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Modelling the Human Brain Using Computers: The State of Play

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Welcome to this series on the current state of affairs involved with modelling the human brain using traditional silicon-based computers. In this series, we’re going to look at current best attempts at neuromorphism – the modelling of neurobiological processes using analog and digital circuitry – the components involved, computer simulations and the role of quantum processing. It’s a wide, far-reaching and complex topic, but we’re going to establish the field step-by-step.

1. Is it possible?

The basic theory behind neuromorphic computing is that the human brain performs series of logical operations on data. Just as the everyday electronics we use, like wireless printers, rely on a series of signals from its structural components to execute each function, the human brain does the same – i.e. that our understanding of logical computation is at least a close enough approximation of what the brain actually does to be able to model it in at least a functional manner… ”

That’s an important scientific point – we can only model, in science, and we don’t make any claims as to the ‘ontological truth’ of those things we are making assertions about. A successful ‘functionalist’ – that is, functionally congruent – model will be one that produces results under a variety of testing conditions that mirror the behaviour a human brain produces under similar conditions. The nature of those tests is yet to be determined, but the model will be increasingly ‘functionally accurate’ the more it models observed behaviours of the brain. So, in a way, we already have a working model of the brain in our everyday computers – just not particularly functionally accurate ones (one great test of artificial intelligence – the Turing Test (of which we’ll speak later) is yet to be passed by any machine).

2. What are our best options?

All simulation relies on hardware, but some simulation involves the deployment of numerous compatibility layers between that hardware and itself. That is, some simulated human brains are simulations that occur in software and others – such as neuromorphic modelling – in hardware.

Certain challenges – such as parallelism – are tricky to overcome using a software-based approach. Our brain is capable of highly parallel computation – many threads at any one time – of the kind beyond the range of even the most powerful modern supercomputer. We know already that computers possess single-thread computational faculties far in excess of the human brain, but it’s not a matter of speed, here. The way that the human brain processes information seems to demand some refinement in our understanding of computation.

The hardware-based approach has its own challenges. Standard componentry, such as that used in mobile phones or wireless printers does not necessarily cut the mustard. Neuromorphic modelling aims to simulate neuronal structures in the brain – the tiny processing units that enable our kind of parallel processing. However, without the ability to create these structures biologically (at least, not easily), there are essential aspects to neuron structure that defy silicon-based engineering. For example – the ability to learn and adjust, divert information flows and self-optimise (evolution). These are things that are being worked at, but there are certain engineering challenges in the way. The use of memristors to model biological componentry seems a promising step.

Next article, we’ll take a look at how some of our criteria for successful modelling of the human brain. That is, we will establish how we will know if we have successfully done the job. As we’ve intimated here, it’s not a binary matter (in more ways than one…!), but rather a scale approximating existing brain behaviour.


About the Author - This article has been submitted to us on behalf of Dell

Why is Mercedes’ ‘The Catch’ video getting so popular?

The Catch

The phenomenon of viral marketing videos offers a wealth of opportunity to observe social psychology in action. What makes them work? Why do they fail? We’re going to take a look at Mercedes’ recent viral video, ‘The Catch’ to see how it works an audience, and why that’s contributing to it going viral.

1. It doesn’t set out to be a viral marketing video

Mercedes kind of include the vehicle they’re marketing – the SLS AMG Roadster – as almost an afterthought to the video. Sure, the car’s being driven in the main, but it is hardly tarted up (in fact, with all the camera equipment it looks pretty tarted-down). The video makes no claims as to its speed, efficiency, or aptitude to this particular task.

And that’s a really, really good thing. Many companies make the attempt to create a viral marketing video from the mission inwards. That is, they set out with a profit goal and are willing to see what it takes to make that happen. Remember the ‘golden target’ model of business? Your profit – and your operations – must all come from a central value, or ethos. It’s best if that ethos clicks with our basic humanity.

2. It sets out to be awesome

So, rather than setting out with viral marketing in mind, the crew obviously set out to do something amazing, and film that process. And it does. There’s a strong narrative to the video, and because the product seems secondary (and the cinematography is mock-amateur), it’s hardly as if you’re watching a commercial. In fact, I forgot I was – I was watching something awesome. And that’s a key reason why people share videos – because they’re innovative, new and fun. They’ve included top-rate stars – David Coulthard and Jake Shepherd – and that makes it only more awesome. They’re two of the world’s best out to beat a weird world record. We could almost imagine them doing it in their spare time – and that hits another key success point.

