The European-funded Human Brain Project (HBP) has stirred its share of controversy over the years so perhaps it’s not surprising that The Atlantic should take aim at HBP on the tenth anniversary of neuroresearcher Henry Markram’s promise to simulate the human brain in ten years at the TEDGlobal conference in 2009. Actually, the HBP didn’t begin till 2013, but Markram (EPFL researcher) was its chief luminary and advocate. The HBP was eventually awarded a billion euros.
From the outset, HBP was beset by criticism – unrealistic goals, un-useful goals, poor organization, waste of scarce research resources – said many. Others argued its big goals would lead to big insights as well as myriad useful tools. It’s hard to gloss over the HBP’s problems, but perhaps too easy to understate its contributions.
The Atlantic article, written by Ed Yong, picks up the thread of criticism and mostly covers familiar ground. Here’s a bit of Yong’s early salvo:
“Markram’s goal wasn’t to create a simplified version of the brain, but a gloriously complex facsimile, down to the constituent neurons, the electrical activity coursing along them, and even the genes turning on and off within them. From the outset, the criticism to this approach was very widespread, and to many other neuroscientists, its bottom-up strategy seemed implausible to the point of absurdity. The brain’s intricacies—how neurons connect and cooperate, how memories form, how decisions are made—are more unknown than known, and couldn’t possibly be deciphered in enough detail within a mere decade. It is hard enough to map and model the 302 neurons of the roundworm C. elegans, let alone the 86 billion neurons within our skulls. “People thought it was unrealistic and not even reasonable as a goal,” says the neuroscientist Grace Lindsay, who is writing a book about modeling the brain.”
As a recap of HBP criticism the article is an interesting and reasonably quick read. Yong notes the HBP has taken measures to revise its structure and inject more practicality into its goals, but he spends most time on HBP’s failed promises and perhaps flawed premise. He also notes a recent paper by HBP researchers (not Markram) defending the value of efforts to simulate the brain (The Scientific Case for Brain Simulations, Neuron, May 2019), and another paper by Xue Fan and Markram (A Brief History of Simulation Neuroscience, Frontiers in Neuroinformatics, May 2019) doing much the same.
Whether the HBP was and is tilting at windmills is a significant question. Funding is scheduled to run out in 2023, according to the article. This article doesn’t address that challenge but sticks more closely to the question of whether simulating the brain is possible or useful. The article is certainly not optimistic on either front.
HBP advocates would likely mount a spirited defense of the value of simulating the brain and also point to numerous technology research areas – neuromorphic computing is just one (e.g. SpiNNaker, BrainSCALES) – HBP has contributed to. It may be that no game-changer tech has emerged from HBP but that it is earning its keep on some level. Time will tell.
Link to The Atlantic article: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/07/ten-years-human-brain-project-simulation-markram-ted-talk/594493/