Thought process: Building an artificial brain
Paul Allen’s $500 million quest to dissect the mind and code a new one from scratch
Paul Allen has been waiting for the emergence of intelligent machines for a very long time. As a young boy, Allen spent much of his time in the library reading science-fiction novels in which robots manage our homes, perform surgery and fly around saving lives like superheroes. In his imagination, these beings would live among us, serving as our advisers, companions and friends.Now 62 and worth an estimated $17.7 billion, the Microsoft co-founder is using his wealth to back two separate philanthropic research efforts at the intersection of neuroscience and artificial intelligence that he hopes will hasten that future.
The first project is to build an artificial brain from scratch that can pass a high school science test. It sounds simple enough, but trying to teach a machine not only to respond but also to reason is one of the hardest software-engineering endeavors attempted — far more complex than building his former company’s breakthrough Windows operating system, said to have 50 million lines of code.
The second project aims to understand intelligence by coming at it from the opposite direction — by starting with nature and deconstructing and analyzing the pieces. It’s an attempt to reverse-engineer the human brain by slicing it up — literally — modeling it and running simulations.
Made up of 100 billion neurons, each one connected to as many as 10,000 others, the human brain is the most complex biological system in existence. When you see, hear, touch, taste or think, neurons fire with an electrochemical signal that travels across the synapses between neurons, where information is exchanged.
Somewhere within this snarl are patterns and connections that make a person who he is — his memories, preferences, habits, skills and emotions.
Building on the work that Allen accelerated through his philanthropy, governments around the world have launched their own brain initiatives in recent years. The European Commission’s Human Brain Project, which began in 2013 with about $61 million in initial funding, aims to create an artificial model of the human brain within a decade. President Obama announced the United States’ own BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) effort in 2014 to great fanfare, comparing it to the Human Genome Project that led to the current genetic revolution. BRAIN was launched with initial funding of $110 million.
Some futurists even believe that the brain, not the body, may be the key to immortality — that at some point we’ll be able to download our brains to a computer or another body and live on long after the bodies we were born in have decayed.
Allen’s own interest in the brain began with his love of tinkering.
He always has been interested in how things were put together, from steam engines to phones, and as he grew older he became fascinated with the brain.
“Computers are really basically computing elements and a lot of memory,” he said. “They are pretty easy to understand, as compared to the brain, which was designed by evolution.”
But it wasn’t until his mother, Faye, a former elementary school teacher, became ill with Alzheimer’s that Allen’s brain philanthropy took shape.