Mankind has achieved many remarkable things over the last century. From the moon landings to sequencing the human genome, our understanding of the world around us has changed fundamentally.

There’s an area where we’re not so advanced though, says Professor Michael Hausser of University College London. “We’re only just at the very beginning of our understanding of the human brain,” he explained in a talk at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos earlier this year.

Ultimately, he says, unlocking the mysteries of the brain will improve our health, allow us to build and design better robots and computers, and give us a greater understanding of ourselves.

The brain, robots and computers

Alan Turing was among the first to suggest that the “brain computes” – using algorithms to solve problems in the same way as a computer.

Indeed, he described the process of building his automatic computing engine, as “building a brain.”

Advances in computing now mean that computers outperform humans at a variety of tasks, from chess to video games. Significant progress has also been made in object recognition, says Professor Hausser.

“However, brains are still better than computers at many tasks, particularly those that involve interaction with the real world,” he said. Consider football, he says – at which point he shows a Lionel Messi goal next to footage of robots falling over at the robot soccer world cup.

So, what sets the brain apart?

Neurons allow the brain to store vast amounts of information, far more efficiently than computers.

Understanding how neurons work is very difficult though. They’re embedded in “very complicated” neural circuits. We also don’t know the neural code – without this it’s very hard to understand how neurons process information. “Just like it’s hard to read a message in Morse code, if you don’t know the code,” explains Hausser.

But, proteins from jellyfish and green algae are helping build our knowledge. They’re allowing neuroscientists to measure and manipulate neurons.

“We’re at a new frontier in neuroscience, where we can both read and write activity in neural circuits, and use this approach to crack the neural code,” said Hausser.

This will allow the development of new treatments for disease as well as better computer chips and better robots.

Ones that might just be a bit better at football.

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