The Chronicle vs. The Human Brain Project

In case you haven’t seen this hilariously vicious anti-Human Brain Project article:

If you want to make a neuroscientist scoff, mention the billion-dollar-plus Human Brain Project…Even before it began, the project was ridiculed by those in the know. Words like “hooey” and “crazy” were thrown around, along with less family-friendly terms…Almost no one—except for those on the project’s ample payroll—seemed to think it was a good idea.

In reply to an interview request, Konrad Kording, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University, wrote back: “Why do you want to talk about this embarrassing corpse?” He added a smiley emoji, but he’s not really kidding. Mr. Kording has nothing nice to say about a project that, according to him, has become a reliable punchline among his colleagues. “I’m 100-percent convinced that virtually all the money spent on it will lead to no insight in neuroscience whatsoever,” he said. “It’s a complete waste. It’s boneheaded. It’s wrong. Everything that they’re trying to do makes no sense whatsoever.”

Jeremy Freeman is similarly skeptical, if a touch more diplomatic. Mr. Freeman, a neuroscientist at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, sees it as “kind of an absurd project” and misguided to boot. “Insofar as the goal is to establish a working simulation of the entire human brain, or even a single cortical column, I believe that it’s premature,” he said, chuckling. “I also don’t think rushing toward a simulation is the right avenue for progress.”

et cetera. I mean, regardless of how you feel about the project you have to appreciate inspired academic vitriol when you see it (unless you are the target of it, obviously).

Konrad Koerding’s objections to the HBP are probably more informative, however (more detail in link):

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)

The degree of the lack of knowledge is mindboggling. There are far more neurons in the brain than people on the planet.

2) We do not know how to combine multimodal information

3) We do not know what the right language is for simulating the brain.


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