can span its multiple levels of organisation, from genes to cognition and behaviour. The lack of such an understanding is a huge obstacle for pharmaceutical companies trying to develop drugs for brain diseases. It also explains why neuroscience has yet to significantly impact ICT. Scientists have been researching isolated aspects of the brain for more than a century but despite incredible progress, it has become obvious that it will take another century or more before we can measure every gene, protein, cell, synapse and circuit in the brain, in all possible conditions and species, at every possible age, in every possible disease. An alternative strategy is to identify data that absolutely has to be measured experimentally, and to predict the rest from what we already know. This requires a focused plan to integrate and exploit the massive volumes of data and knowledge we already have and the deluge of new data coming from labs all over the world. This will require the development of radically new ICT: new supercomputing technologies to federate and manage the data, to integrate it in computer models and simulations of the brain, to identify patterns and organisational principles that only appear when the data is put together, and to identify gaps to be filled by new experiments.
Therefore, the 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; a Neurorobotics Platform, allowing neuroscience and industry researchers to experiment with virtual robots controlled by brain models developed in the project. The platforms are all based on previous pioneering work by the partners and will be available for internal testing within eighteen months of the start of the project. Within thirty months, the platforms will be open for use by the community, receiving continuous upgrades to their capabilities, for the duration of the project.
The second goal of the project is to trigger and drive a global, collaborative effort that uses the platforms to address fundamental issues in future neuroscience, future medicine and future computing. A significant and steadily growing proportion of the budget will fund research by groups outside the original HBP Consortium, working on themes of their own choosing. Proposals for projects will be solicited through competitive calls for proposals and evaluated by independent peer review.
The end result will be not just a new understanding of the brain but transformational new ICT. As modern computers exploit ever-higher numbers of parallel computing elements, they face a power wall: power consumption rises with the number of processors, potentially to unsustainable levels. By contrast, the brain manages billions of processing units connected via kilometres of fibres and trillions of synapses, while consuming no more power than a light bulb. Understanding how it does this – the way it computes reliably with unreliable elements, the way the different elements of the brain communicate – can provide the key not only to a completely new category of hardware (Neuromorphic Computing Systems) but to a paradigm shift for computing as a whole, moving away from current models of “bit precise” computing towards new techniques that exploit the stochastic behaviour of simple, very fast, low-power computing devices embedded in intensely recursive architectures. The economic and industrial impact of such a shift is potentially enormous.
In short, the goal of the Human Brain Project is to build a completely new ICT infrastructure for future neuroscience, future medicine and future computing that will catalyse a global collaborative effort to understand the human brain and its diseases and ultimately to emulate its computational capabilities.