Noah Hutton was stuck. As a budding filmmaker with a passion for neuroscience, Hutton couldn’t quite identify the right subject for a documentary on brain research.
Then he saw Henry Markram’s 2009 TED Talk. In the video, Markram, a neuroscientist at the Swiss Federal Institute for Technology (EPFL) in Switzerland and founder of the Blue Brain Project, describes his mission to build a detailed computer model of the human brain in a decade.
“We can do it within 10 years,” Markram told the rapt crowd. “And if we do succeed, we will send to TED, in 10 years, a hologram to talk to you.”
Hutton contacted Markram, who granted the filmmaker access to track the project for the next 10 years. Hutton could already imagine the climax of the documentary in his head: Markram flips a switch and activates the first fully simulated human brain.
That’s not anywhere close to what happened, yet the true story is just as sensational. Hutton’s resulting film, In Silico—premiering at theaters and online April 30th—chronicles the transformation of Markram’s vision into the billion-euro funded Human Brain Project, and its subsequent implosion, including the ousting of Markram as leader.
IEEE Spectrum sat down with Hutton to discuss the making of the documentary, including why he was initially drawn to Markram—and why Hutton ultimately had to walk away from him.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
IEEE Spectrum: What was your initial impression of Markram and his goal to simulate a human brain in silico?
Hutton: I was taken by it. As an undergraduate studying neuroscience, I had been assigned Henry’s papers, some of the cornerstone papers in the field of recording individual neurons in mammalian brains. So when he said he had a way to potentially simulate a whole brain and understand the human brain by doing it, I was both impressed by the audacity of it and I really believed that it was possible—that he had found a way to do it.
A few years in, I woke up to reality that there were many critics of this endeavor. I had seen their comments posted on the TED talk initially, but I had bought into the mission wholesale so I didn’t take the criticisms seriously. When I interviewed the critics, I started to understand the actual scientific basis of the criticisms better. There were not just scientific disagreements, but also leadership issues and big differences in personalities.
I thought everyone had the best of intentions at heart and egos wouldn’t get in the way, but it all turned out to be messier than I imagined.
IEEE Spectrum: You include many of those critics in the documentary. Can you describe some of the concerns they raised about the Human Brain Project (HBP)?
Hutton: There is a line of criticism from the connectomics crowd, chief among them Sebastian Seung and Jeff Lichtman, who leveled the critique that the endeavor of simulating an entire mouse brain, let alone a human brain, was premature because of a lack of crucial data. That data, they said, would only be supplied by slicing up real brains and tracing all the connections to establish the connectome for an organism.
Another family of criticisms came from behavioral and cognitive neuroscientists. They suggested you could build this whole simulation, but it would potentially be unable to recreate biologically realistic behavior—and would therefore be unhelpful.
Other people I came across believed [the whole thing] was an impossibility, and it was a waste of time and public funding to even try to build a realistic simulation of an entire brain.
IEEE Spectrum: In 2014, more than 800 neuroscientists signed an open letter threatening to boycott HBP projects unless an independent mediation committee reviewed the science and the management of the organization (which it did). As you were following the project, at what point did you sense things beginning to unravel?
Hutton: It was specifically a moment within the film: The HBP annual summit in Heidelberg in 2014, right after the open letter was published. The mediation committee hadn’t begun their work yet, although the head of the mediation committee was there in the audience. It was a very tense moment, because the leaders of HBP, Henry included, were trying to forge ahead as if this would be a bump in the road and the project would continue and save face. But the year following that summit, it didn’t go that way; Henry was asked to step down from the leadership committee.
After that, I saw Henry go back to focusing on the Blue Brain Project, and they relaunched the timeline. It was going to be another 10 years to simulate the human brain. It felt like nobody was following the original timeline except for me.
IEEE Spectrum: After that shake-up, there’s a heartbreaking scene in the film where Markram stands you up for an interview. Did he continue to grant you access in the last few years when he was back at Blue Brain Project?
Hutton: Yeah, he did. Credit to him and the project for letting me in: I was totally independent and I greatly admire them for allowing me to keep coming back. At same time, Henry and the project were asking me gently if I would consider continuing to make the film, as opposed to wrapping it up at that point, since there was no whole mouse brain or other big and triumphant milestone that the world would pay attention to. But I decided at that point to keep the promise to myself to make a 10-year film, and they continued to be cordial and set up interviews through year 10.
IEEE Spectrum: In the film, you describe conflicting feelings: When you’d speak with Markram, you’d believe in his vision; when you talked to critics, you’d doubt it. Now that you’ve finished the film, where do you land?
Hutton: It would be unscientific to decide, based on my narrow window into all this, that it is impossible and flawed and never going to happen. I think the design of the project may have been flawed and it may take much more time than original promise, but more than anything else, my criticism, having finished the film, is more about the salesmanship and hype that this project is representative of. I think the film captured the decade of that phenomenon, of the Silicon Valley ethos of moving fast and breaking things making its way into the corridors of neuroscience.
IEEE Spectrum: I won’t give away ending of the movie here, but I found it to be especially poignant. Tell us your final takeaway: Do you think a supercomputer simulation of the human brain is possible and worthwhile?
Hutton: Will there someday be a massive simulation, maybe run on quantum computers, that achieves processing power similar to the human brain? Very probably. But will it be worthwhile? It depends who’s building it and what they’re building it for. I think questions of eventual uses of the simulation raise many ethical and moral concerns, especially when the research is sometimes funded by defense departments around the world.
I did start this project with a real hope and belief that this simulation could actually help people. I do believe Henry comes from a place of genuinely wanting to help his son Kai, who has autism, and I was moved by that. I, too, want to hold out hope it could help people.
In Silico is available to stream online via local movie theaters in North America starting April 30th. Visit insilicofilm.com to find out where to watch.
Megan is an award-winning freelance journalist based in Boston, Massachusetts, specializing in the life sciences and biotechnology. She was previously a health columnist for the Boston Globe and has contributed to Newsweek, Scientific American, and Nature, among others. She is the co-author of a college biology textbook, “Biology Now,” published by W.W. Norton. Megan received an M.S. from the Graduate Program in Science Writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a B.A. at Boston College, and worked as an educator at the Museum of Science, Boston.