Are efforts at total brain simulation putting the cart before the horse?
Since it was awarded a one billion euro, decade-long research grant last year, the Human Brain Project has been the center of extreme excitement and heavy criticism. The project aims to simulate the human brain in silicon on a yet-to-be-assembled supercomputer of massive computational power. The goal? Understanding.
In a recent paper (more below), HBP researchers write, “The ultimate prime aim is to imitate and understand the native computations, algorithms, states, actions, and emergent behavior of the brain, as well as promote brain-inspired technology.”
The prospect is mind numbingly self-reflexive, the human brain folds its faculties of analysis in on themselves to understand and reproduce itself. An awe-inspiring idea in its seeming impossibility. And maybe that’s partly why the project has been a magnet for early condemnation.
The problem, according to critics, is that our limited empirical and theoretical understanding isn’t yet at the level needed for even a simple human brain simulation, and that resources, therefore, would be better allocated on basic research for now.
Further, in an open letter with almost 800 signatures, a group of neuroscientists warns the HBP is veering from an endeavor of simulation dependent on and informed by empirical neuroscience to a venture that favors technology over scientific rigor.
So, is the HBP putting the billion-euro cart before the horse? The letter was published in July. The same month, the Human Brain Project’s co-executive director, Richard Frackowiak, wrote a spirited defense of the project.
Frackowiak compared the criticism to a similar missive written in 1990, the first year of the Human Genome Project. That earlier letter accused the Human Genome Project of “mediocre science, terrible science policy”, criticism the project later rose above by successfully sequencing the first complete human genome in 2003.
Human Brain Project