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Samsung is planning to reverse-engineer the human brain on to a chip

'Here I am, 100 billion neurons and all you want me to do is calculate all the ways this could possibly go wrong?'

Industrial mega-conglomerate Samsung is working to "copy and paste" the structure of the human brain onto computer chips.

The Korean megacorp has linked with Harvard University to replicate the make-up of the brain in a chip format in the hope that doing so will allow future chips to access the brain's "low power, facile learning, adaptation to environment, and even autonomy and cognition" capabilities.

According to Samsung: "The brain is made up of a large number of neurons, and their wiring map is responsible for the brain's functions. Thus the knowledge of the map is the key to reverse engineering the brain."

The four names listed for the super-heavyweight Samsung-Harvard team include Harvard professors Donhee Ham and Hongkun Park; Samsung SDS president and CEO Sungwoo Hwang; and VC and CEO of Samsung Electronics, Kinam Kim.

Their "perspective paper" – "Neuromorphic electronics based on copying and pasting the brain", published in Nature Electronics – suggests that by copying the brain's complex mechanics and transposing them on to Samsung's memory tech, the electronics may be able to mimic some of the brain's qualities.

"The essence of this vision is to 'copy' the functional synaptic connectivity map of a mammalian neuronal network using advanced neuroscience tools and then 'paste' this map onto a high-density three-dimensional network of solid-state memories. Our copy-and-paste approach could potentially lead to silicon integrated circuits that better approximate computing traits of the brain," the paper stated.

The team plans to do this by using "a breakthrough nanoelectrode array developed by Dr Ham and Dr Park, and to paste this map onto a high-density three-dimensional network of solid-state memories."

This is a fairly big ask, as in Samsung's own words: "Since the human brain has an estimated 100 billion or so neurons, and a thousand or so times more synaptic connections, the ultimate neuromorphic chip will require 100 trillion or so memories."

This is a "perspective paper" and so is somewhat speculative in its ideas, and Samsung has not revealed how long they think it might take to create such a computing behemoth (or how big it would be). But while these are clearly enormous numbers, in terms of simple maths they are actually not beyond the technology we have at present.

One hundred trillion bytes is equal to 100 terabytes, and while it might be difficult for any human replication of neural pathways to be quite as elegant in its execution as what natural evolution has managed to come up with, Samsung is clearly in a position to furnish such a project with as much high-spec memory as it needs.

So it may be that the only thing preventing us from replicating the human brain, and perhaps actually creating Isaac Asimov's Multivac supercomputer without it being half a mile long and three stories high, is whether Dr Ham and Dr Park's "nanoelectrode array" is up to the task.

No pressure eh, lads? ®

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