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Big project aims to build a bit of a virtual brain

Image: Neuron network
This image shows a network of neurons reconstructed with large-scale electron microscopy. (Credit: Clay Reid, Allen Institute / Wei-Chung Lee, Harvard Medical School / Sam Ingersoll)

Seattle’s Allen Institute for Brain Science is in on a multimillion-dollar campaign to trace the connections between the neurons in a mouse’s brain and figure out what they do, well enough to create a 3-D wiring diagram.

The five-year project – backed by the federal government’s Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, or IARPA – is aimed at reverse-engineering the way the brain processes information. The project is called Machine Intelligence From Cortical Networks, or MICRONS.

“The reason IARPA is funding this is not merely to get a better understanding of the brain, but to get inspiration from biology to do the next iteration of machine learning,” R. Clay Reid, the Allen Institute’s principal investigator for the project, told GeekWire.

IARPA is the U.S. intelligence community’s equivalent of the Pentagon’s DARPA think tank, and you can assume that the new types of artificial intelligence programs inspired by MICrONS could help give the United States an edge when it comes to analyzing data for national security purposes.

At the same time, neuroscientists will benefit from seeing how neurons work together in unprecedented detail. “It’s absolutely a win-win situation,” Reid said.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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