Media cat and mouse game with brain simulations

Henry Markram, leader of the Blue Brain neural tissue simulation project, has sent an angry email to IBM following their widely-reported but misleading announcement that they’d created a simulation as complex as a cat brain.

This has come some months after similar headlines declared that an equivalent of a ‘mouse brain’ had been simulated by the IBM-affiliated Blue Brain project.

The initial claims were clearly false, as the project only aims to simulate cortical columns, a type of highly organised brain tissue that is common in the cortex, and the most recent simulation to make the headlines is even more simple.

Even the Blue Brain project, which is attempting realistic biological simulations, is not aiming to simulate the complexity or the function of a whole brain, in the same way that a simulation of muscle tissue, no matter how accurate, is clearly not going to produce an artificial human.

In an email which was copied to several leading science publications, project leader Henry Markram takes IBM’s PR department and one of their cognitive computing researchers to task for ‘stupid statements’ and ‘mass deception of the public’ – and those statements are some of the tamer ones. Here are points 1-3:

1. These are point neurons (missing 99.999% of the brain; no branches; no detailed ion channels; the simplest possible equation you can imagine to simulate a neuron, totally trivial synapses; and using the STDP learning rule I discovered in this way is also is a joke).

2. All these kinds of simulations are trivial and have been around for decades – simply called artificial neural network (ANN) simulations. We even stooped to doing these kinds of simulations as bench mark tests 4 years ago with 10’s of millions of such points before we bought the Blue Gene/L. If we (or anyone else) wanted to we could easily do this for a billion “points”, but we would certainly not call it a cat-scale simulation. It is really no big deal to simulate a billion points interacting if you have a big enough computer. The only step here is that they have at their disposal a big computer. For a grown up “researcher” to get excited because one can simulate billions of points interacting is ludicrous.

3. It is not even an innovation in simulation technology. You don’t need any special “C2 simulator”, this is just a hoax and a PR stunt. Most neural network simulators for parallel machines can can do this today. Nest, pNeuron, SPIKE, CSIM, etc, etc. all of them can do this! We could do the same simulation immediately, this very second by just loading up some network of points on such a machine, but it would just be a complete waste of time – and again, I would consider it shameful and unethical to call it a cat simulation.

It’s a stinging response from someone clearly annoyed at the misrepresentation of this sort of biological simulation work.

If you want to get a good handle on the aims of the Blue Brain project at least, Jonah Lehrer’s piece for Seed is the best you’re likely to read for a while.

Link to Markram’s email in IEEE Spectrum (via @Neurotechnology)

One Comment

  1. Posted December 2, 2009 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    It can’t be that hard to simulate a cat’s brain. I mean a large grey box with a speaker system programmed to meow at hourly intervals until you pour food into it would be 99% accurate.


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