Neuroscientists Boycott Upcoming Project to Build an Artificial Brain
The European Union just gave the Human Brain Project 1.2 billion euros to build an artificial human brain using a network of supercomputers, but not everyone is happy about it. Hundreds of neuroscientists have signed an open letter that expresses concern over the narrow scope of the project and potential consequences for the funding of other neuroscience projects.
Detractors claim that we don't know nearly enough about the brain to embark on such an endeavor. The open letter states: "The HBP has been controversial and divisive within the European neuroscience community from the beginning. Many laboratories refused to join the project when it was first submitted because of its focus on an overly narrow approach, leading to a significant risk that it would fail to meet its goals... 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 HBP released a four-page official response which stated, "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." They insisted that the collaborative nature of the endeavor would unite, rather than detract from, other neuroscience projects. In response to the open letter's concern that their goal was too ambitious to be realistic, they stated, "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 endeavor. 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."
There has also been controversy over their divergence from the widely accepted method of modeling the brain; while most neuroscientists advocate a "top-down" approach, in which neurons are modeled based on observations of behaviors or thought patterns, the scientists involved with the HBP are taking the converse, or "bottom-up" approach, in which they observe molecular changes in the brain and attempt to project the results on a behavioral level. The latter approach is controversial because the link between neuronal changes and behavior is not very well understood.
Peter Dayan, professor at University College London, claimed that it might be realistic to achieve the HBP's goals using their preferred methods if we had a complete description of the brain, but "…it is simply ludicrous to think that one could get such a description at present. Single neurons, of which we have billions, are fantastically complicated devices, living in a rich and complex 3D environment."
He went on to point out that it is unrealistic to create an artificial human brain without an adequate understanding of the mechanism by which our physical brain is affected by external stimuli: "Without understanding how this works, we don't know what aspects of the fantastic complexity we need to capture; we don't know how to combine the results of multiple experiments on different individuals (since they'll all be at different states); and we won't have captured the nature of how the brain is shaped to the world."