“The members of the HBP are saddened by the open letter posted on neurofuture.eu” (updated x2)

Truly, the Human Brain Project has become sad đŸ˜¦ Here is their response to the neurofuture petition that I talked about on Monday (in PDF only, for some reason):

The members of the HBP are saddened by the open letter posted on neurofuture.eu on 7 July 2014, as we feel that it divides rather than unifies our efforts to understand the brain. However, we recognize that the signatories have important concerns about the project…

What are the concerns of the open letter? The open letter expresses the concern that these goals are so unrealistic that they will damage all of neuroscience, and states that not enough is known to take on such a challenge. We share this uncertainty. However we contend that no one really knows how much neuroscience data is currently available because it has never been organized, and that no-one even knows how much data is needed to begin such an endeavour. Reconstructing and simulating the human brain is a vision, a target; the benefits will come from the technology needed to get there. That technology, developed by the HBP, will benefit all of neuroscience as well as related fields. Many other areas of science have demonstrated that simulation can be a tool to create new knowledge, not just to confirm existing results.

Take that for what you will; it’s a fairly corporate/academic response. Meanwhile, neurofuture has a comments section which is fairly interesting. Here are some good ones:

The first is scientific: the leadership of the Human Brain Project has no experience in creating mathematical formalisms for representation of dynamical systems on multiple temporal and spatial scales. Without such formalisms, it is very unlikely that the complexity of neural models will be manageable, and the existing ad-hoc methods for modeling will remain firmly in place. The project statement on "Mathematical and Theoretical Foundations of Brain Research" claims that the theoretical research will magically come from "outside" the Human Brain Project but this appears to be mostly magical thinking. The current organization structure makes it obvious that independent thought from outside cannot possibly penetrate the upper echelons of power of the Human Brain Project. Which brings me to my second point. The second issue is organizational: the Blue Brain Project has earned a reputation of secrecy and extremely hierarchical authoritarian approach to scientific management, which suggests that rather than the stated goal of unbiased and objective collection of data and tools, the project is likely to result in promoting the agendas and pet project of a small group of people at the top of the hierarchy. There simply is no evidence for an open-minded and exploratory culture in the existing Blue Brain Project, and there is no chance for such culture to emerge without a complete remake of the organization structure, from pyramid to a flat decentralized structure. Without a way to promote diversity in thinking, the Human Brain Project will mostly be about control and power, rather than any meaningful scientific goals.

July 7, 2014, 2:07 p.m.
Ivan Raikov. Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology. Japan

Research on the human brain of this magnitude should be inclusive of all approaches and technologies that have been providing advancements on understanding the brain. The current suggested approach of a bottom up simulation is akin to trying to understand the laws of gases by simulating the collisions of an Avogadro number (6.022Ă—10^{23}) of particles. This is unnecessary and also fruitless: there was thermodynamics before statistical mechanics and even the latter does not derive the laws of gases from simulations; it uses first principles, validated against the phenomenological theory of thermodynamics. For the brain, the approach should also be two-pronged: a top-down (from function and behavior to structure)-- "the thermodynamics" part, and a bottom up (neuronal level interactions)-- the "statistical mechanics" part. Simulations aid both directions, but they are only useful within the context of experimental evidence.

July 7, 2014, 9:40 p.m.
Zoltan Toroczkai. University of Notre Dame. United States

Personally, I considered applying to one of the partner-projects, but found the goal to be unclear and the decision process to be absolutely not independent, I therefore considered this would be a pure waste of time. If Europe wants to move on in this area of research, then they do not only need to focus on learning more about the human brain, but also using it to do something useful with. Generally, a lot of this work is done at a very low level, while higher level understanding may be sufficient to do other things with, e.g. neural networks have been around for ages, while we actually don't properly understand how they work in the brain. There are however other models of the how the human brain works that are at a higher level and seem to work pretty well. The project should cover more work that is around using the outcomes of or deals with creating a human brain without making a one-by-one copy of the brain itself, while still offering the same functionality.

July 8, 2014, 9:23 a.m.
Wim Melis. University of Greenwich. United Kingdom

It is surprising that in a project whose goals are to simulate the human brain, a developmental part is totally missing. Thinking that the long childhood observed in the human species has nothing to do with the cognitive success of this species is neglecting one of the main characteristic of the studied species and of its "educated" brain. This lack of developmental studies, both in humans and animals, reveals a major scientific flaw. It misses the opportunity to understand the organizing principles of the human brain and its specificities compared to other animals, and to develop new learning algorithms based on the understanding of the mechanisms used by the fantastic learner who is the human child. 
Furthermore given the clinical and societal issues pushed forward to justify HBP, it is a strategic mistake not to include developmental studies as numerous neurologic and psychiatric diseases have their origin during development (e.g. drug addiction, autism, schizophrenia, epilepsia), and consequences of preterm births (6 to 10% of births, 15 million babies each year in the world) and of other brain insults, neural and cognitive developmental deficits (global and specific), impact of low SES on cognitive development are concerning an important percentage of our fellow citizens (e.g. 20% of the young adults are described as non-efficient readers in national French evaluations!) preventing them to obtain a correct and stable work.  Without research on human and animal brain development, it is doubtful that solutions for these problems will be proposed whereas the economic impact in the EU (and elsewhere) is huge.
Finally giving up on data acquisition is a huge mistake when the recent development of non-invasive brain imaging techniques just unlocks the access to the child brain revealing unexpected results (e.g frontal activation in infants, no specific activation to faces in the fusiform gyrus until late childhood), pointing to our ignorance of even the simplest principles which might explain how an assembly of cells can give rise to thoughts.

July 9, 2014, 7:57 a.m.
Ghislaine Dehaene-Lambertz. INSERM. France

Update: via Prerana Shresthra, there are a couple of other good explanations of the problems some have with the Human Brain Project on Quora:

One of the big dreams of my life are to eventually simulate brains, so a priori I love the idea. Here I will just list some of my objections. I do not speak for anyone else and do not claim full knowledge about the HBP. But I have been following the publicly visible parts for a while. I believe that it is premature because

1) We lack the knowledge needed to build meaningful bottom up models and I will just give a few examples:
a) We know something about a small number of synapses but not how they interact
b) We know something about a small number of cell types, but not about the full multimodal statistics (genes, connectivity, physiology)
c) We know something about a small number of cell-cell connections, but a tiny fraction of all the existing ones
d) We know a few things about how a neuron’s dynamics relates to its inputs, but only for a tiny number of cells and conditions.
e) We know a few aspects of a few neurons that change over time, but again for a tiny number of cells and conditions.
The degree of the lack of knowledge is mindboggling. There are far more neurons in the brain than people on the planet. Any planned bottom-up simulations of the human brain are akin to simulating the entire human society on the planet based on say a random 100,000 word documents sampled from the internet. For simulations, the output is only as good as the knowledge about the system that you put in. Hence, large scale simulations are bound to lead to poor results. In my judgment, the data will not become available in sufficient amounts before the termination of the HBP.

…Understanding the brain is different than going to the moon. We knew where the moon was. We do not know how a simulation of the brain should look like. Any simulation techniques developed at the moment may end up being useless for the kinds of models of the brain that we will eventually need.

(and there’s more!) Go visit Quora to see the rest.

Update the second: Neuroskeptic has a good interview with Zach Mainen, the man responsible for organizing the Neurofuture petition.


2 thoughts on ““The members of the HBP are saddened by the open letter posted on neurofuture.eu” (updated x2)

  1. Pingback: Unrelated to all that, 7/11 edition | neuroecology

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