I recently had the privilege to watch “In Silico“, the 2020 documentary by Noah Hutton. It is about a young documentary film-maker who in 2009 is so impressed by Henry Markram‘s TED talk promising the simulation of the human brain and consciousness in a supercomputer, that Hutton decides to join Markram’s team and document the progress of his Blue Brain Project (BBP), and later on the Human Brain Project (HBP), for the next 10 years.
It is a story of disappointment.
A disappointment for all of us, because at the end Markram delivered nothing, and it looks like the EU-funded one-billion Euro heavy HBP Flagship is about to conclude in 2024 delivering nothing in particular, except of shattered hopes, promises and massive public investments. Even Markram’s once much touted simulation of a tiny fragment of a mouse brain, of one cortical column, draws criticism as being scientifically unreliable. As critics pointed out – how does Markram know if his beautiful simulations reflect anything resembling the biological reality, and not just the guesswork his team fed into his Blue Brain computer?
There was also a mutiny of 800 neuroscientists outside and inside of HBP, right from the start in 2014. Markram was dethroned and even (unofficially) pushed out of his own mega-project. The sulking visionary continued with Swiss government’s money, promising to use his EPFL supercomputer to create a conscious robot mouse (and of course failing). The film tells all that, towards its end trying (sometimes desperately) to find any meaning in Markram’s work.
The European multimillion research project Human Brain Project is under fresh leadership, its visionary founder Henry Markram ousted from power. Worse, both life-and-blood projects of the neuroscience professor at the Swiss elite university EPFL are not performing as he envisioned them to. His open access publishing house Frontiers was dumped by the Nature Publishing Group…
Since I wrote a lot about Markram and HBP, I was very keen to watch Hutton’s film when it premiered in 2020 (I learned of it from a Nature review). It took 2 years for this to happen, now I finally saw it. Spoiler: it is not an investigative documentary uncovering a scandal.
Hutton’s decade-long stint with Markram must be in a way reminiscent of an experience many members of that EPFL lab must have had. They thought they joined a once-a-millenium visionary genius who will change the world, revolutionise both neuroscience and information technology, and cure autism and all other brain diseases on a side. Instead, Markram’s followers got stuck for years with a grumpy, conceited and dogmatic tyrant who apparently does not tolerate criticism and who cannot consider the possibility of being wrong. At least Hutton never depended on Markram for income, he walked out with a completed documentary and a reputation as professional filmmaker. I wonder what most of Markram’s disappointed mentees must have walked out with…
Markram’s project, the film makes clear, failed because it tried to simulate a brain by making false assumptions about biological processes and without having sufficient data about the workings of neuronal systems. Yet for me, it is not even sure this knowledge can be ever obtained in the future, never mind that a brain does not operate like a computer and relies on an organism’s living body to assemble and develop in the first place.
Unlike other big multi-year research projects, Markram’s HBP and BBP never had any meaningful milestones, as critics pointed out in the film. But Markram was never impressed by critics, he rather felt there was a conspiracy against his genius. The only kind of milestones Markram ever sets is, bluntly put, to announce every year to deliver a successful brain simulation in the next 10 years. Or 15 years, or 20 years. For him, it’s literally an “inevitability”.
And his loyal men still seem to believe in the possibility of brain simulation, even as some of them part their ways with Markram. They still think – it’s all just tech issues needing fixing. HBP’s (now retired) staff writer Richard Walker talks about rat cognition being just like a “Windows 95 machine”. One of Markram’s closest friends and collaborators, the Israeli professor Idan Segev, blathers something about “Mercedes mixed with Volkswagen”. Markram’s lab is all about fancy screens and gadgets, the boys like their toys.
As Hutton told me, In Silico was independently financed by grants from the Alfred P Sloan Foundation and the Simons Foundation via Sandbox Films. He also stated to have no financial ties or editorial agreements with Henry Markram or the Blue Brain Project.
My interview with “In Silico” director Noah Hutton (NH):
LS: Why was your film released with such delay? Was Henry Markram (HM) somehow preventing it, and if so, why?
NH: The film initially premiered at DOCNYC in late 2020, a large documentary film festival in New York City. During the festival it was available for people to stream in the U.S. so there were some initial reviews written about it then. It then took over a year to make the rounds at film festivals internationally, find distribution, and finally get the film queued up on streaming platforms for release in September 2022. Definitely on the longer side, but not unheard of for independent films searching for distribution to take that long to make it to the public. There were no other factors preventing or delaying its release.
LS: Did you leave on your own or did HM throw you out as his biographer, to put it bluntly?
NH: At the end of the ten years Henry suggested I continue making my film to track their progress towards a whole mouse brain simulation. I bowed out on my own accord after the ten years were up to make true on my original timeline for the film, which was conceived to match Henry’s ten-year, full-human-brain-simulation forecast in his 2009 TED talk. Then from 2019 into 2020 I was editing the film.
LS: You mentioned in your film that you progressively felt a “lack of meaning” in the Human Brain Project or Markram’s work. Can you elaborate?
