Thursday, 21 February 2013

The most complex simulation... or the biggest waste of money?

If a lot of money is given to some research projects (and not to others), there is always argument. And if research projects promise to tell us about “what we are deep inside” (and this is in everyday conversation becoming more and more synonymous with “what our brain looks like”), there is always excitement.

No wonder that one of the two research projects to be sponsored by the EU with 1,000,000,000 euro (yes, nine zeros!) triggered exactly those two responses: the Human Brain Project (HBP) will surely be one of the most controversially discussed scientific endeavours over the next few years time. It has the ambitious goal to create a computational model of the brain, bringing together all levels of organisation from genes to ion channels in the cell membrane, looking at nervous cells as well as processes while we decide if we rather have cheese or jam on our toast.

Henry Markram, leader of the project and neuroscientist in Lausanne, said that whereas the 60,000 papers that brain researchers put out every year are all “beautiful, fantastic studies — but all focused on their one little corner: this molecule, this brain region, this function, this map”, the HBP would integrate these findings. And this– as Markram and his fellows believe – would enable them to create a “physical model of brain circuits on silicone substance “.

But this silicone substance might be one of (the many) problems: The simulation of the human brain will require computers that are a lot more powerful than these available today. A simulation of the whole brain would have to compute 1018 operations per second. The researchers hope that by pooling resources they could tackle this issue. But otherwise they would just have to invent new electronics (neuromorphic computers they call them) along the way that are able to fulfil this task. Easy, right?

But the researchers believe it would all be worth it: As in the end they will have solved the greatest remaining mystery of mankind and we will all finally know how the brain works. We will be able to study and objectively classify brain diseases and we could check the influence of new medication on human-like material instead of conducting animal experiments. Great, right?

But many members of the neuroscientist community and brain researchers are not as convinced. Critics believe that the HBP is an overhyped phenomenon, thanks to all the over-excited media reports about what it will accomplish. Based on the precursor experiment of Markram and colleagues, they don’t believe that Markram’s bottom-up approach (trying to fix the lower levels like neuron-firing before moving on to a higher level) will lead to any of the anticipated results. They believe that the model would, if Markram succeeds, not even fulfil the purposes of a model anymore: It would be just as complex as the brain itself and therefore no easier to understand. The goal of the whole enterprise, they think, is in itself deficient.

And of course, this whole idea could be criticised by an embodied cognition view: If our thinking is deeply dependent upon our physical features, a disembodied computational model - as ambitious it might be - would tell us very few about our cognition. Markram’s approach presupposes that the brain performs all the cognitively tough work in vacuo, with the surrounding world only providing mere inputs. If you don’t buy this, you’re probably not that happy about the many euros spent on this project…


  1. It's interesting, I think the project shows a lot of promise and while it's unlikely that it'll be entirely successful it will surely give us some new insight that will represent significant progress. So I'm all for it.

    You also raise an important question about the justification for the amount of money being invested in this. I'm sure the promise of this particular project, even if were wonderfully successful would be of little comfort to the millions of people who are struggling in Europe these days. The perception that some unelected bureaucrats in Brussels are ring-fencing this money with one hand while forcing through austerity measures with the other is one the EU could do without right now!

  2. I think that the validity of this simulation can only be determined once it has been completed. A deeper question to ponder over would be whether or not the simulation is actually accurate. The human brain takes time to develop and mature, considering that as an infant we're just all drooling messes but time and nurturing mature us into individuals. From that point of view, even if they do manage to simulate the way neurons fire, the way they are interconnected will the simulation ever mean anything when it comes to understanding just what the brain is doing? or, will it just end up being an extremely expensive game which isn't even fun to play.

  3. I totally agree with you two: Something valuable will probably come out of this project and it is also surely true that one can only fully determine the success of a project after it is finished.
    But I share some of the doubts of the critics concerning the fact that this kind of simulation will lead to the broad and noble solutions they are aiming at.

  4. This kind of criticism reminds me of the Apollo missions conducted by NASA. People complained that while children were starving, the US government was spending hundreds of millions on an extravagant ego-fuelled unnecessary project. At the same time if we look at some of the 6000+ patents NASA have made along the way that contribute to everyday society it may seem more worthwhile. Satellite communications,smoke detectors,water filters were all incidental inventions that had occur for the mission to succeed. Even disease prevention improved as vaccines were vital in protecting astronauts from "space diseases".
    I can't imagine what kinds of invaluable discoveries and technological leaps will come about as a result of the human brain project.