3. The video ticks our emotional boxes

The folks charged with directing the video have done their stuff really, really well. They’ve set out to do something remarkable, imbued it with a narrative, included recognisable and trusted stars and a great product, then buried all that behind an amateur film-style. There’s loads of smiling, which we as humans love. Why do people smile in adverts? It’s more than just making us want to be ‘that’ happy – it’s a key trigger for the production of endorphins. They make us feel protected, safe and – importantly – trust the individual that’s doing the smiling.

There’s tension in the narrative – we get a hit of dopamine at the announcement of the challenge, which is not clearly-stated. Because we are guided to figure it out for ourselves, we feel as if we have established the challenge itself, so our goal system kicks in with wanting it to be achieved. The same can be seen in a number of modern films – the plot-laying deliberately vague, such that the watcher must discern the film’s direction for them and, thus, be better invested in what they’re watching. The fact that there’s no music aims to avoid suspending the viewer’s belief – it’s an unnecessary distraction from the polished reality of what’s occurring on-screen.

Sure, there are a host of other reasons that a video may or may not go viral. But ‘The Catch’ is a pretty good example of what to do to help out. And, with just under 2 million views – it has all the hallmarks of successful viral marketing.

Pidgin - Multiple Instant Messenger Service


If like me, you find yourself juggling multiple messenger applications to keep your friends, family and colleagues happy you will be glad to hear about Pidgin. Formally known as Gaim, Pidgin is an open-source messaging program that allows the simultaneous use of multiple instant messenger services through one application.

Available as a free of charge download from, this small program supports 17 networks including favourites AOL, MSN and Yahoo as well some lesser known ones such as Jabber and Gadu-Gadu. Additional chat clients such as Skype and the Facebook Chat tool can be added through the use of freely available third party plugins which are easily located on the Pidgin site.

Once installed, simply select the type of account you want to add (for example a Google Talk account) along with your user name and password. Any of your contacts from that account that are currently online will automatically appear in the buddies list and you can begin chatting straight away. Not only does this offer the distinct advantage that you don’t need to switch between several applications if you have contact with friends on multiple networks but it also cuts down on the resource requirements of having multiple chat services running on one machine.

Along with being cross compatible with different networks, the Pidgin application is also available for many different Operating Systems; as well as the obvious Windows version, the developers have provided support for Solaris, SkyOS, Qtopia, UNIX, Linux and even the AmigaOS.

All the standard features you would come to expect such as contact organiser, custom smileys, file transfers and group chats are present. The only slight criticism that I would have is that it doesn’t support video and voice chat however my assumption is that these protocols are difficult to integrate in to an application that has been designed to be compatible with dozens of networks and half a dozen different Operating Systems. Hopefully this lack of functionality will be addressed in future releases.

Pidgin is completely customisable; the preferences dialog box provides an area where you can define every conceivable option including the interface, sounds, network connection, chat logging and your default availability status. In terms of appearance you can also change the font type, size and colour, formatting along with installing new themes which change the appearance of smileys and status icons. An additional option to install themes in order to change the actual user interface would be welcome as the default interface may be a little dull and unintuitive for some users.


About the Author - Chris Holgate works for Refresh Cartridges who supply a wide range of printer cartridges at the UK’s lowest prices.

Google Buzz - Social Networking Website


The Click article for this week is brought to you by Hayley Underwood, my soon to be wife, so that she can tell you about Google Buzz; a new social networking application that she has been getting to grips with.

Google Buzz is an extension of the Google Mail service offered by Google which the Internet giants hope will lure users away from alternative services such as Facebook.

Google Mail initially created shockwaves when first introduced as they offered a huge 1GB of storage space for messages and attachments compared to most of its competitors who at the time offered a feeble 2 to 4MB. Today they offer a huge 7GB as standard however times have moved on and alternative providers such as Yahoo Mail and Hotmail also now offer an almost unlimited amount of storage space free of charge.

Despite not having the advantage over the competition in this respect any longer, Google Gmail continues to be a popular service due to its ability to integrate well with other e-mail accounts and the way in which it allows you to manage your messages. As an example, Gmail groups together messages that are of the same subject, making them part of a conversation file. In this way you can manage large number of e-mails grouped into the same conversation quickly and easily so that deleting or achieving them doesn’t cause a headache.