NH: I state this in a section of the film that is critical of the abundance of fancy technological gadgets I started to see in the BBP building: curved screens, touchscreen walls, headsets, etc. As a filmmaker I was always looking for the physical changes to the project – where could I see and feel (and thus document) its outputs? I was seeing a lot of this gear, and not a lot of simulated, behaving organisms. Over time the gear started to feel like the most tangible outputs of the project, and I sensed I was not that meaningfully closer to documenting the creation of a simulated, behaving brain as I had been when I started making the film years ago. So I think this feeling of a lack of meaning was in response to a widening gap between the aesthetics of the project and its actual scientific outputs.
LS: My perception is that your film ended up stuck between admiration for HM’s visionary genius and your disappointment of how he failed to deliver anything. Elsewhere, you seem convinced his mouse simulation are doing well. So which is it? Did HM fail or did he kind of succeed?
NH: I think this question captures the essence of the film quite well: stuck, a failure to arrive at its dreams, a ship run aground somewhere in the middle, nowhere near neat answers. So from that vantage point – even at the end of a decade – I can’t flip to one side of the “which is it” binary. I tried along with my producers to shape the film to reflect my truth in this regard: that I was both disappointed and also that I believed it was important to stay open to the possibility that I could be wrong in my criticism of the project, that at a future date they very well may produce results that could truly be helpful for the scientific community. But I would not describe this sentiment as “admiration for HM’s visionary genius,” as you’ve put it. Rather I think he was a wonderful biologist early in his career, and I remain intrigued to see where this will all end up for him, though I leave the decade quite critical of the gap between the aesthetics and scientific outputs, the leadership style, and the mismatch between the overstated, hyped-up timelines and what has actually resulted. While I think some viewers may come into this looking for a cut-and-dry Elizabeth Holmes-type story, I didn’t want the film to feel prescriptive in that way. I think this story is complicated and my aim in putting the film together was to stay true to that.
The EU €1-Billion-Flagship Human Brain Project (HBP) has passed its midterm evaluation with flying colours. Noone knows exactly what the objectives of this bombastic project is, as members of the evaluation panel indicated to me, while others refused to answer this question. The HBP leadership sure keeps the exact definition of these objectives secret, or…
LS: You try to explain the HBP failure with Markram’s model being too precise, while evolution is not, and you reiterate that Deep Blue won against Kasparov because a computer started to introduce mistakes like evolution does. So I am left confused. Are you disappointed that HM applied the wrong method? Do you still think a brain can be simulated in a computer?
NH: The computer didn’t “start to introduce mistakes” – this ascribes it and its human programmers too much intentionality about the mistake, and it is not what I say in the film. The computer hit a bug in its code as a result of a mistake in its programming – a bug which normally the humans would have immediately scrubbed out, had they caught it in time. But in this case, their mistake may have unintentionally played a part in the computer’s victory because of Kasparov’s overreading of the resulting move as being a sign of a chess engine even more sophisticated than he had feared. The point being that an unintentional mistake is what appeared to partially befuddle Kasparov, an episode which holds multiple lessons for me: that mistakes signal the presence of life; that computers may not need to actually be smarter than us to “beat” us – we may do it to ourselves by overinterpreting their actions and then beating ourselves; and lastly, that mistakes drive evolutionary biology and consciousness but are lacking in the digital milieu – they are obsessively scrubbed away in search of the “perfect reconstruction,” as HM puts it in the film, or the perfect random number generator to give us the perfect amount of imperfections in a simulation. But in a most illuminating moment for me, the BBP scientist Lida Kanari admits in the film: “We can never know what’s the right kind of variability.” I’m not disappointed HM “applied the wrong method,” because I don’t pretend to know what the right kind of method is – the point here is that this isn’t just a line of code you can toss into the simulation. I was more searching for the humility in being open about what we don’t know, what’s still a mystery, and even about what we may never know. I think there are aspects of what a brain does that will be simulated in a computer, and other aspects which will likely evade the digital milieu entirely.
LS: In the film, you mention that Markram once berated and warned you not to talk to his critics. Can you say more on this incident? Did it happen only once?
NH: Back in the early years I was posting yearly edits online to track the progress of my film and to try and build an audience. In the third year, I interviewed critics of the BBP for the first time, chiefly Sebastian Seung. I posted my yearly update, and the next time I went to visit BBP, Henry’s project manager sat me down and told me that they weren’t pleased with the fact that I hadn’t told them that I was going to start interviewing critics, and asked if moving forward I would inform them who else I was going to be interviewing for my film. This only happened once, and moving forward I did not tell them or ask them for permission about who else I chose to interview for my film. After the fourth year I stopped posting my yearly update videos online to avoid further complication, and just held onto the footage for the final film. To their credit, they continued to grant me access over the ten years without any final editorial control over my project.
Katrin Amunts is director of Human Brain Project. Back when the Berlin Wall fell, this Moscow-trained young neuroscientist from GDR found a new mentor in Western Germany: Professor Karl Zilles. It is a remarkable story of a literal brain drain.
