Can we reverse-engineer the brain? Some people are trying.
A detailed simulation of a small region of a brain built molecule by molecule has been constructed and has recreated experimental results from real brains.
What they actually seem to have reverse-engineered is a cortical column. In very brief: The neocortex — the “skin” — of the brain, where all the interesting stuff happens — has a distinct architecture, one element of which is that cortical cells cooperate in columns perpendicular to the brain surface. Jeff Hawkins gives a good description in his 2004 book On Intelligence, from page 140 of which:
Imagine a single microcolumn is the width of a human hair. Take thousands of hairs and cut them into very short segments — say, the height of a lowercase i without the dot. Line up all these hairs or columns and glue them side by side like a very dense brush. Then create a sheet of long, extra-thin hairs … and glue them horizontally across the top of the mat of short hairs. This brushlike mat is a simplistic model of your … cortical region.
The development of this columnar architecture seems to have been a key step in the evolution of the mammalian brain. Back to the news story:
Professor Markram believes that by building up from one neocortical column to the entire neocortex, the ethereal “emergent properties” that characterise human thought will, step by step, make themselves apparent … Such emergent properties lead to the very essence of being human — the spatial awareness of lower mammals graduates to political views and artistic expression in humans.
What are the odds the final product will turn out to be a conservative, I wonder? And when shall we have a reverse-engineered brain that can turn out Petrarchan sonnets?
When asked when the simulation would come up with something artistic or an invention, Professor Markram said it was simply a matter of money.