Are we really ready to build a human brain in a supercomputer? The boycotting of the Human Brain Project

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The centrepiece of European neuroscience, the Human Brain Project, promised to build a simulation of a human brain in a supercomputer within the next 10 years.  The project is now being boycotted by Europe’s top neuroscientists due to its grandiose claims and internal mismanagement.  Is this ambitious goal really feasible or is neuroscience just not there yet?

The centrepiece of European neuroscience, the Human Brain Project, promised to build a simulation of a human brain in a supercomputer within the next 10 years.  The project is now being boycotted by Europe’s top neuroscientists due to its grandiose claims and internal mismanagement.  Is this ambitious goal really feasible or is neuroscience just not there yet?

Most neuroscientists agree that it is theoretically possible to reproduce an entire functioning human brain in a supercomputer.  In practice, this would allow for the possibility of being able to download your mind onto a computer and live forever as a machine.  For the moment, however, these ideas are closer to wild speculation than to practical science.

If you’re familiar with the Human Brain Project (HBP) though, you could be forgiven for disagreeing.  Last year, Professor Henry Markram of École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) unveiled a project with the ambitious aim of building a simulation of an entire human brain in a supercomputer over the next decade.  In doing so, the project planned to develop a new generation of supercomputers and new treatments for brain diseases – and along the way gain “profound insights into what makes us human”.  The funding bodies were excited by these claims and the project received a 1.2 billion euro investment from the European Commission.  This was to be a “big data” venture along the lines of the Human Genome Project, bringing together 80 research groups to work on the gigantic task of simulating the brain’s 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections.

Within the neuroscience community, however, the project was controversial from the start.  Last week, the concerns of many top figures in European Neuroscience about the HBP were voiced in an open letter to the European Commission, in which over 650 signatories have stated their intention to boycott the project if their concerns are not listened to.  They claim that the project lacks flexibility and openness in the way it distributes its research funding and ask for an independent review to either get the project back on track or to reallocate the funding to individual researchers across Europe.  If the commission fails to adopt these recommendations, many of the top neuroscientists in Europe have stated that they would not apply for funding associated with the HBP in order to boycott the project.

The concerns raised in the letter go beyond management issues, with the signatories questioning the fundamental scientific aims of the project.  The state that they “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”.

Modern neuroscience is a very young field, having existed for barely over a century.  At this stage, we still lack a detailed understanding of how the brain works and, as a result, many neuroscientists feel that the attempt to simulate a human brain is far too premature.  If this is really the case, there’s a lot at stake – 1.2 billion euros of research investment that could go towards more realistic approaches to tackling the goals of understanding the brain and finding cures for brain disorders.  Moreover, if such a high-profile project fails, it could have a lasting impact on further investments into neuroscience research.

Another perceived flaw with the HBP is its overly narrow approach to meeting the project’s goals.  In order to understand something as complex as the brain, it must be studied at many levels.  If you take language as an example, in order to truly understand it, it is essential to know not only how the sounds within the language are made but also the grammatical rules that govern it.  Similarly in Neuroscience, there are those who study the genes that operate within neurons, others who study how these cells interact and still others who study how the brain generates thoughts, perception and behaviour.  The HBP has sidestepped this issue to some extent by taking a “bottom-up” approach in which it is hoped that by simulating how networks of neurons work, the complexity at higher levels will simply emerge.

This approach has led to a sidelining of cognitive science research, which has worsened as the project has developed. This contributes to an already problematic divide in neuroscience between neuroscientists studying the brain and the psychologists and cognitive scientists who study thought and behaviour.  To focus so heavily on the neural hardware of the brain at the expense of the psychological software is comparable to learning a language by focusing on making all of the sounds but ignoring the grammar.  Such an approach is therefore doomed to failure.

In a response to the open letter, the organisers of the HBP have claimed that cognitive science will eventually be incorporated into the project once the technology for running the simulation has been developed.  While this is a step in the right direction, it does not solve the fundamental problem with the project – that we do not currently know enough abut the brain for such a simulation to be feasible.  Reaching a level of understanding where we are capable of simulating an entire human brain will require us to untangle the secrets of its operation on all of these levels, as well as how these levels are linked – and, given the current divisions in Neuroscience at the moment, that goal appears to be a fair way off.

If the project does not review its aims and management issues, the signatories of the open letter have asked that the European Commission invest the money in individual researchers.  Many feel that this would be preferable as there is still so much to be discovered though the old fashioned way of doing science – small groups of people conducting experiments and thinking hard about the fundamental, unanswered questions.  There is still a place for large-scale projects in contemporary neuroscience but primarily as tools for researchers.  With our current lack of understanding, they are unlikely to provide deep insights into the operation of the human brain by themselves.  So when it comes to unlocking the mysteries the brain, we’re going to have to rely on something more powerful than a supercomputer for the near future: our own brains.

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James Cooke
James Cooke is a Neuroscience D.Phil. student, interested in cortical function and circuit organisation. He completed a B.A. in Experimental Psychology and an M.Sc. in Neuroscience at the University of Oxford where he is also based for his D.Phil. His research involves using electrophysiological and optogenetic techniques in order to investigate the biophysical basis of cortical computations. When he's not in the lab, he's usually either playing Jazz piano or running along a trail somewhere. You can find more of his work at @NeuralNoises

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