Ever since the European Union announced a proposal to fund new decade-long science initiatives worth one billion Euros ($1.3 billion U.S. dollars), the human brain project spearheaded by Dr Henry Markram is in the news, not just for its benefits but also for the controversies it generates. Science journal Nature reports the story.
The HBP is Dr Henry Markram’s pet proposal: Creating a computer-based human brain. Virtual brain: A high-powered super computer that simulates and integrates every aspect of human brain. The idea is to collect all research data available on human brain and integrate them into a supercomputer that would simulate the functioning of the human brain. Such a supercomputer would have to be an exaflop that may be available by 2020.
Dr Henry Markram, a South African born neuroscientist working at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich), is convinced that a supercomputer that simulates every function of human brain is the only way neuroscientists understand brain in its totality. He is skeptical about the present settings of neuroscience research where scientists study the brain in a compartmentalized fashion. He believes such approach would not take us too far in understanding an incredibly complex organ like the human brain. Simulation research is the toast of the season; be it aeronautical research, drug research, animal research, military research, simulation has invaded every field of scientific research. Dr. Henry Markram thinks neuroscience research must take the leap sooner than later. Sounds convincing? No. The opponents of the proposal are not ready to bite the bait.
Critics site Dr. Markram’s another pet project, the Blue Brain Project, simulating rat brain cortex, still struggling to make any great advance in neuroscience research as was originally claimed. The brain is not just an isolated organ, it is in continuous contact with all parts of the body. Without inputs from sensory organs and outputs to other body parts a simulation system may not get too far, claim opponents of the proposal. Critics are also not very happy with Dr. Markram’s style of using the media to fight his case; they expect him to travel the hard path of convincing scientific minds with compelling evidence. Most importantly, the opponents are concerned about the bill; they are in no mood to allow a computer simulation project to swallow one billion Euros.
Henry Markem and his detractors are on a cantankerous course that would result in the European neuroscience research catapulting into either innovative trajectory or penurious starvation. One billion Euros is a lot of money; investing such large sum on a risky project would leave other neuroscientists struggling for research funding in Europe, especially Switzerland. Meanwhile, Dr. Markam is hopeful the European Union will approve his project.
Computer modelling: Brain in a box, Nature 482, 456-458 (23 February 2012)