Over 600 (as of this writing) neuroscientists from around the world, but with a very large proportion representing Europe, have written an open letter expressing concern with the Human Brain Project (HBP) and its cousin the U.S. BRAIN Initiative. It appears that the neuroscience community regards these projects as of relatively low value, while at the same time, these projects are sucking up a very large proportion of the funding for neuroscience. From the letter.

… Many laboratories refused to join the project when it was first submitted because of its focus on an overly narrow approach, leading to a significant risk that it would fail to meet its goals. Further attrition of members during the ramp-up phase added to this narrowing.

In June, a Framework Partnership Agreement (FPA) for the second round of funding for the HBP was submitted. This, unfortunately, reflected an even further narrowing of goals and funding allocation, including the removal of an entire neuroscience subproject and the consequent deletion of 18 additional laboratories, as well as further withdrawals and the resignation of one member of the internal scientific advisory board.

… we wish to express the view that the HBP is not on course and that the European Commission must take a very careful look at both the science and the management of the HBP before it is renewed. We strongly question whether the goals and implementation of the HBP are adequate to form the nucleus of the collaborative effort in Europe that will further our understanding of the brain.

Why all this fuss? As far as I can tell, there is a conflict between those who wish to understand the “human brain” (which is a term here meant to refer to the human mind, human cognition, thought process, and all the neuro-biological process that underlies that) and those who want to build a human brain. It appears that when a half a gig of neuro scientists decry the project for being “too narrow” what thy are really saying is that all this money is being spent to build a replicate of a brain, a functioning brain that will operate inside a super-computer, rather than on understanding what brains are and how they work. And this ultimately may come down to a conflict between much of the global neuro-science community and one man: Henry Markram.

From The Guardian:

Central to the latest controversy are recent changes made by Henry Markram, head of the Human Brain Project at the Swiss Federal Institute for Technology in Lausanne. The changes sidelined cognitive scientists who study high-level brain functions, such as thought and behaviour. Without them, the brain simulation will be built from the bottom up, drawing on more fundamental science, such as studies of individual neurons. The brain, the most complex object known, has some 86bn neurons and 100tn connections.

“The main apparent goal of building the capacity to construct a larger-scale simulation of the human brain is radically premature,” Peter Dayan, director of the computational neuroscience unit at UCL, told the Guardian.

“We are left with a project that can’t but fail from a scientific perspective. It is a waste of money, it will suck out funds from valuable neuroscience research, and would leave the public, who fund this work, justifiably upset,” he said.

Henry Markram and his friend.

Henry Markram and his friend.

Henry Markram is not unfamiliar to those of you who read this blog faithfully and remember every detail. A public comment by him regarding the Recursive Fury fiasco was addressed here: Fisking Henry Markram’s Comment About “Recursive Fury” and the Frontiers Retraction. Markram seems to have a knack for making people want to run away in frustration. (See this for more details.)

One of these days, Markram is going to make his brain, and take over the world. But until then he should learn to get along better with others.

Comments

  1. #1 Ugo Bardi
    Florence
    July 14, 2014

    From my experience with “Frontiers”, the scientific journal created by Henry Markram, I think I can say that if his brain project works as well as Frontiers’ web site, then supercomputers may become the victims of the next run of ethnic jokes (you know, something like, “an Englishman, an Irishman and a supercomputer are sitting in a bar……”)

  2. #2 Brenda von Ahsen
    Mnpls, MN
    July 14, 2014

    How can you build a brain if you don’t know how brains works? It’s like an alien coming to Earht trying to build a computer but they don’t know how computers work. Don’t you need to figure that out first?

    On the other hand I suppose you could replicate a brain neuron for neuron, connection by connection but can we do that for non trivial examples and what would doing so teach us? I have no idea.

  3. #3 Greg Laden
    July 14, 2014

    Richard Nixon, the EuroBrain Computer, a Catholic priest and a hippie were riding in a small airplane when the landing gear fell off…

  4. #4 David Whitlock
    July 14, 2014

    The neuroscientists are correct. It is way premature to try and engineer an emulation of the human brain. All it would do is waste a lot of money, waste a lot of senior researcher’s talent, and funnel money into big hardware.

    In some ways it is like other Big Science projects and big social projects.

    The human genome project; where are the cures for all those diseases we were promised?

    The war on drugs; why are illegal drugs still a problem?

    The war on cancer; why isn’t cancer “cured” yet?

    This isn’t being suggested because the majority of neuroscientists think it is the correct next step in neuroscience research. (sort of the way that the LHC was the correct next step that the physics community decided on). It is being suggested because those suggesting it see ways to leverage a big project like this into more $$$ and kudos for themselves, whether the project succeeds or not.

  5. #5 Christopher Winter
    July 14, 2014

    OK, I’m curious: What does this image have to do with the Human Brain Project? After Googling, I failed to find it or anything remotely like it.

    You might have picked, for example, the image found here:

    http://www.alexstjohn.com/WP/2013/10/07/human-brain-project-kicks/

  6. #6 Greg Laden
    July 14, 2014

    Christopher, yes, that would have been good! I avoid using comics where I don’t have permission, tho.

    The image is from here: http://terminator.wikia.com/wiki/Neural_Net_CPU

  7. #7 Sou
    July 14, 2014

    What happens when young Henry succeeds and the brain doesn’t want to be prodded and poked and zapped with electrons for all the world to see? Does he have all the ethics approvals and informed consent from this brain-to-be?

    (I hope he doesn’t try to publish at Frontiers without it. The Editor in Chief would have a fit.)

  8. #8 Greg Laden
    July 14, 2014

    ROFLMAO

  9. #9 G
    July 15, 2014

    Never mind a whole brain, we don’t even know how individual neurons work yet, and there is good reason to believe they may be orders of magnitude more complex than we have assumed.

    Stubborn attempts to build super-AIs despite serious issues ranging from basic science to social ethics and civic impacts, very often point in the direction of The Singularity as a motivating factor. This is the belief that when a super-AI is achieved, it will solve all of humanity’s problems and also make it possible for individuals to “upload” their minds to the machine and thereby achieve immortality.

    I suspect there’s an element of that in the mix here.

    Strictly speaking, it’s a new religion, complete with a deity (the super-AI) and a hereafter (immortality via reincarnation into silicon). When put forward as “science” it’s straight-up pseudoscience, like faith healing wrapped up in technology to make it look scientific. See also the hiring of Ray Kurzweil by Google, with a blank check to develop a God-machine.

    A quick Ixquick search of “Markram + Singularity” turns up items on Singularityhub.com and Singularityweblog.com, I won’t bother pasting in the URLs here because they’ll just cause this comment to get stuck in a queue.

    How it is that Markram manages to get into a position of directing a gazillion-dollar project, particularly after the Recursive Fury fiasco and other instances of less-than-stellar judgement, is beyond me.

    Or perhaps the desire for silicon immortality is more pervasive than any of us realized.

  10. #10 Dunc
    July 15, 2014

    On the other hand I suppose you could replicate a brain neuron for neuron, connection by connection but can we do that for non trivial examples and what would doing so teach us?

    I’m not entirely sure we can really even replicate a neuron. And even if we can, we don’t have anything like the technology needed to map a brain at that level of detail. It would be like trying to build a replica of a city down to the contents of every room in every building, but with only fuzzy satellite imagery to go on.

  11. #11 Christopher Winter
    July 15, 2014

    So where did the picture you used come from? It could be Beverly Crusher examining the Prytt “psi-wave” device removed from her and Picard, but I failed to find it under that search either.

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