Google Gmail is free to use and paid for by advertising however the adverts are very small, non-intrusive and are targeted so that they are more relevant to subject matter that you might find of interest. There are no large graphic adverts and no pop-up or pop-under adverts to clutter your browser.

Google Buzz is a social networking application integrated into Gmail. It aims to offer a better method to share photos, links, videos, and events with your Gmail contacts and personally I believe it is rather coincidental that this was developed after Facebook announced plans they were developing their own email system.

Buzz has all the basic features that you would expect from a social networking application including the ability to share status updates, photos, links and videos both privately and publically. You can choose who you’d like to follow by simply entering their Gmail address at which point they can be added as a friend for you to see a steam of all their updates that have been shared either publically or privately with you. As with Facebook, other users can comment on public posts and show their appreciation for an update or users status by clicking the ‘like’ button.

You can direct a comment into a fellow users Gmail inbox by simply putting @ the beginning of your comment and the user name of that person is then hidden to protect their privacy. This feature can only be used with people that are in your Gmail contact list. Also by clicking on the arrow to the right of any post, you can link content to the post, email the contact directly and mute the buzz that appears in your inbox.

Google Buzz also integrates with Picasa, Flickr, Google Reader, YouTube, Blogger, and Twitter meaning that you are able to share content from these applications directly. This is a nice feature as it allows you to post files and albums you may have already created without having to go through the hardship of creating them twice.

The social networking market has the potential for huge rewards, especially for a company such as Google that makes such a large amount of its profits from revenue generated by advertising. With news that Buzz will soon be available on the Android phone and iPhones platforms, it will almost certainly give the more established social networking sites a run for their money.

About the Author - Chris Holgate works for Refresh Cartridges who supply a wide range of printer cartridges at the UK’s lowest prices.

Spider Player - Free music only media player


Despite the fact there are an inordinate number of media players available, it is difficult to find one that is quite as well rounded as Windows Media Player; the application included as standard with Windows. Many other media players are either overloaded with features you will never use or stripped down to the point where the few extra features you are likely to use on a daily basis are missing.

Just recently, however, I was pointed in the direction of Spider Player, an application that is available via a free download at Admittedly this is just a music player and does not support videos files but focusing purely on audio allows it to excel in this area.

It offers a 32-bit sound processing irrespective of the specification of your sound card which should ensure a high quality of playback of all your audio files. The player also supports 5.1/7.1 surround as well as traditional stereo/mono audio files.

Standard features such as the ability to open individual files and create and save playlists are also included along with a wonderfully simple equalizer panel which is available at all times. This can be minimised if you should wish but this feature, along with the DSP effects manager allows you to customise the sound of the playback to your personal taste.

Along with supporting every conceivable file format, Spider Player will also allow you to convert existing audio files in to another format; for example to change a WAV file to a small MP3 file. This is provided in addition to the ability to rip tracks directly from a CD and then convert them in to a number of formats including MP3, WMA and OGG.

Direct access is provided to a number of Internet radio stations and can record up to five minutes of transmission to any one file (recording time is unlimited in the professional version).

While the standard design of the player is relatively pleasing as it is, the player is fully skinnable with a variety of designs available for free from the developer’s website. If you would rather personalise your own player, there is a skin development package available for download from the website.

Users who require the ability to play video may be best looking into downloading the excellent VLC Media Player, one of the many alternatives mentioned in Click over the years, or sticking with the faithful Windows Media Player. For those that are primarily concerned with music, Spider Player certainly comes highly recommended as although the claim “The Ultimate Music Player” may seem rather grandiose it certainly comes with all the features I could hope for without any of the chaff I would have previously tolerated.


About the Author - Chris Holgate works for Refresh Cartridges who supply a wide range of printer cartridges at the UK’s lowest prices.

Windows 7 Hidden Gems - Additional functionality


I’ve been living with Windows 7 for a good few months now and in that time have discovered a couple of little ‘hidden gems’ which I wanted to share with you:

Aero Shake
In Windows 7, when you click on the title bar of any window and shake it every other open window gets minimised straight back in to your taskbar, reducing clutter on your screen. This allows you to focus on the one window and then when ready shake it again and the other windows will reappear.

There are additional Aero user interface related features which make a welcome debut. These include Aero Peek which allows you to immediately see what’s going on in an application just by hovering over the icon in the task bar and Aero Snap which quickly allows you to rearrange your desktop by slamming any open window against the left, right or top side of your screen; try it!

