Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is donating $300 million of his $14 billion fortune in his eponymous Allen Institute for Brain Science to fund new projects to map and observe the human brain and, in Allen’s words, “to one day understand the essence of what makes us human.” That brings the total amount Allen has invested in the Institute to $500 million.
The announcement was made at a press conference today in Seattle and in a commentary in Nature, one of the world’s best scientific journals, written by Christof Koch, the Institute’s Chief Scientific Officer, and R. Clay Reid of Harvard Medical School. They lay out a way of doing brain research that involves optogenetics, a kind of deep stimulation of the brain using light, connectomics, the study of connections in the brain, and brain observatories, ways of monitoring what happens in the brain in real time. Right now, because the mouse is smaller and simpler, much of the early efforts focus on the mouse brain. One of Allen’s new efforts is to map the visual connections between the brain and the mouse. There, mice have perhaps 2 million neurons involved in vision, compared to 5 billion such cells for humans.
“If you start out as a programmer, as I did in high school, the brain works in a completely different fashion than computers do,” Allen said, calling the effort “fascinating” and “noting that he’s been touched by neurodegenerative diseases” — his mother has Alzheimer’s. On the call he noted that while it’s possible to teach a student — a human brain — to program a computer in a matter of years, a computer can’t learn to function like a human brain even given a lifetime of opportunity. “”You can’t create an artificial intelligence,” Allen said, “unless you know how the real thing works.”