Human Brain Project Kicks-Off

Posted on October 7, 2013 by TheSaint in Artifical Life

So it comes to pass that mankind is about to embark on a massive attempt to model the human brain computationally.  This is very exciting for me personally because, as my regular readers are aware, the study of artificial life has been a long standing hobby of mine which inadvertently resulted in the creation of  gaming technologies like Direct3D.

The Human Brain Project kicks off Oct. 7 at a conference in Switzerland. Over the next 10 years, about 80 science institutions and at least 20 government entities in Europe will figure out how to make that computer brain. The project will cost about $10 billion euros — or about $1.3B in US dollars.”

Human Brain Project

It’s huge, ambitious, exciting and all that good stuff, but I must confess  to having some hugely mixed feelings about this endeavor.  When I see these giant government price tags I can’t help thinking; Or you could just wait for 10 years for the technology to catch up to your ambitions and solve it for $200M sort of like Craig Venter did with the Human Genome Project.    That’s a minor concern however compared to my deeper instinct that it’s doomed to horrible costly never ending failure by virtue of simply starting out wildly misguided.

This line kind of says it all.

“The research hinges on creating a super-powerful computer that’s 1,000 times faster than those in use today. If you’re keeping track, that’s an “exascale” supercomputer, one fast enough to model a nuclear explosion or the complex, planetwide forces that shape the climate. Just a few years ago, scientists started using “petascale” supercomputers like Blue Waters at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) in Illinois that went online last year.”


“You are all idiots!”

Let’s break these claims down a bit for rational consumption.  The research doesn’t “hinge” on creating a big enough computer, it hinges on developing a DEEP insight into the nature of biological computation.  Without new insight (which costs nothing) all they will learn is that they have a huge computer gathering dust that they don’t know how to use.


NASA gets a costly education on why it’s climate models don’t work


NASA successfully duplicates its first experiment in figuring out why its climate models don’t work by blowing up a second climate satellite over Antarctica

Yeah… about that planet wide climate modeling… these geniuses IMAGINED that they could do that in 1997 and completely failed to predict anything correctly about how our climate evolves, in fact they also failed to launch two rockets which blew up over the Antarctic Ocean in an effort to try to figure out WHY their climate models were failing.  Oddly, they got a decisive answer for the hundreds of millions they spent on failed climate satellite launches… your models don’t work for the same reasons your rockets explode on launch…. YOU ARE IDIOTS with PhD’s.  I thought we mathematicians and computer scientists had been pretty clear on the whole “We can’t model turbulent systems with any amount of computer power AND we can never know the initial state of a real-world system with sufficient precision to simulate it even if we could”  If that were even REMOTELY feasible we’d be hearing about these researchers funding their projects with Lotto winnings or from tapping out the stock market… hasn’t happened yet and neither of these problems are even in the same ballpark of complexity as climate and brain modeling.  I think one of the REQUIREMENTS for getting government funding to computationally model ANYTHING should be demonstrating that you can match your grant dollars with your online AI Poker winnings.  Back in 1997 while the IPCC geniuses where consuming our tax dollars pretending to predict the weather my Mathematica AI projects were supporting me with income.  If you’re not bright enough to  model simple economic systems that can pay for themselves,  should you be getting government support?  Again, I point to Craig Venter, who was not only smart enough to sequence the Human Genome with a fraction of the resources of the multi-billion dollar Human Genome effort… he was able to fund his work privately!  It all smacks of a giant academic boondoggle to justify massive research grants forever.

brain-jar_0032736778-20Another reason for my skepticism about all of this is that every approach they are discussing involves studying and modeling a brain… as though they are complete organisms that can be raised in terrariums.  Don’t we already know that when we raise a brain in isolation from the real-world it just goes nuts… in fact if we take a working brain and isolate it for even a few hours it goes nuts.  I’m pretty sure we don’t need to spend 10 years and 1.3 billion dollars also discovering that brains don’t work very well when you remove them from bodies… Since nobody has ever managed to actually keep a living brain in a jar and measure it’s function we don’t even know if the rest of the organism is NECESSARY to it working correctly… by the way… I’m going to venture WAY OUT on a speculative scientific limb and assert that the answer to that great unsolved scientific mystery is that the complete organism is VITAL to a brains correct operation and development.  Crazy, I know, now they’ll also be calling me a Human Brain Project Denier… clearly there is a consensus of more PhD’s than I can argue with that this is a BRILLIANT venture fully justifying the vast investment everybody is so eager to make.  At least the Human Genome Project had a completely measurable goal.  These guys seem to be suggesting that 10 years from now they’ll have a giant disembodied virtual brain doing brilliant rational things without any intimate connection to the rest of reality.  I guess the whole “landing humans on Mars” thing  was a little too “tangible” for everybody’s tastes… too easy for the rest of us footing the bill to measure their progress.  These scientists are wising up however, the well must have dried up after the whole Higgs Boson discovery thing so it occurred to them that it would be much brighter to dream up a giant costly scientific endeavor that has no tangible goal!

Is it just me or is there something pathetically humorous about spending 1.3 Billion dollars trying to use a delusional blob of thinking jello composed of 76% water that consumes roughly 100 Watts of power to analyze it’s own design by building a computer many thousands of times larger and more powerful?  They must have gotten the idea from Douglas Adams.  I think the computers answer will be:  “You are now no closer to duplicating a brain by that approach than your TRS-80 is to designing an iPad… may I suggest using your PhD’s to wrap some fish?”