Sticky Notes
Proof, if needed, that some of the simplest applications make the largest differences to the end user experience. One of the most commonly used applications on my PC used to be the incredibly simple ‘notepad’ as I find that my working life works a lot better if I simplify everything down in to lists.

Rather than jotting notes on random pieces of paper that will almost certainly get lost throughout the day I used to dump everything in notepad and ensure that every line was eventually cleared so I was left with a blank page before I went home.

Sticky notes have a similar application. To get started click on the start menu and type in ‘sticky’ and begin typing tasks for the day or things to remember in to little post it notes that stick to your screen. When complete either close or minimise the application to get back to the job in hand, safe in the knowledge that once Sticky Notes are reopened, these tasks will reappear exactly as you left them. When a task has been completed or the note simply isn’t needed, it can be deleted with one click of the mouse.

Improved Calculator
Windows 7 calculator has improved considerably; now rather than being an arithmetic only affair, it can be operated in four modes - Standard, Scientific, Programmer and Statistical. It can also perform unit conversion, for example grams to ounces, metres to feet and Celsius to Fahrenheit along with a couple of unexpected features such as the ability to calculate the number of days between two dates or the value of your mortgage repayment. Surely in the next version of Windows the calculator application will finally gain graphical capabilities.

Windows Disk Image Burner
For some time now the preferred method of copying and storing CD’s and DVD’s has been by using an ISO file; a single image which includes the contents of an entire disk. Reading these files used to require a specific application (the likes of which I’ve covered previously in Click) but every version of Windows 7 now includes support for these straight out the box; simply double click on the ISO file that you wish to burn, insert a blank CD or DVD and you’re done.


About the Author - Chris Holgate works for Refresh Cartridges who supply a wide range of printer cartridges at the UK’s lowest prices.

Google Books - Online Literature Library


The idea of Google Books was first conceived in 2002 when a small group of Google programmers started pondering the question of how many man hours it would take to scan every single book ever written. We still don’t know the true answer to this question although just eight years from the idea conception there are now over 10 million books catalogued in their database.

While the first scan was done manually on a 300 page book and took 40 minutes to process, Google now use cameras capable of scanning at a rate of 1,000 pages an hour and also work with 20,000 publisher partners who provide content directly. They have also been able to provide over 1 million books that can be read in full from cover to cover; these unrestricted works are either books that have fallen out of copyright or have been provided with publishers express permission.

As well as simply scanning the books, Google performs OCR (Optical Character Recognition) on the pages, thereby turning them in to pure text which can be entered in to their database. As a result when you do a Google Search you are now not only returned results from relevant websites but also your search terms are checked against a library encompassing millions of books and appropriate matches are suggested for further reading.

The integration in to the Google Search engine means you may have already inadvertently stumbled across Google Books but if you haven’t and are eager to explore then the Google Books can be found by visiting the site directly. Being a Google service, it almost goes without saying that the service is completely free of charge and is instead paid for via a minimal number of sponsored links which are in no way intrusive or detrimental to the service.

From the Google Books site you can perform searches, add books to your virtual library or organise your collection in a logical manner. Searching for a book and then subsequently clicking on it opens an interface which allows you to either view the directly scanned pages from the book or in some instances a ‘plain text’ version. This plain text can then be copied and passed to another application or simply printed out for reading offline.

Books still under copyright enjoy the protection of a variety of access limitations and security measures which limit the number of viewable pages making the experience somewhat akin to being able to flick through the first couple of pages in a library or bookshop. Despite this protection there have rather predictably been a number of fairly major lawsuits issued by individuals and publishers alike; some with legitimate grievances and others just seeking money or publicity.

Possibly the most notable case was between The Authors Guild, the publishing industry and Google which resulted in Google agreeing to a settlement on October 28, 2008. This would see them pay a total $125 million not only to pay the court costs of the plaintiffs but also create a Book Rights Registry which will collect and disburse revenue generated by all third party sites such as Google which provide content based on the content of books covered by the agreement.

These issues aside, on the whole I am amazed that again this relatively new company have been able to offer such an incredible gift to the world. With Google Books we have the potential to preserve centuries of human literacy work for generations to come as well as promoting the spread and availability of knowledge amongst all groups and all classes of people.


About the Author - Chris Holgate works for Refresh Cartridges who supply a wide range of printer cartridges at the UK’s lowest prices.