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Tuesday Update: Will Leading Scientists Boycott the Humonguous Human Brain Project?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Scientists don’t usually lodge a protest against projects funded to the tune of 1.2 billion euros. They usually try to make nice with the organizers to get in on the action.

No one is taking to the streets this time, but more than 200 people (and climbing), among them prominent scientists, are using the megaphone of the Internet to enter a protest about a much-publicized Big Science endeavor. (The count was at 245 signers,mid-afternoon EST, up from 199 in the morning—almost all, if not all, appear to be scientists. By Tuesday afternoon, it was approaching 400. See the end of this article for more.)

Outrage was embodied in the form of an open letter to the European Commission over what the signers claim are the misguided goals of  the massive Human Brain Project. Those who signed come from institutions like Oxford, University College of London and the Max Planck Institute.

The Human Brain Project is an attempt to create a computerized facsimile of the entire brain, down to the level of individual molecules, within a 10-year time frame. It has always been viewed with skepticism by some neuroscientists, who view its objectives as impossibly ambitious. The project is principally the  brainchild of neuroscientist Henry Markram, who wrote for Scientific American on the topic. (A detailed story on the protest by Ian Sample appears in The Guardian. Also, check out this great book excerpt by Sebastian Seung that we ran on Markram and his desire to create a digital brain. Our coverage on this has been ongoing. Maybe also give a look  here and here.)

Here’s a snippet of the letter that was drafted by scientists to convey their discontent:

..we wish to express the view that the HBP [Human Brain Project] 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.

The letter calls for an independent review of the Human Brain Project or perhaps a reallocation of funding to an array of broad-based neuroscience projects that do not just focus on a SimBrain. If either of these options is not forthcoming, the scientists who signed the letter pledge to not participate in the project.

Not your usual Big Science outing, eh?

Markram got back to me with a comment:

It seems that it will take decades more for the neuroscience community to mature to the level of other disciplines. This is such an exciting direction that can bring everyone together to take on this grand challenge. Just so sad that it gets torn apart by scientists that don’t  want to understand, that believe second-hand rumors and just want money for their next experiment. For the first time in my career as a neuroscientist, I lose hope of neuroscience ever answering any real questions about how the brain works and its many diseases.

Then Zach Mainen, a principal investigator at the Champalimaud Neuroscience Programme in Portugal, got back about the reasons for the upsurge of criticism:

A large group (now more than 250) neuroscientists in Europe are trying to send a wake up call to the European Commission to say that the Human Brain Project is not an effective vehicle to form the hub of European neuroscience. Unlike the U.S. Brain initiative, the HBP is a narrowly focused information computing technology effort that, contrary to how it was sold, does not have a realistic plan for understanding brain function. We want the public to know that neuroscience research is not represented by the HBP. We hope that the open message to the EC can help to initiate a dialogue and find a better solution.

The Obama Administration’s brain initiative—possibly a multi-billion dollar undertaking, if fully funded—has also met with some grumbling, but at least some of that has subsided as major neuroscientists have assumed an important advisory role.

It will be interesting to see what happens next. One of the trendiest fields in all of science now has to contend with an unprecedented rebellion in the ranks that festers away as the whole world watches.

A Day Later (Tues afternoon): Wow, this is like the Arab Spring for science. The full count is now up to 379 on the petition, a who’s who of European neuroscience, with names from outside Europe scattered in. This isn’t a petition of Nobel laureates who want to emphasize that global warming is real. It’s a bunch of principal investigators, heads of institutes and bench scientists who don’t like how money is being allocated in their field. A resounding cri de coeur from the Neuroscience Street

The whole thing raises a whole set of interesting policy questions. Will grass-roots protests over funding become commonplace? There was dissension earlier about the Human Brain Project before funding was approved, but why weren’t the fireworks set off earlier—perhaps a change in emphasis in the program after it got started? Will this put a damper on other large biology projects, including the U.S. brain initiative, as governments ask whether placing a bet on a single large program is really worth it?

