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…