In Silico review: The ambitious project to recreate the mind

In Silico

Noah Hutton

Available on demand in america and Canada

Soon after gaining a neuroscience degree, young film-maker Noah Hutton fell in to the orbit of Henry Markram, a neuroscientist based at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne.

Markram models brains in every their complexity. His working assumption is that because the brain is an organ, a sufficiently good computer model must reveal its workings, just as “in-silico” models of kidneys, livers and hearts enrich our under standing.

The world is filled with people who seem to think in various ways. Much as we would want to understand this full diversity, no-one is going to dig about in a living human. Markram hopes a computer model will offer an ethically acceptable route.

Up to now, so reasonable. Except that, in 2009 2009, Markram said he’d create a working computer model of the brain in a decade. This was during a TED speak about his Blue Brain Project (BBP), set up in 2005 to model the mouse brain.

Every year for well over ten years, Hutton interviewed Markram, his colleagues and his critics as the project expanded and the deadline shifted. Hutton’s film, In Silico , may be the result.

Markram’s vision transfixed purseholders over the EU: in 2013, he won €1 billion of public cash to set up the Human Brain Project (HBP).

“It is within our power to model some organs. However the brain isn’t an organ in the most common sense”

Although his tenure at its Geneva headquarters didn’t last long, Markram is hardly the first founder to be wrested from the controls of their institute. His BBP endures: its in-silico style of the mouse neocortex is visually astounding.

Perhaps this is the problem. In a voice-over, Hutton says the HBP has turned into a special-effects house, a shrine to touchscreens and VR headsets, but lacks meaning “outside this glass and steel building in Geneva”.

We’ve heard such criticisms before. What about how precisely the CERN particle physics lab sucks funds from the others of physics? There is absolutely no shortage of disgruntled junior researchers blaming it for failed grant applications. CERN, however, gets results; HBP, not so much.

The problem runs deep. It is within our power to model some organs, however the brain isn’t an organ in the most common sense. By any engineering measure, it looks inefficient. A spike in the neurons can trigger the release of the neurotransmitter, except when it releases a different one – or does nothing. There will be some commonality in brain anatomy, but up to now research shows that every brain is like a lovely, unique snowflake.

The HBP’s models generate noise, exactly like real brains. In the film, there is a vague reference to “emergent properties”. Yet linking that noise to brain activity can be an intellectual Get Out of Jail Free card if there was one: nobody knows what this noise means, so there is no way to tell if the model is making the right noise.

Deep learning guru Terrence Sejnowski, who’s based at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California, tells Hutton that the whole caper is a bad joke – if successful, Markram is only going to generate a simulation “just as mysterious as the mind itself”.

Hutton accompanies us in to the yawning gap between Markram’s reasonable ambitions and the promises he makes to attract funds. This is a film made on a budget of nothing, and it isn’t pretty. But Hutton accocunts for for all that with the sharpest of scripts.

Simon also recommends…

Book

The Idea of the Brain

Matthew Cobb

Profile Books

In his dazzling history of neuroscience, zoologist Matthew Cobb explains why the metaphors we use to take into account the mind stop us understanding it.

Film

Inception

Christopher Nolan

Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) has gone out to steal from your mind in a groundbreaking sci-fi flick that gave Freudian psychoanalytic theory a jaw-dropping CGI makeover.

More on these topics:

  • technology
  • brain

In Silico Noah Hutton Available on demand in america and Canada Soon after gaining a neuroscience degree, young film-maker Noah Hutton fell in to the orbit of Henry Markram, a neuroscientist based at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. Markram models brains in every their complexity. His working assumption is that because the…

In Silico Noah Hutton Available on demand in america and Canada Soon after gaining a neuroscience degree, young film-maker Noah Hutton fell in to the orbit of Henry Markram, a neuroscientist based at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. Markram models brains in every their complexity. His working assumption is that because the…

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