Image Source: Human Brain Project

Note: This post has been updated (a lot) as some of the people involved with the story have contacted me.


Gary Stix About the Author: Gary Stix, a senior editor, commissions, writes, and edits features, news articles and Web blogs for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. His area of coverage is neuroscience. He also has frequently been the issue or section editor for special issues or reports on topics ranging from nanotechnology to obesity. He has worked for more than 20 years at SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, following three years as a science journalist at IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism from New York University. With his wife, Miriam Lacob, he wrote a general primer on technology called Who Gives a Gigabyte? Follow on Twitter @@gstix1.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Johnay 5:35 pm 07/7/2014

    Meanwhile, taking the BBC’s new tack on avoiding “false balance” in science reporting into consideration, how many are planning to enthusiastically participate?

    Is this really a groundswell of opposition, or just a noisy minority?

    Link to this
  2. 2. elroysullivan 6:34 pm 07/7/2014

    It is so crazy to hear that the EU and US are going to be spending huge sums of money to try and build a computer to emulate the human brain. The “what are you going to simulate?” question in seen in another critique of this project is spot on. Are they going to simulate some device that responds to stimuli, like a character appearing on the screen when a key is typed? Newsflash, go to your local computer store and buy one for less than $1,000. Do they want something that’s more akin to stimuli and responses of humans? Newsflash #2, the Japanese (and others) are working on incredible robotics to do just that. Do they think they’re going to design some super-powerful Turing test? Why not just contract the whole thing out to Apple’s Sirius or Google’s Robin project. Gosh, I hope that’s not what they have in mind. Do they think they’re going to map the actual neural structure and function of the brain? This immediately opens up a can of worms, exposing many questions that we’re not even close to having answers to, and building some super-computer is going to get us no closer. For instance, vision. Sure, we’ve got a pretty good understanding of how our eyes work and how they send signals to our occipital lobes. However, when it comes to understanding how we do pattern recognition and then apply names (words) to the things we see, we’re fairly clueless. Furthermore, sensory cognition doesn’t even get at the most fundamental aspect of what it is to be alive, much less human. I would argue that there are two somewhat intertwined words that best describe what it means to have a functioning human brain: awareness and choice. Awareness would include self-awareness, and it would also suggest a fundamental “understanding” of what we are doing when we do things. The second word, “choice”, can lead to discussions of free will and even get into spirituality if we allow. However, there is an easier way to define it. An entity that has choice is “fundamentally” unpredictable from any cause-and-effect deterministic perspective. In other words, it has fundamental stochastic properties to outside observers. Newsflash, digital computers (regardless of how powerful) do not have stochastic properties (unless they are broken). One simply needs to read a bit of John Searle or Roger Penrose to understand these core concepts of what it means to have a functioning brain. I feel compelled to say a bit more here regarding my own beliefs. I believe that our brain, our mind, our consciousness, and our unconsciousness arise from the periodic table of material from which we are made. I believe this as strongly as I believe that we evolved from simpler life forms, that the Earth is approximately round, and and that it’s revolving around the Sun. However, digital computers are fundamentally the wrong medium from which to attempt an accurate functional model of the human brain. Their programmers may pretend they are, they may fool us at times, and they undoubtedly provide incredible and fascinating tasks for us, but in the end, they are machines with no sense of awareness or choice.

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  3. 3. David Cummings 8:09 pm 07/7/2014

    It sounds like interesting research to me. Someday in the indefinite future (100 years? 1000 years?) we will be uploading ourselves to hardware platforms other than the ones we are born into. Is this research a step along that path? I don’t know. Neither does anyone else. But it might be, and that’s what makes it interesting to me.

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  4. 4. jtdwyer 8:33 pm 07/7/2014

    Hooray for this small gesture supporting scientific integrity!

