EU Effort to Make a Supercomputer Like the Human Brain in Danger of Collapsing

Henry Markram, neuroscientist and co-director of the Human Brain Project, HBP, of the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne. (PHOTO CREDIT: AP Photo/Keystone, Jean-Christophe Bott)
Henry Markram, neuroscientist and co-director of the Human Brain Project, HBP, of the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne. (PHOTO CREDIT: AP Photo/Keystone, Jean-Christophe Bott)

A billion-dollar European effort to model the human brain in a supercomputer is in danger of collapsing amid skepticism this is even possible.

Not even a year after it was launched by the European Union, the Human Brain Project is the target of an open letter from neuroscientists, saying it is “not on course” due to “substantial failures” including a “overly narrow” focus on the dream of its founder, who has long tried to build a digital brain.

Delivered to EU funders this week, the letter threatened a scientific boycott unless the project is immediately and independently reviewed.

“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,” reads the letter, which as of Tuesday had the signatures of nearly 400 neuroscientists, mainly European, including two from Canada.

At issue is the idea of recreating a brain, neuron by neuron, in a powerful computer, and then seeing if it behaves like a real brain, the most complex object known to science.

It is the leading example of what is known as “in silico” neuroscience, which has risen in prominence along with computing power, despite philosophical concerns that brains cannot be reduced to the ones and zeroes of digital computation.

Now critics are complaining the Human Brain Project was pitched as neuroscience, but is in fact a computing enterprise, almost a vanity project, with no hope of probing the real mysteries of consciousness and cognition.

The HBP has been “controversial and divisive,” the letter says, and many labs refused to join “because of its focus on an overly narrow approach, leading to a significant risk that it would fail to meet its goals.”

Last month, a proposal for its second round of pledged funding — roughly 50-million euros per year for the main project, and the same for partnerships, with an estimated 10-year total over 1-billion euros — “reflected an even further narrowing of goals and funding allocation, including the removal of an entire neuroscience subproject and the consequent deletion of 18 additional laboratories.”

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SOURCE: National Post
Joseph Brean

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