What happens if you can construct a person on a computer? What is it that really makes a man?
Neurologists are in the process of reverse-engineering a biologically accurate brain down to the molecular level using a supercomputer. Headed by Henry Markram, the Blue Brain Project is programming elements of the supercomputer to model individual neurons, building to the various brain regions and intends to model the complete human brain within ten years. This is particularly tricky and computation-intensive due to all the interconnections and feedback loops within a human brain.
Computationally modelling an entire human brain raises interesting questions about thought and personhood. But what awesome things happen when you can construct an entire biologically accurate body on a computer?
Prof. Shiva Ayyadurai came up with a computational model aggregator – CytoSolve – while he was finishing up his PhD in biology at MIT. CytoSolve can combine computational models of biological functions from multiple sources – for, ex. downloading them off of open repositories, or even running the functions on external, proprietary servers and gathering the results to construct models of human biological processes in silico.
This has amazing implications for the future of biopharmaceutical testing in silico, and the possibility of expedited FDA drug approval that could A) reduce the necessity for extensive animal testing and B) make it economically feasible for companies to produce drugs that are beneficial to the public at large but not necessarily huge money-makers for them.
In addition, in silico modeling promises to provide scientific grounding to forms of traditional medicine that were too complicated to scientifically test. Taking a holistic approach requires accounting for a large number of interacting factors, and the current system of drug-testing is really only set up to test the way one or two compounds effect one or two biological pathways at a time. Using in silico modeling, you could test the synergistic effects of up complex combinations, with different dosage levels, on different systems within a human body. And all this without killing any animals or making any people unnecessarily sick.
While solid in silico models may end up being even more accurate than animal tests (which is encouraging, I’d rather be more comparable to a supercomputer than a mouse) – there are some rather compelling bioethics questions which arise.
Certainly raises the stakes on academic honesty and what constitutes a good-faith effort. Also begs the question: how much of who we are, and what we do, can be mimicked by a computer; and how much of who we are is unique and unreplicable?
- For example, computational models can be tweaked to give whatever results someone desires of them, so the implications of fraud become even more compelling. Though, academic fraud plagues science so long as the stakes are high and research costs are intense. Check out John Timmer’s recent article on Ars Technica - Epic fraud: How to succeed in science (without doing any).↵