LS: The film doesn’t show Markram interacting with other scientists except with his lab. Only second-hand, like that one collaborator, who mentions HM’s “visionary” antics. Not even at his HBP with its powerful men: no HM interaction with them, even before the coup. You do introduce us to his private biographer and his project’s science writer. So actually the film creates the impression that Markram is a kind of guru of a devoted sect, operating outside of a scientific community. Is this what his BBP is, an autark sect basically, insulated from scientific debate and criticism by the public money HM raised? Did he try to run HBP in the same way?
NH: I think your impressions here are fair, but I don’t feel I’m in a position to give such a sweeping, totalizing diagnosis. There is truth in what you’re suggesting, but there is some nuance in reality, too: for example, HM and BBP have to pass the periodic scientific reviews that their public funders require, reviews which feature outside scientists coming in to evaluate the project, such as Christof Koch, who mentions in the film that he’d just been to Geneva for a review of BBP (which BBP passed). I just interviewed another widely published, senior neuroscientist recently in the U.S. with no history of receiving funding from BBP/HBP who was also in Geneva a couple years ago for a review of BBP. Henry has to interact and discuss the project with these reviewers quite frequently to keep the funding coming. It’s interesting that the project keeps making it through these reviews – I wasn’t able to capture one in progress, so I don’t know what actually happens or what the takeaways are.
Human Brain Project interview with Thomas Lippert: Simulating brain in computer is like simulating weather
Following is my email interview with Thomas Lippert, professor and director of the Institute for Advanced Simulation and the Jülich Supercomputing Centre at the Forschungszentrum Jülich in the west of Germany, located somewhere between the cities of Cologne and Aachen. Lippert’s FZ Jülich is a central partner at the Human Brain Project (HBP), the Future and Emerging…
LS: But what about scientific collaborations, exchange of ideas at meetings etc. Only Koch has mentioned working with HM, and they last published together in 2015. From your film, Markram came over as a loner, outside the scientific community and running his own sect.
NH: And I agree with your impressions from the film on this point. I just don’t know that the “sect” observation is so unique to BBP though. BBP does have its ongoing outside collaborators from [Javier] Defelipe at the Cajal Institute in Spain to [Idan] Segev in Israel. I guess those labs would be considered part of the “sect” too since they share HM’s vision. I do think the “sectarian” mentality isn’t unique to BBP, I’ve encountered it in different corners of the community, just as with the “connectome” people, and I’ve met a lot of neuroscientists over the years who seem like they’ve gotten their line of funding established and then sort of do their own thing for decades with their trusted close collaborators who you could describe as loners to a degree as well. I’m not saying that’s a healthy model, but I don’t know that that fact alone is unique to BBP or terribly worthy of condemnation. We can just look at the actual science and see if their output has been helpful to the community / helpful to humanity more generally, even if they seem rather closed off in their collaborations and exchanges – and in the case of BBP, that’s where one of my main criticisms does reside.
LS: Markram once mentioned something about using his simulated brain to design molecules to “raise IQ”. Did he say more in this regard, plans for enhancing intelligence?
NH: This was only mentioned that one time, in the first interview I ever filmed with him. After that first year I noticed that Henry dropped some of those more grandiose sci-fi claims about where BBP was heading and what the simulation might be able to do someday, but he certainly didn’t drop all of them.
The Lausanne-based publishing house Frontiers, founded by the neuroscientists Henry and Kamila Markram, has been added to the Beall’s List of potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers. Was this decision justified? I wish to share here some of my recent investigations.
LS: Why did you never mention that HM and his second wife Kamila Markram own a huge publishing house, Frontiers, where HM also published his own research?
NH: If BBP had published their big 2015 Cell paper in Frontiers instead, I think the fact that Henry and Kamila own Frontiers would have made it into the film. I know they’ve published smaller papers in Frontiers, but that was the only paper we explicitly covered in the film. In general the Frontiers story always felt too big and too adjacent to get into for what I was doing, which was essentially following the ten-year promise specific to the BBP and Henry’s simulation neuroscience work to see where it actually ended up after a decade. The Frontiers story and an overall examination of what’s broken in scientific publishing deserves its own film, really. I think you’ve been doing excellent reporting on that story over the years on this website, so I’m grateful to you for your work on this subject.
Henry Markram deployed his Blue Brain supercomputer to crack COVID-19, thanks to Open Access and Frontiers. He now announces to use the technology to “address so many other diseases, accelerate science, and help save the planet from climate change”
LS: I understood Markram was making a documentary of his own? Can you tell more? Is it out already?
NH: At the end of my film, he’s working on a promotional film for BBP. I haven’t seen it released anywhere online and I haven’t heard anything about it since then, and I am out of touch with them now.
LS: I guess you played Strauss’ Blue Danube as soundtrack because Markram used it for his BBP promo video, and because of Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey?
LS: About Markram’s lab – from your film I had the feeling it was mostly men, at least in important positions. Is this true?
NH: This is true.
The EU €1-Billion-Flagship Human Brain Project (HBP) started in 2013 as an closed enterprise run by three men. The triumvirate is no more: the visionary founder Henry Markram sidelined into almost insignificance after a coup, his Lausanne colleague Richard Frackowiak almost retired, only the German Karlheinz Meier, physics professor at University of Heidelberg, still seems to hold quite a lot of sway.…
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