Innovation Monitor: Brains and Computers

NYC Media Lab
7 min readSep 10, 2021


Innovation Monitor: Brains and Computers

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Welcome to this week’s Innovation Monitor.

This week’s we’re diving into a fairly complex, but important topic: Can we build computers modeled with the power of the human brain. In the past decade, we’ve already seen major advances in neural networks that are built on systems that mimic elements of the neurons that compose our brain.

In the past year, we’ve all seen the power of innovation at the cellular level. The COVID-19 vaccines were propelled ahead by mRNA technology and the entire field of synthetic biology looks to push forward leverage biological systems to solve problems across all areas of innovation, as we now wait and hope for new advancements in finding a cure for HIV and cancer.

Can we create computing systems with similar potential based on modeling the human brain? While the question still feels a bit theoretical, but it’s worth remembering, a decade ago, it would’ve felt impossible to predict we’d all be leveraging the power of neural networks for everything from searching from information to reshaping the photos we take to creating all types of XR experiences, all from the phones in our pocket.

In 2009, Henry Makram, the director of a project called Blue Brain, gave a TED Talk that looked to create a supercomputer with the power of the human brain. He argued that modeling the brain’s 100,000,000,000,000 synapses could unlock computing power to solve all manners of challenges. In the decade since, scientists and technologists have pursued this challenge, with some advancement and some faded dreams, along the way.

He goes on to speculate how if we easily had the “power of 10,000 laptops” we could begin formulating mathematical computations to help recreate all the decision-making capabilities, and even the ‘perception’ created by the brain’s neurons. But have we realized Makram’s dream:

Finally, this weekend marks the 20th anniversary of 9/11, and for those that choose, offers moment of remembrance and reflection. Thank you for reading, and as always, if you were forwarded this email, you can easily sign up here.

All best,
Erica Matsumoto Mapping the Brain This MIT Technology Review maps out a decade-long effort that started from around the time of Makram’s talk. A decade ago, some of the world’s top neuro and nanoscientists gathered for a symposium that sought to bring the two fields together. The result was a proposal for “a large-scale, international public effort, the Brain Activity Map Project, aimed at reconstructing the full record of neural activity across complete neural circuits.” Comparing it to the Human Genome Project, the scientists predicted the project would lead to “entirely new industries and commercial ventures.”

Despite its lofty goals, the race to create a map of the human brain faced many bumps along the road. Teams of scientists in the US worked primarily on the BRAIN Initiative, while in the EU, researchers toiled away on the Human Brain Project (HBP). The BRAIN Initiative received the enthusiastic support of President Obama, who, in 2013, called it “the next great American project.” By its scheduled completion in 2026, it is estimated that the BRAIN Initiative will have received almost $6B in NIH funding. The HBP — led by neuroscientist Henry Markram — initially received over $1B in EU funding, but was marred by infighting since its inception, with Markram losing control of the project in 2015. According to Christoph Ebell, a Swiss entrepreneur with a background in science diplomacy, who was appointed executive director: “When I took over, the project was at a crisis point,” he says. “People were openly wondering if the project was going to go forward.” The turmoil at HBP is even the subject of a new documentary, In Silico.

So, 10 years in, are we any closer to unlocking the secrets of human consciousness? Last year, HBP released a 3D digital brain map that’s “essentially a Google Earth for the brain.” The BRAIN Initiative has made some progress, including accelerating the development of “optogenetics, an approach that uses light to control neurons, and its funding has led to new high-density silicon electrodes capable of recording from hundreds of neurons simultaneously.” According to MIT Tech Review: “While these are all important steps forward, though, they’re far from the initial grand ambitions. Instead of answering the question of consciousness, developing these methods has, if anything, only opened up more questions about the brain — and shown just how complex it is.” Columbia neurobiology professor Rafael Yuste, one of the scientists behind the original proposal, said, “I have to be honest. We had higher hopes.”

In that same decade, Director Noah Hutton spent a decade following Henry Markram’s journey to build a fully simulated model of the brain — both at the Blue Brain Project and the Human Brain Project. As the years passed and Hutton spoke to more and more neuroscientists, the initial excitement he felt first listening to Markram’s 2009 TED talk began to strip away, replaced with skepticism and, ultimately, no clear answers. Except perhaps that “flashy presentations and sheer ambition are poor indicators of success” when it comes down to understanding the brain.

“As technology races ahead and a certain strain of technocratic salesmanship continues to command the collective human ear, the line between fiction and reality will continue to be blurred, leading to cycles of hype and disappointment that threaten long-term public confidence in science.” Check out the trailer for Hutton’s documentary below.

“Taking cues from AI, computational neuroscience is gradually leaving behind biological brains in search of perfect algorithms, which like its cousins in deep learning, may ultimately produce more black boxes that execute tasks but remain internally inscrutable.”

Is the brain even a computer? Could the reason we still haven’t seen the leapfrogging progress of cellular innovation be that the brain isn’t “even a computer”? A series of experts were interviewed by the MIT Tech Review on this exact question. Experts are divided: although everyone agrees that our biological brains create our conscious minds, they’re split on the question of what role, if any, is played by information processing — the crucial similarity that brains and computers are alleged to share.

According to Blake Richards, a neuroscientist and computer scientist at McGill University in Montreal:

“brains “process everything in parallel, in continuous time” rather than in discrete intervals, he says. In contrast, today’s digital computers employ a very specific design based on the original von Neumann architecture. They work largely by going step by step through a list of instructions encoded in a memory bank, while accessing information stored in discrete memory slots.”

Megan Peters, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, believes we can utilize the brain as a computing model:

“What the brain seems to be doing is quite aptly described as information processing. The brain takes spikes [brief bursts of activity that last about a tenth of a second] and sound waves and photons and converts it into neural activity — and that neural activity represents information.” On Perception Finally, one reason the brain might not be Hearing unexplained voices is traditionally associated with mental illness or religious experiences. Yet we all hear strange voices and hallucinate vivid images and other “content” virtually every night — we call it dreaming. Computers are capable of extraordinary feats of memory and processing, but they don’t dream of electric sheep. What if the metaphor of the brain as a computer for explaining human consciousness and abilities currently in vogue is fundamentally flawed? What if the brain is not a computer but a transducer? According to Robert Epstein, senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology and former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, transduction theory might explain the enduring mystery of human consciousness and our extraordinary abilities. Epstein makes it clear: “I am not offering transduction theory as yet another metaphor. I am suggesting that the brain is truly a bidirectional transducer and that, over time, we will find empirical support for this theory.” Further:

“Over the centuries — completely baffled by where human intelligence comes from — people have used one metaphor after another to ‘explain’ our extraordinary abilities, beginning, of course, with the divine metaphor millennia ago and progressing — and I use that word hesitatingly — to the current information-processing metaphor. I am proposing now that we abandon the metaphors and begin to consider substantive ideas we can test. If transduction theory proves to be correct, our understanding of the universe and of our place in it will change profoundly. We might not only be able to make sense of dozens of odd aspects of human experience, we might also begin to unravel some of the greatest mysteries in the universe: where our universe came from, what else and who else is out there — even whether there is, in some sense, a God.” This Week in Innovation History

September 3, 1995: The first item on eBay is sold

The site was originally launched as “AuctionWeb” by Pierre Omidyar. The first item ever sold was a broken laser pointer (it went for $14.83) that was not meant to be sold, but rather to test the site. For years, the buyer’s identity was not publicly known but on the 20th anniversary of eBay, they debuted a video featuring the buyer, Mark Fraser, who called himself a “collector of broken laser pointers”.

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