Big data and building a bionic brain

The Australian Academy of Science has released a report calling for an investment of $200 million over 10 years to build a computer system that has the capacity for thought and intelligent decision-making; in effect, a bionic brain.

The report also calls for consideration to be given to the creation of a purpose-built storage system to act as a national repository for the big data generated from neurogenetics research.

The report, Inspiring smarter brain research in Australia, summarises recommendations from a conference held by the academy in Melbourne last year, which brought together researchers into artificial intelligence, brain imaging and neuroscience.

The report covers the conference's four different themes – cognition, intelligence and executive function; neurogenetics, inherited diseases and developmental biology; artificial intelligence, maths and modelling; and ageing, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and end-of-life issues – with a number of recommendations on setting up an initiative called AusBrain to improve and better coordinate Australia’s efforts in brain research.

The artificial intelligence, maths and modelling section recommends that Australia invest in building a bionic brain, a thinking machine built on biological principles.

It recommends that rather than follow two ambitious international projects – the $US3 billion Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, which seeks to map the synaptic connections and electrical activity of neurons, and the €1.2 billion European-based Human Brain Project, which wants to incorporate available data into a unified functional representation of the human brain – Australia instead focus on existing neuroscience expertise to comprehend, simulate and abstract the biological basis of thought.

One way of doing this is to use computational platforms and computer simulation, allied to fundamental neuroscience, to develop models of human thought. The objectives of the program would be to gain a detailed understanding of the process of thought in a biological brain, which could then be translated into computing to create a machine that can truly think.

This would provide a computational platform with which to test hypotheses about biological brain function and the basis of mental illness, and to understand pathologies and test new therapies, the report says.

“In the same way that programmable machines (computers) transformed our lives in the 20th century, our lives in the 21st century will be transformed by machines that are beyond programmable, and are truly intelligent, directable and reasonable,” it says.

“We estimate that the total cost of creating a bionic brain would be approximately $200 million, distributed over 10 years.”

The report says this funding would be provided in the context of a concerted national program aimed at enabling big neuroscience.

The neurogenetics: inherited diseases and developmental biology stream recommends the establishment of a national collaboration to enable data sharing between researchers working on understanding how normal brain development occurs so as to understand the consequences of abnormal development.

The report proposes that Australia undertake a national review of neurogenetics data science to estimate growth rates in the generation of big data, and to achieve a consensus on what neurogenetics data need to be captured and how they should be stored and shared.

This would lead to the establishment of a national repository to store this big data, such as setting up a cloud-computing platform that can safely store vast amounts of genomic and clinical data together with dedicated computing staff to assist users and curate the data.

The report says Australia has an opportunity to make a significant contribution to the field of neurogenetics through data linkage across clinical and research settings.

The convenor of last year's conference, retired professor of molecular genetics and former director of the Murdoch Children's Research Institute, Bob Williamson, said Australia had a great record in brain research.

"The bionic ear was developed here, and we are close to designing a bionic eye that works," Professor Williamson said.

"A bionic brain would extend this, and accurately model other brain functions. It could help us to understand and treat conditions like Alzheimer's, dementia, post-traumatic stress disorder, brain trauma in soldiers, accident victims and athletes.”

The report is available for download as a PDF here.

Posted in Australian eHealth

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