“In Silico” – the future is now, or is it? [MOVIE REVIEW]

Henry Markram in "In Silica." Photo courtesy of Sandbox Films.

Computer simulation of nerve cells deep inside a neocortical column in “In Silico.” Photo courtesy of Sandbox Films.

When 22 year old Noah Hutton met neuroscientist Henry Markram in 2009, he was dazzled. Markram’s TED talk had set the world on fire when he claimed he was on the verge of simulating a brain with a super computer. He had already started recreating a column of the neo-cortex and from there he would be able to put together all the pieces of the puzzle and produce a working rat brain by using artificial intelligence and a supercomputer. His Swiss lab in Lausanne, the Blue Brain Project, was lavishly sponsored by IBM with additional funding by the Swiss government. He popularized the expression – In silico. Experiments conducted “in vivo” are on living organisms or cells; “in vitro” are run outside the organism; and “in silico” are computer simulated.

Markram told Hutton that he would have a working model in ten years’ time and it was then that Hutton knew he had to document this journey, year by year, from 2009 until the target date of 2019.

Markram, charming, brilliant, and persuasive, led a group of devoted computer scientists in his quest. Painstakingly modeling a miniscule area of the brain, he simulated a column of nerve cells that he considered a prototype for all parts of the brain. Envision, if you will, a brain into which you drill a tiny cylindrical hole from top to bottom. Simplistically, it is somewhat akin to drilling for oil using a core tool in one spot of a field. You make a hole and hope for the best. It is possible to know everything about that one hole, including if there is oil, but, other than the rudimentary geography, each part of the terrain will yield similar but different results. Some may have oil, others not. The same is true for the brain.

When Markram stated, in essence, that he would be able to clone his column to create similar columns, ultimately resulting in a model of the brain, the neuroscience world erupted. Markram became one of the most controversial scientists in the field. Many prominent neuroscientists understood the brilliance of his past work and the methods he proposed to use. What they objected to was his brushing aside the intricacies and actual connections that make up the living organism. On his side were the computer scientists and artificial intelligence gurus who have always maintained that with enough data a computer can accomplish anything. This may be true, but as was pointed out by many prominent neuroscientists, the amount of data necessary was still very much lacking.

But each year, Hutton became more convinced that Markram was being vilified and that his approach would yield the necessary results. In 2013 the European Commission announced that they would fund two projects to the tune of one billion Euros each. The Human Brain Project, with Markram as the lead investigator, was awarded one of the grants to attempt to unravel the mysteries of the brain. It was a generous and lofty goal and one that Markram still claimed was possible through computer analysis. He had, by this time, cloned his original column into other parts of the brain.

There was no cohesive structure or plan for this funding. While a majority of it went to Markram, the rest was divided up into grants to other leading neuroscientists with no clear rationale. The grand Human Brain Project soon began to fray, not at the edges, but with Markram at the center. Unhappy with his leadership, goals, and execution, 800 leading neuroscientists released a letter in 2015 delineating their distress about Markram, the distribution of funds, and the lack of focus.

Led by Zachary Mainen, a prominent American neuroscientist who has been director of the Campalimaud Neuroscience Programme in Lisbon, Portugal, the objections related not just to Markram’s poor leadership of the very disorganized Human Brain Project, but also to the emphasis on computer design at the expense of animal and human modeling and the gross overstatements of his progress.

Henry Markram in “In Silica.” Photo courtesy of Sandbox Films.

By 2015, the veil was beginning to lift on Markram’s smoke and mirror. Hutton was still sympathetic. How could he not be? It seemed to him that Markram was being attacked because his vision was so much greater than the rest of the scientific community. At this point in the film, however, the viewer should be seeing that much of what is being promised by Markram and his Big Blue group is a house of cards.

Markram is a messianic figure. You are in his camp completely or not. Even losing his leadership role in the Human Brain Project does not diminish the Swiss government’s faith in one of their most famous scientists and their funding continued unabated.

Hutton, initially hypnotized by Markram’s vision and goals, becomes more circumspect as the ten year timeline is within sight. No, Markram did not come close to achieving his objective. Dazzled by the idea that computers and artificial intelligence would answer the unexplained, Hutton ends up with a slightly more realistic view.

The unintended result of Hutton’s documentary is an illustration of how the desire for money, power, and fame corrupts even a relatively pure endeavor. In 2019 Markram declares that it will take more time to create that artificial brain, but he is still confident it can be done in, perhaps, another 20 to 30 years.

Several renowned neuroscientists are interviewed briefly on their reactions to Markram’s statements and computer-generated brain research. There is a consensus among even his most stringent critics, Mainen being the most straightforward and articulate, that Markram is a brilliant scientist who went off the rails. Hutton, still clinging to Markram’s initial vision, hedges his bets.

Now 32, Hutton is perhaps a bit more cognizant about research on the brain. He still clings to his theory that the brain was made by tiny little accidents. I hope he means evolution because if not, he hasn’t learned much in his ten years.

In an effort to disclose all facts, I watched this film with a neuroscientist. Although the emotional aspects of “In Silico” are in no need of an interpreter, I did need help with the science­­—it is complicated for people like me. But rest assured. In the end, this isn’t about science. It’s about the universals of power, greed, ego, and fame. Enjoy.

Part of DOC NYC 2020, “In Silico” opens November 11. During the festival you may purchase tickets by going to the DOCs NYC website or clicking: Purchase tickets here


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