The first complete computer simulation of an entire animal, in your browser

Recent news about OpenWorm, a project that aims at recreating in a computer the behaviour of a complete animal, the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans. The OpenWorm project aims at constructing a complete model of this worm, not only of the 302 neurons and the 95 muscle cells, but also of the remaining thousand cells in each worm (more exactly, 959 somatic cell plus about 2000 germ cells in the hermaphrodite sex and 1031 cells in the males).

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The one millimeter long worm C. elegans has a long history in science, as one of the animals more extensively used as a model for the study of simple multicellular organisms. It was the first animal to have its genome sequenced, in 1998.

But well before that, in 1963, Sydney Brenner proposed it as a model organism for the investigation of neural development in animals. In an effort that lasted for more than twelve years, the complete structure of the brain of C. elegans was reverse engineered, leading to a diagram of the wiring of each neuron in this simple brain. The effort of reverse engineering the worm brain included slicing, very thinly, several worm brains, obtaining roughly 8000 photos of the slices using an electron microscope and connecting, mostly by hand, each neuron section of each slice to the corresponding neuron section in the neighbor slices. The complete wiring diagram of the 302 neurons and the roughly 7000 synapses, which constitute the brain of this simple creature, was described in minute detail in a 340 pages article, published in 1986, entitled The Structure of the Nervous System of the Nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, with a running head The Mind of a Worm.

IEEE Spectrum special report on the singularity

In 2008, IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication of the Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers, the major professional association of this area, dedicated a full issue to the question of the singularity. This issue received an award for the best single oopic magazine issue of that year.

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In this special report, which is as actual today as it was in 2008, a number of scientists, visionaries and engineers give their opinion on whether a singularity will or will not exist. The issue covers topics related with the singularity, such as robotics, consciousness and quantum phenomena and artificial intelligence. A must read for anyone interested in the topic, one of the best unbiased assessments of whether the singularity will or will exist.

Brain uploading in the NY Times

An article in the NY Times, by Kenneth Miller, addresses the question of whether or not we will one day be able to upload a brain, that is, to simulate in a computer the complete behaviour of a human brain.

The author, a neuroscientist from Columbia University, addresses carefully the challenges involved in mind uploading and whole brain emulation.

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The author’s (wild) guess is that it will take centuries to determine a connectome that is detailed enough to enable us to try brain uploading.

However, he also recognises that we may not need to reconstruct all the fine details of a brain, with its billions of neurons and trillions of synapses, whose structure varies in time and space. Still, a level of detail incommensurable with existing technology would be required to even have a shot of creating a model that would reproduce actual brain behaviour.

It seems the singularity may not be over the corner, after all…

(Image by Thomas Schultz, avaliable at Wikimedia commons).

The aliens are silent because they are dead

In a paper recently published in the journal Astrobiology, Aditya Chopra and Charles Lineweaver, from the Australian National University, argue that the reason we have not met intelligent aliens is because, in general, life does not evolve fast enough to become a regulating force on planet ecologies.

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If this explanation holds true or if it is, at least, one of the possible explanations, then many planets may have developed life, but in few or none of them has life lasted long enough to be able to regulate greenhouse gases and albedo, thus maintaining surface temperatures compatible with life. If this is true, then extinction is the default destiny for the majority of life that has ever emerged on planets in the galaxy and the universe. Furthermore, only planets where life develops rapidly enough to become a regulating force in the planet ecology remain habitable and may, eventually, develop intelligent life.

(Photo by By Ian Norman, via Wikimedia Commons).

Reverse engineering the brain, one slice at a time

Narayanan Kasthuri and a team of researchers  from Harvard, MIT, Duke, and John Hopkins universities, fully reconstructed all the neuron sections and many sub-cellular objects, including synapses and synapse vesicles, in a volume of 1500 µm3 (which is just a little more than one millionth of a cubic millimeter) using 3×3×30 nm voxels.

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The results, published in an article in the journal Cell, in July 2015, describe the experimental procedure and the conclusions. The data was obtained by collecting 2,250 brain slices, each roughly 30 nm thick, obtained with a tape-collecting ultramicrotome that slices brain sections using a diamond knife.The slices were imaged using serial electron microscopy and the images processed in order to reconstruct a number of volumes. In this volume, the authors have reconstructed the 3D structure of the 1500 µm3 of neural tissue, which included hundreds of dendrites, more than 1400 neuron axons and 1700 synapses, which corresponds to about one synapse per cubic micron.

(Rendering by the authors, used with permission)

 

Computers finally excel at Go

 

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Go is a beautiful game, with a very large branching factor that makes it extremely hard for computers. For decades, playing this game well was outside the reach of existing programs.

We just learned that computers finally mastered Go, in a paper published in the journal Nature. By using machine learning techniques and, in particular, deep learning, the program AlphaGo, created by Google’s company DeepMind, managed to beat Fan Hui, the European Go champion, five times out of five. Whether AlphaGo is sufficiently strong to beat the best players in the world, remains to be seen. However, it already represents a very significant advance of the state of the art.

What was maybe the last bastion in table games still unconquered by computers is no more. Computers are now better than humans at all table games invented by humanity.