The progress and future of the Human Brain Project

An image of a digital brain, to illustrate the Human Brain Project

At ICT2018, SciTech Europa met with Dr Christian Fauteux of the Human Brain Project to discuss the progress that has been made thus far and his hopes for the future of the FET Flagship.

In December 2018, SciTech Europa attended ICT 2018, which took place in Vienna, Austria. This research and innovation event attracted 4,800 visitors and focused on the European Union’s priorities in the digital transformation of society and industry. It presented an opportunity for the people involved in this transformation to share their experience and vision of Europe in the digital age.

The HBP – looking to the future

One such participant was the Human Brain Project (HBP), and SEQ met with the project’s Executive Director, Dr Christian Fauteux, to discuss the progress that has been made thus far.

Fauteux began by underlining the fact that the Human Brain Project is, in essence, a fundamental research project. He explained: “The Human Brain Project looks at the basic aspects of brain functions, from genes to cells, as well as at the circuits in the brain and the brain’s functions (such as language, memory, consciousness, and so on).

“We also have a whole range of scientists that are studying this from the anatomy point of view, from the biological point of view, from the theoretical point of view, and from the systems point of view.”

When it comes to the technology aspect of the Flagship, the Human Brain Project is building a research infrastructure which, as Fauteux explained, is of use not only to neuroscientists but also those researching the brain in numerous other areas.

“They are able to benefit from the ICT tools, the large databases, high performance computing, simulation engines that can simulate large parts of the brain, and so on. We are also working to be a part of the open science movement, in the sense that our neuroinformatics platform tools allow data to be shared and made available publicly, along with metadata that allows for reproducibility.”

Fauteux also explained that the Human Brain Project’s Neurorobotics Platform, which is where ‘virtual brain models meet real or simulated robot bodies,’ has a significant technology impact. He said: “Within this, brain models can be connected to virtual environments; they can become embodied and then stimulated by and interact with the physical environment. There are also physical robots within which the brain models are embedded.”

It is clear, then, that the HBP is now at a point where it is realising concrete applications, and Fauteux explained: “The future of neuroscience will see the fuelling of neuroscience with ICT and future technologies. The robotics platform is a part of this, as is the Neuromorphic Computing Platform, where neuromorphic chips that function like the human brain or the mouse brain or like brain circuits. This can be used, in the first instance, for brain simulation, but also for all sorts of other application, such as like artificial intelligence (AI) and neural networks.”

SpiNNaker chips

Fauteux also told SE about the SpiNNaker chips which are being developed in Manchester, UK.

According to the University of Manchester website, ‘SpiNNaker is a novel computer architecture inspired by the working of the human brain. A SpiNNaker machine is a massively parallel computing platform, targeted towards three main areas of research.’
These are neuroscience (‘the largest SpiNNaker machine will be capable of simulating a billion simple neurons, or millions of neurons with complex structure and internal dynamics,’), robotics (‘SpiNNaker is a good target for researchers in robotics, who need mobile, low power computation.

A small SpiNNaker board makes it possible to simulate a network of tens of thousands of spiking neurons, process sensory input and generate motor output, all in real time and in a low power system), and computer Science (‘SpiNNaker breaks the rules followed by traditional supercomputers that rely on deterministic, repeatable communications and reliable computation. SpiNNaker nodes communicate using simple messages (spikes) that are inherently unreliable. This break with determinism offers new challenges, but also the potential to discover powerful new principles of massively parallel computation,’).

Fauteux explained that this is being funded by both the British Government and the HBP. He went on: “The group has recently made a million neuromorphic chips available, and they are also spreading these chips around in Europe and the wider world; people are now using them, they have been embedded in robots and a wide variety of machines, and they are running simulations in other locations. They are being bought and used and implement and put together.”

Fauteux also told SE about the ‘BrainScaleS system’, a different type of neuromorphic computing system, in that it is analogue and is, he said, “really physically simulating how the brain contributes function.”

According to Fauteux, a team at Heidelberg University have now built “a big machine there that they are making available online for anybody to use, for free at the moment, and there is also now the potential to increase the size of the machine and to grow the technology.”

These two systems, the SpiNNaker and BrainScaleS systems, are at the fore front of neuromorphic technology. “They are two of the most powerful neuromorphic computing systems in the world and they’re in Europe. They are funded by Human Brain Project and apart of Human Brain Project since the very beginning. Those are the two technological aspects,” Fauteux said.

The medical space

The Human Brain Project is also generating applications in the medical area. Fauteux told SEQ: “Recently, we have had a very successful neuroprocessor project that has gone on to develop implants for the blind to enable them to see. These implants are connected directly to the brain and tests have been done on monkeys, and so far the results are very promising. The team are now working to develop the implant for human applications. This will see a direct input into the visual system of the brain.”

Another development which has been picked up by the media in recent months was the development of implants by HBP researchers that have allowed paralysed people to walk again.

Discussing other successes to come out of the HBP in the medical area, Fauteux focused on the Virtual Brain neuroinformatics platform, which joined the Flagship in 2018. The team working on this are attempting to create a simulation of a patient’s brain, which can then be used to target pathologies.

One example of this is the work taking place to help patients with epilepsy. Fauteux explained that “There are treatable forms of epilepsy, but when drugs do not have an impact then these patients have to undergo surgery. By using the Virtual brain, a model can be developed to help the doctors to conduct the surgery in the right place in the brain and so have a better chance of curing the patients.”

The initial trials for this were extremely positive, and so a new clinical trial involving 400 patients from 12 hospitals in France has recently started in order to take this further.
The Human Brain Project is thus making great progress and, as the Flagship now enters into the final five year period, Fauteux was keen to highlight that we can expect much more from the project moving forwards. He said: “We are now half way through the project and are now planning our third funding period from the European Commission, which will see the largest amount of biggest funding so far. We are working to narrow down the technology and medical applications from what we have developed during the first five years of the Flagship.

“In addition to hosting our international, scientific conference in 2019, we are also working more closely with our industry partners. This is something we will be striving to improve in the coming five years, and while a number of our platforms are already establishing a dialogue with potential industrial partners to implement the technologies, we are not yet at the level we would like to be.”

The future

Looking past the end of the ten year funding period of the Human Brain Project, Fauteux explained that the Human Brain Project team will be building now on the ten years of initial funding in an effort to make the Flagship sustainable at the end of the period as a research infrastructure. “There has to be a lasting legacy,” he said.

The HBP, along with the other European Flagship projects (Graphene and now the Quantum Flagship), was something of a risky investment on the part of the European Commission, in that a significant amount of funding was to be injected into a long-term research project with no real guarantee of commercial applications evolving as a result. But their successes thus far are really demonstrating that funding these projects was a risk worth taking, and it is great to see that the Human Brain Project is already starting to have an impact in numerous areas and, moreover, that the sustainability of the research infrastructure beyond the initial 10 year funding period has already begun to be focused on, as this will have a very real benefit for the scientific community moving forwards.

Dr Christian Fauteux
Executive Director
Human Brain Project
Human Brain Project Co-ordination Office, EPFL
Tweet @HumanBrainProj

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