    Meanwhile, another dark stain revealing government waste & corruption…

    Link to this
  5. 5. jayb61 8:54 pm 07/7/2014

    This reminds me of the Jesuit Conference in the 1700′s on the meaning of a “Line.”

    “They might find out something & we’ll be out of a job.”

    Link to this
  6. 6. BrainBites 11:55 pm 07/7/2014

    “It seems that it will take decades more for the neuroscience community to mature to the level of other disciplines. This is such an exciting direction that can bring everyone together to take on this grand challenge. Just so sad that it gets torn apart by scientists that don’t want to understand…”

    I was feeling a tad bit sympathetic until I read this. Markham is able to pronounce judgement on the “maturity” of the entire neuroscience community because some don’t buy into his unique vision? And he paints his detractors with ad hominem attacks rather than address the substance of their concerns? A bit off putting. There are well considered arguments, both for and against the HBP.

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  7. 7. jayjacobus 10:08 am 07/8/2014


    You are correct.

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  8. 8. SpoonmanWoS 10:16 am 07/8/2014

    @elroysullivan: the point of these projects is to determine what it is about a collection of molecules that allows it to think when other collections do not. By modelling down to the molecular level, they’ll have to model every other level above it, such as how neurons interact, connections form, etc. Yes, we know a lot of how all of this works, but having it all modeled in software means you can tweak here to see what happens there without having to pull apart a working human brain. They’re not trying to create a brain so much as have a complete picture of how it works. No one expects the model to become sentient or anything.

    As to the rest of your rant: don’t get your neuroscience from philosophers. If you want to understand how the brain works, ask someone who’s actually studied it and done some real work. Don’t ask someone who sits in a chair all day and tries to think their way to a solution. That kind of “science” is what caused the dark ages…people too married to Aristotle’s thoughts to have any of their own.

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  9. 9. PedrOna 10:16 am 07/8/2014

    It’s really not much money when you consider how much is spent on defense in the United States. And I am sure that the U.S. is looking at this for military purposes.

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  10. 10. JSBrooks 3:56 pm 07/8/2014

    After more than 40 years as a participant-observer anthropologist conducting research into the religious experience, consciousness and altered states of consciousness, the Human Brain Project (HBP) and the US BRAIN Initiative sound more to me to be impossibly naive projects to think that the consciousness of humans is stored strictly in the brain. So far all I have seen is neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy have made a pathetic effort to understand the religious experience, and consciousness.

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  11. 11. jayjacobus 9:02 am 07/9/2014

    The cause and effect of neurons are impulses. The cause of the brain is stimuli and the effect is perception.

    There is not a direct link from neurons to perception. This study seems to assume that there is.

    Link to this
  12. 12. jayjacobus 10:01 am 07/9/2014

    Perhaps the brain has an assembly language and programming languages. To understand the brain’s subroutines the scientist must discover the assembly language and programming language. Then he/she can understand the architecture of the brain and the logic.

    But thinking in terms of architecture may not be appropriate. No matter what to understand the brain requires some key from neuron to system.

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  13. 13. 13inches 4:13 pm 07/9/2014

    IBM has Watson. Google has driverless automobiles. It will be PRIVATE industry that builds the first fully functional artificial brain…a brain that will totally mimick a real human brain. All these neuroscientists whining about the massive funding wastes inhernet in HBP projects are complaining simply because they have been left OFF the HBP gravy train. ALL government funding of HBP projects should be ended…TOTAL waste of government taxpayer funds that could be used for better purposes elsewhere.

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  14. 14. Pazuzu 4:46 pm 07/9/2014

    @elroysullivan: I agree. We don’t know anything about the codes used by the brain’s internal communication systems. The brain’s internal language(s) is(are) not at all understood. What sense does it make to try to build an immense piece of hardware that will mimic the brain — and supposedly improve our understanding of the brain — if we don’t have a handle on these basic questions?

    Link to this

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