Academic journal article Research-Technology Management

Europe's Billion-Euro Brain Research

Academic journal article Research-Technology Management

Europe's Billion-Euro Brain Research

Article excerpt

For centuries scientists have struggled to understand how the brain works. Now, an ambitious EU-funded program may help them solve at least some of the mystery. EU leaders hope that the research will lead to the development not only of new treatments for brain diseases but also of revolutionary new information and communication technologies modeled on the brain. Policymakers in Brussels view both areas as key economic drivers of the future and, with an ambitious 1 billion [euro] ($1.3 billion) collaborative research project, intend to establish a leading position.

The Human Brain Project is one of two flagship projects that the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, selected in its Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) competition, launched in 2009. The other winning project will study graphene, a carbon-based "miracle material" that conducts electricity much better than copper and also has unique optical properties, in addition to being 300 times stronger than steel. A selection committee of scientists and industrialists took nearly two years to whittle a list of more than 20 projects down to these two winners.

When announcing the winners of the awards, Neelie Kroes, the European Commissioner for Information and Technology, spoke of the need "to keep Europe competitive" and make the EU "the home of scientific excellence." She has reason to be concerned. The EU trails the United States in categories such as research and development spending by business, and China is rapidly catching up, according to a Commission report published last year.

The Human Brain Project (HBP) is drawing particularly huge attention, largely because of the impact it could have on several branches of science as well as other technologies and applications. The project, expected to last a decade, will create the world's largest facility for developing a detailed model of the brain and studying how it works, involving scientists from nearly 90 research institutions along with industry partners such as IBM of the United States and SAP of Germany.

Many say the project is nothing less than an attempt to create a "CERN for the brain." CERN, known in English as the European Organization for Nuclear Research, operates the Large Hadron Collider, the massive particle accelerator that was designed to discover the fundamental building blocks of the universe and most recently used to confirm the existence of the Higgs boson particle.

The collider's home country, Switzerland, is also the home of the brain project's leader, neuroscientist Henry Markram from the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Luasanne, and the Swiss Supercomputing Center in Lugano, which Markram plans lo make one of the primary supercomputing facilities in the project. Crunching massive amounts of data and understanding it will be one of the biggest challenges of the project, researchers say. Neuroscience, they note, is already generating growing volumes of data that are beginning to overwhelm existing computing platforms. The computing technologies that have driven world economic growth since the 1950s, they argue, are rapidly approaching their fundamental limits on processing speed, power consumption, reliability, and programmability, creating an urgent need fur new architectures.

To technologists, the brain is an amazing computer. It manages billions of processing units connected via kilometers of fibers and trillions of synapses while consuming as little power as a light bulb. Understanding how it achieves that feat--computing reliably with unreliable elements, communicating with the brain's huge number of different elements, and using precious little energy in the process--could provide the key not only to a completely new generation of hardware, such as neuromorphic Computing systems, but to a paradigm shift for computing as a whole, researchers argue. The economic and industrial impact of such a shift, HBP project members agree, is potentially enormous. …

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