The recent media announcement that an artificial brain is 10 years away from being constructed is an exciting possibility. The neuroscience community has been waiting some time for a realistic brain to be designed and made. The importance of this brain project is that it uses software modules to mimic each brain cell. They also note that the software is extremely complex as: for each cell a laptop is required to do the processing, and hence the need for a supercomputer with the power of 10,000 laptops.
Does this mean that they are any closer to finding out how the brain may actually work and to building a realistic model?. To answer this question it should be split into two, , firstly are they trying to simulate consciousness, that is the subjective awareness that we all have in our everyday life, or are they trying to simulate some of the brain’s mechanical processes. As far as the first question goes there is as yet no understanding in the neuroscience community as to what consciousness actually is. One can say a lot about the correlates of consciousness for example what brain cells come into action during a certain experience or during a certain function but you cannot get from those brain correlates to consciousness itself. I thus feel that it’s highly unlikely even with an artificial brain of this complexity that we will get any closer to an understanding of consciousness.
Secondly will this new computer be able to mimic some of the functions of the brain? The answer to that must be yes as neuroscience already has a good understanding how many of the circuits work and how they can work together. It is thus highly likely that the new computer will throw up more answers in the domain of trying to understand brain mechanism.
The philosophical question what is consciousness is bound to remain. There are essentially two main sets of theories, the first are the materialistic ones which suggest that brain is in some way related only to matter, the second set of theories suggests that matter is not primary that consciousness is primary and the matter is dependent upon consciousness. There is a third possibility and that is that matter and consciousness together make up the brain as we understand it. Unfortunately without a better understanding of what consciousness is. as we have very little empirical data, it is impossible to choose between any of these philosophical theories.
Dr. Peter Fenwick