Reverse Engineering the Brain: Why and How We’re Doing It

Reverse engineering the brain isn’t easy, but scientists at IARPA are using it to understand how the brain works in an attempt to make computers think like humans. How exactly are they mapping the human brain, and how close are robots to mimicking these neural networks?

The human brain is an incredibly complicated biological computer. It controls everything from involuntary systems like breathing and heartbeat to memory and conscious thought.

While researchers understand what the brain does, they don’t often understand why it does these things. That’s why researchers are working on reverse engineering the human brain.

Now, this isn’t as messy as it sounds. Yes, reverse engineering usually requires taking something apart to understand how it works, but if scientists do that with a human brain, it ceases to function.

How are scientists reverse engineering the human brain and why are they doing it?

Why Are Researchers Reverse Engineering the Brain

First, let’s look at the why — specifically, why are researchers trying to reverse engineer the human brain?

With a $12 million promise from the U.S. Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), Professor Tai Sing Lee of Carnegie Mellon University’s Computer Science Department along with the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition want to understand how the human brain works.


To help computers think more like humans do.

The neural networks available today to create artificial intelligence systems were developed in the 1980s — powerful in their own right, but not strong enough to touch the human brain’s capabilities.

How to Reverse Engineer the Brain

The trick to reverse-engineering the human brain isn’t in mapping all the gray matter in a person’s skull. It’s focusing on one signal area of the brain — specifically the cerebral cortex, otherwise known as the seat of human cognition.

There are 22 billion neurons and 220 trillion synapses in the average human cortex. Researchers will need to decode the signals transmitted in this part of the brain, and then re-code them into a simulation.

Currently, the sheer amount of storage space this kind of reverse engineering requires limits the research. Mapping an entire cerebral cortex would take a supercomputer with at least 3.2 petabytes of storage space and 36.9 petaflops of processing power.

They don’t necessarily need to map the entire human brain — or even the entire cortex — to create a system that can help computers think more like humans. In theory, around a million lines of code might create a human analog in a virtual environment.

Of course, all the mapping and programming in the world won’t matter unless these artificial intelligence analogs are taught and trained how to function. In the beginning, these AI programs will appear like children, without any knowledge or experience. Just like children, they’ll need teaching.

Is The Singularity Imminent?

Learning how to reverse engineer the human brain might seem like science fiction, but it could potentially push the species closer to the singularity, or the point of no return where artificial intelligence outstrips its creators. Does this push toward creating human brain-based neural networks means we’ll face the singularity soon?

Not as soon as the evidence suggests.

While researchers work toward reverse-engineering the human brain, they remain at least a decade away from mapping out the brain or having a supercomputer capable of handling the millions of lines of code to mimic human thought patterns.

Of course, this falls in line with the timeline provided by Vernor Vinge, the writer who coined the term ‘singularity’ in 1993 in his article “The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era.” According to Vinge, the singularity would either happen before 2005 or around 2030.

If the research continues into reverse engineering the human brain, the human race could experience the singularity in the next decade or so.

Looking to the Future

Reverse engineering the human brain could be the missing link we need between human thought and artificial intelligence. We likely won’t see any results from this research for some time, due to the sheer size of the program necessary to mimic human thought, but singularity could happen within the next decade.

It will be fascinating to see where technology goes from here — whether we turn it into something to benefit all of humankind or we lose control of it and it turns against us.

The singularity often syncs with thoughts of the end of the human race and now that we’re actively working toward it, all that’s left to do is wait and see where it takes us.

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