12-1-09 Update: An explanation of the controversy.
Last week, IBM announced that they had simulated a brain with the number of neurons and synapses present in a cat’s brain.
In February 2008, the National Academy of Engineering issued a grand challenge to reverse engineer the human brain, sweetening a pot neuroscientists had already been stirring for a long time. There are as many theories of mind as there are researchers working on it, and in some cases there is a real grudge match between the theorists. And maybe it’s because they’re both affiliated with IBM in some way, but it seems that none of these are more bloody than the one between IBM Almaden’s Dharmendra Modha and EPFL’s Henry Markram.
So it wasn’t strictly a surprise when Henry Markram, the lead on the EPFL Blue Brain project, took umbrage at the publicity IBM’s project received last week. He sent the following letter to IBM CTO Bernard Meyerson, CCing many members of the media, including reporters from the UK Daily Mail, Die Zeit, Wired, Discover, Forbes, and me.
You told me you would string this guy up by the toes the last time Mohda made his stupid statement about simulating the mouse’s brain.
I thought that having gone through Blue Brain so carefully, journalists would be able to recognize that what IBM reported is a scam - no where near a cat-scale brain simulation, but somehow they are totally deceived by these incredible statements.
I am absolutely shocked at this announcement. Not because it is any kind of technical feat, but because of the mass deception of the public.
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.
4. This is light years away from a cat brain, not even close to an ants brain in complexity. It is highly unethical of Mohda to mislead the public in making people believe they have actually simulated a cat’s brain. Absolutely shocking.
5. There is no qualified neuroscientist on the planet that would agree that this is even close to a cat’s brain. I see he did not stop making such stupid statements after they claimed they simulated a mouse’s brain.
6. You should also ask Mohda where he got the notion of “reverse engineering” from, when he does not even know what it means - look the the models - this has nothing to do with reverse engineering. And mouse, rat, cat, primate, human - ask him where he took that from? Simply a PR stunt here to ride on Blue Brain.
That IBM and DARPA would support such deceptive announcements is even more shocking.
That the Bell prize would be awarded for such nonsense is beyond belief. I never realized that such trivial and unethical behavior would actually be rewarded. I would have expected an ethics committee to string this guy up by the toes.
I suppose it is up to me to let the “cat out of the bag” about this outright deception of the public.
Competition is great, but this is a disgrace and extremely harmful to the field. Obviously Mohda would like to claim he simulated the Human brain next - I really hope someone does some scientific and ethical checking up on this guy.
All the best,
Sally Adee, formerly an associate editor at IEEE Spectrum, is now a technology features editor at New Scientist, in London. She says it was an honor to write her last feature for Spectrum about the European Space Agency’s Loredana Bessone, a woman she considers a role model. “One day, I’m going to hit her up at ESA to start training me as an astronaut,” she says with a wink. “Right after I get sick of playing roller derby in London.”