I know what Moulder on X-Files must have felt like… I WANT to believe… but every way I examine these ventures I end up finding a weather balloon or a guy throwing dinner plates in front of a camera instead of an actual UFO.  This doesn’t smell like science it smells like make-work research for academics.

In a tragic related news story:

Yeah…  I’m stricken… how can we let the Swiss surpass us in silly research spending!  Where is our national pride!  I can just see those smug Swiss researchers sitting around in their lab coats sipping their Swiss Miss hot chocolate and picking their teeth with those little Swiss Army Knife toothpicks laughing at our incompetence at rationalizing MASSIVE spending on science fiction research projects. F**KING SWISS! STUPID CONGRESS!  I’m shattered… really…



  1. I’m going to disagree with the issue you have with government research funding. While I agree that it is better to get funding from the private sector, sometimes the government is the only entity able to take risks that do pay off. If it weren’t for government backed research we wouldn’t have a space program, GPS, fission reactors. Even the internet was originally a government research project. The spending can be well worth it, the human genome mapping project payed off the giant government pricetag in full. I’ve read estimates that it gave a huge return on investment (more than 10 times the revenue came back from it). It was completely worth it.

    At the same time, I share your skepticism, and you aren’t the only one. Let me tell a story… I was at IJCNN in Dallas this past August. It’s a large conference on Neural Networks. I went to a talk about the BRAIN initiative by a scientist who was on some advisory committee at the White House. He gave this elaborate speech about how we need to measure signals from thousands of neurons at once and record massive amounts of data, and mine this data to gain an understanding. He went on about how this will require new techniques to be developed and inspire a new generation of scientists, similar to the space program, going to the moon, and all that (this is going from memory, I might be off, but it was along these line).

    It seemed someone at the conference had planned for his speech and was ready to offer a rebuttal. I think this guy had been one of the conference organizers or something which was how he was able to get up and speak afterwards. He quite passionately proclaimed that this was a terrible approach. He said recording a ton of data will get us nowhere, “WE HAVE ENOUGH DATA, WE NEED NEW THEORY” was his loud proclamation. He had other things to rebut as well, but my memory fails. Many of them were along the lines of your criticisms here (no measurable goal was one point). It was quite entertaining to watch actually – I am glad someone was bold enough to do it, these things do need to be said and heard.

    Personally, I believe there are some fundamental, probably simple things about the brain that we have no grasp on. I think there are general techniques or algorithm that the brain uses to do everything. I don’t have a citation, but I’ve read that some scientists switched some stem cells around in baby mice that caused the types of cells that from in the auditory region to form in the visual region and vice versa. These mice were able to see and hear without issue, and that indicates that their cortex is made of “stuff” that can learn to specialize off into processing visual or auditory signals. We like to map regions of the brain and study it as though it’s a complex system of parts without realizing that the magic thing we really need to be studying is how it learned to specialize into those parts to begin with. It seems as though there is a general technique that it follows, and it is plastic in the sense that you can swap things around and it will still develop into a system of specialized parts.

    On a different topic, I do share your skepticism with climate change science, and your disdain for “consensus” view. As someone more on the math and engineering side of things, it bothers me when someone says “most scientists believe …” as though that gives any weight at all. I would much rather deal with actually hard evidence and reasons for an argument than what “most experts agree on.” I could not imagine going to a math class and theorems being introduced as “what most mathematicians believe” – that would be preposterous. Funny that is EXACTLY what they would say in humanities classes “most professional historians believe …”, but now I digress.


    • Hey Ben, obviously we disagree on the usefulness of the government confiscating private sector funds for research, I’m a fiscal conservative so I believe the money is always more efficiently invested by the private sector, ESPECIALLY when risk investing is involved because that is when the market is at its best at assessing the value of such investments. I would much rather have Bill Gates keep his billions and decide how he wants to spend them on Malaria research than have a government bureaucracy confiscate it and place the decisions about investing it in the hands of America’s LEAST qualified investors.

      Yeah, I’m not just skeptical on this one I’m afraid. To me it’s a pretty apparent pseudo-science initiative. I think genuine scientists know what an implausible premise this is, but apparently the story is working to get them funding. I’d be thrilled about it and signing up for a post myself if what they are proposing to do made any damn sense.

      Yeah, let’s see if we can name a few great “consensus deniers” in science
      shall I continue? Absurd, insulting and disgusting. This is the real reason you have to keep governments AWAY from science, it ceases to be science and becomes political propaganda.

      • Feynman worked for the goverment not for private companies like Einstein.
        In fact the only one in that list that actully worked for private companies were Nikols Tesla and he were cheated by them.

        • Well, yes I can confirm that making nuclear weapons has traditionally been the exclusive domain of governments… good point Alex… and nothing good ever came from private research… other than maybe the electrical grid… well and phones… er… and modern computers… cars… radio… cameras… the light bulb… other than that… capitalism has been a disastrous waste of time.

          wait a second… who was it that sentenced Galileo to life in prison?

  2. What’s up! Hilarious post, I liked it very much. It’s just very interesting that you find 1,3 billion dollars a MASSIVE spending. I invite you to guess how much money does pharma industry spend on advertisement every year. I mean, really… advertisement! Here is a study about that: , and just in case you feel lazy reading it, here is a citation:
    “Between 1996 and 2005, these firms globally spent a total of US$739 billion on “marketing and administration”.

    739 billion just to prove that their aspirin is better than their competitor’s aspirin.

    • Big pharma isn’t wasting OUR tax dollars on silly faux-research endeavor’s. Nobody goes to jail if they don’t want to voluntarily buy aspirin, people do go to jail if they don’t want to pay their taxes.


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