Twelve years ago Noah Hutton (pictured), who had some background in neuroscience, heard prominent neuroscientist Henry Markram tell viewers in a TED talk that he had determined how to simulate a complete human brain, via supercomputers, within a decade. At the time, Hutton didn’t question that and he started to document the Blue Brain project that Markham directed, which started with a mouse brain.
But then things stalled: As Hutton recounted in Scientific American yesterday, “there were magnificent fly-through visualizations of the first square millimeter of simulated rat brain set to The Blue Danube available in a visitor’s screening room, but a definite lack of progress along the road map towards a human brain.” There was, however, the recognition that if the quest wasn’t hopeless, a much bigger project was needed, the Human Brain Project. Much infighting within the discipline followed.
My decade-long journey documenting Markram’s vision has no clear answers except perhaps one: that flashy presentations and sheer ambition are poor indicators of success when it comes to understanding the complex biological mechanisms of brains. Today, as we bear witness to a game of Pong being mind-controlled by a monkey as part of a typically bombastic demonstration by Elon Musk’s start-up Neuralink, there is more of a need than ever to unwind the cycles of hype in order to grapple with what the future of brain technology and neuroscience have in store for humanity.Noah Hutton, “The Fading Dream of the Computer Brain” at Scientific American (April 29, 2021)
One neuroscientist, Princeton’s Sebastian Seung, asked a thoughtful question that stayed with Hutton:
“They showed you a simulation of some neural activity inside this. Suppose it looked different; how would you know that that was wrong or right?” Sitting behind the camera, I replied, “Well, I wouldn’t know.” Seung reiterated: “Right, how would anybody know what was a wrong activity pattern or right activity pattern?”Noah Hutton, “The Fading Dream of the Computer Brain” at Scientific American (April 29, 2021)
Finally, Hutton arrived at his own critical question:
Certainly, many elements of a human brain can be modeled, probed and have their generalities extracted, just as we’ve done for the human heart in order to create a device that could function in my body or yours, keeping us alive. But when it comes to building a full simulation of an individual human brain, which would “have a consciousness” and “would speak languages,” as Markram had told me in our first interview, how would the determinate system of software running on computers ever capture the truly unpredictable mistakes seen at every level of biological life, from mutations in our DNA to the activity at a synapse?Noah Hutton, “The Fading Dream of the Computer Brain” at Scientific American (April 29, 2021)
And that question shaped his documentary.
Starting today, you can see the film at participating theatres or stream it from home. Details here.
In his op-ed at Scientific American, he wrestles with ethical issues and the pernicious influence of hype in science as well.
You may also wish to read: Why did the Human Brain Project crash and burn? To simulate the human brain on a computer was a top flight EU project a decade ago. Today, a filmmaker explores the rubble dreams leave behind.