Monday, July 18, 2016

The Laborious Delivery of Markram’s Brainchild

So much for Markram the Entrepreneur and Inventor. But he is first and foremost a scientist, whose research proposal received the biggest research funding grant in history: one billion Euros from the European Union, for his “brainchild” (as journalists dubbed it), the Human Brain Project. The modest promise Markram originally made to secure this mind-boggling mountain of cash: he intended to simulate the entire human brain in his supercomputer by 2023, the possibility of artificial consciousness specifically not excluded. Now however, his consortium partners took over, Markram was dethroned in a scientists’ coup and pushed aside to tinker on his seemingly less ambitious, but just as science-fictionary mouse Blue Brain simulation. Once in control of almost everything and everyone, with all the big money going through his hands, Markram is now only one of 12 project leaders and far from being the boss. The Human Brain Project (HBP) became instead a kind of funding network without any properly defined orientation, not even the new leaders could convincingly describe any defined goals. Instead, its main purpose seems to be now set on keeping the EU funding of almost €50 Million per year flowing. Remarkably, all this was achieved after an allegedly independent mediation by the director of an HBP-consortium partner institute; coincidentally a member scientist from this Jülich Research Centre (Forschungszentrum Jülich, located in a rural triangle between German cities Düsseldorf, Cologne and Aachen) is now the new scientific director of HBP.

This is how the dream of the brain-in-the-box grew, prospered and imploded.


Why did EU politicians and bureaucrats fall for such naive science fiction as HBP in the first place? There was one important promise Markram made which everyone could get behind: abolishing invasive animal experiments, and in neuroscience this often means the ethically highly sensitive issue of non-human primates. Not only basic science, also future human medicine development was to be done using his in silico models of human brains (plus those of “mice, rats, cats, and monkeys”, probably also badgers and giraffes as well, time permitting). Reducing animal experimenting is indeed a very noble goal, and one can understand (up to a degree) why so many became excited by the unscientific bigmouth proposal. If nothing else, the lack of sufficient life science education among our politicians, bureaucrats and unfortunately also science journalists is to blame for this. Markram declared in his TED-Talk:
“We cannot keep doing animal experimentation forever, and we have to embody all our data and all our knowledge into a working model. It’s like a Noah’s Ark”.
Later on, when HBP criticisms became serious, the Swiss visionary insisted he never said that his virtual brain would make animal experiments obsolete.

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