tilting at windmills

'In Silico:' Director Noah Hutton reveals how one neuroscientist's pursuit of perfection went awry

"They still haven’t even simulated a whole mouse brain. I realized halfway through the 10-year point that the human brain probably wasn’t going to happen."

by Nadja Sayej

In a 2009 TED Talk, Israeli neuroscientist Henry Markram made a shocking claim: he was going to create a machine version of human brain within 10 years.

The project was catnip to filmmaker Noah Hutton, who began documenting Markram's quest. Ultimately, Hutton followed Markram for a decade — but the scientist's lofty goal remains conspicuously incomplete. The resulting film, In Silico, finally makes its world premiere as part of the online version of the DOC NYC film festival on November 11.

The film traces Markram’s journey with the Blue Brain Project and the Human Brain Project, from the project’s inception to its $1.4 billion in funding from the European Commission — and how Markram failed to meet his 10-year goal by 2019.

Henry Markram's divisive quest to map the human brain is subject of new documentary, 'In Silico.'

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Following a neuroscientist for a decade reveals a lot of highs and lows. Hutton presents the controversies by interviewing both the Human Brain Project team and its critics, including Princeton neuroscientist Sebastian Seung, researcher Zach Mainen at the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown based in Portugal, and experimental cognitive psychologist Stanislas Dehane, who is professor at Collège de France in Paris.

The film also features candid interviews with neuroscientists Christof Koch, who head's up the Allen Institute's MindScope Program, Harvard University's Jeremy R. Knowles Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology Jeff W. Lichtman. Neuroscientists Idan Segev of Hebrew University in Israel, Cori Bargmann, Torsten N. Weisel Professor of Genetics and Genomics and Neuroscience and Behavior at Rockefeller University, and Cold Spring Harbor Lab professor Anne Churchland also feature.

Watch the trailer here:

In a competitive field like neuroscience, how does a documentary filmmaker present science accurately? The film’s portrayal of Markram isn't sympathetic, but it also isn’t inhumane. While Markram’s team attempts to pin down a new deadline to complete the Human Brain Project (we still don’t know when it will be done), the film reveals that Markram’s team are also planning to do their own documentary.

Hutton spoke to Inverse from New York about being ghosted by Markram, the Wild West of neuroscience, and getting to the core of this controversial project.

Why did you want to follow Henry Markram in 2009? Did you see his TED talk and think, “wow?”

Noah Hutton: I studied neuroscience in undergrad, where I studied his papers, he was a hero to me as a student. He was pivoting and announcing this wild new brain project with a timeline: 10 years. I was getting into filmmaking and realized a major part of science films is knowing when they end. Science can be so open-ended. Questions about the brain are so enormous. I thought: “Here’s a timeline attached to a project, and for me as a filmmaker, it makes me feel like I could get to an ending at the end of that decade.”

What was it like following around Markram for 10 years?

Hutton: They still haven’t even simulated a whole mouse brain. I realized halfway through the 10-year point that the human brain probably wasn’t going to happen. There was so much controversy at that point with the open letter against the project from other neuroscientists, who came out against him, that I learned even if they didn’t make the human brain, the journey would be controversial.

In the first few years, I followed only the team. Then, I started talking to critics.

Do you feel you have a clear-eyed view of the state of Markram’s quest?

Hutton: Yes, I certainly have. I spoke to many of his critics and they’re in the film. I had 10 years of footage to fit into 83 minutes. I wasn’t taking his TED talk word for word. Many people didn’t think it was possible, given 100 years.

The effort to map every connection in the human brain is monumental — and contentious.

Sandbox Films

You interviewed a lot of scientists, did you notice the infighting? Was it hard to know who to believe?

Hutton: A lot is speculation. There’s no hard evidence yet, there’s no medical outcomes. There are scientific arguments to be made as to why simulations can help us in certain contexts, but only go so far in others. A lot of the criticism is that simulations could replace the need for biological science, we could model organisms on computers and study them that way. That’s a hot debate right now. But because the simulations are not there yet, and are not replacing biological labs, the jury is still out on whether they’ll be as good as traditional science. A lot say we need both.

What did you notice about the field of neuroscience at large?

Hutton: The film tries to show how it’s a collaborative field, it's interdisciplinary. There are huge egos, huge personalities, a lot of competitive spirits. It’s also messy. The film tries to knock this idea that science is this truly objective field, this monolithic truth. Things are debated. The great thing about the scientific method is it is respected across the board. You can’t get away with fudging your results, things will be peer reviewed in journals. A lot of those systems are broken, but there is a core methodology in science that always self-corrects when things go wrong.

What were some of the biggest highs and lows you saw behind the lens?

Hutton: The highs were being there shooting when something huge happened, like at the summits, or at a press conference where the Blue Brain team were confronted about the open letter. It was exhilarating being at the right place at the right time. The lows were how the relationship got more complicated, as [Markram's team] realized I was an independent filmmaker. It was difficult to negotiate, they weren’t happy with certain people I spoke with. They wanted to talk to me at several points about the vision for my film. I had to assert my independence.

Has Markram or any of his former employees seen the film yet?

Hutton: Yes, they saw the film.

Are you anticipating a lawsuit?

Hutton: I hope not. I don’t know what they’re going to do. I feel like I’ll get criticism about the film from both sides; some will say it was too harsh, others will say I wasn’t tough enough. I had to get an independent review board of scientists as part of the grant I got for the film. I just told my story as truthfully as I could. I don’t think I was unfair. All the criticism about Markram in the film has already been aired in the press.

One of the most interesting characters in the film is neuroscientist Christof Koch. How did he steer things? Which scientist really changed the course of the film for you?

Hutton: Early on, Sebastian Seung, who is at Princeton, was one of the first critics I spoke to and created a convincing case against simulating the brain. He said we weren’t ready, we needed better data. Something also shifted during the open letter, signed by 800 scientists, who were against Markram’s leadership of the project. I then spoke to critic Zach Mainen, who ends up having a big role in the film, criticizing Markram’s leadership and interpersonal dynamics, who never saw someone so determined to do it their way.

At one point in the film, Koch is talking about Markram’s split personality, part-leader, part “messiah.” Did he know you were recording at that point?

Hutton: He knew I was filming. As long as they don’t say its off the record, that’s my process.

How much is at stake for the scientists?

Hutton: Especially in the U.S., there’s never enough funding for what scientists want to be doing. Some of the competition is good, it drives people to accomplish, but the danger of that is when you get funding to do something within a certain time, but you don’t do it, a bubble bursts in public expectation, and good faith reading in those promises.

What about the controversy over Markram? Was it more about money than science?

Hutton: It was [E.U.] taxpayer money that went into the Human Brain project, but the Blue Brain project was mostly Swiss money. In talking about nerve degenerative disorders, aging Alzheimer’s population, Parkinson’s, is this the path to better outcomes? They get reviewed by independent review boards and scientists, so Markram’s team is not in the dark having taken this money, they say: “We pass our review every year.” I’m not taking sides, I just want people to have more information about this project and how this part of neuroscience works, so they can make more educated decisions themselves. We need more of that.

Henry Markram (left, facing forward) dazzled governments, scientists, and lay people alike with his ambition to map the human brain in a decade.


Did you feel you had to present Markram in a sympathetic light?

Hutton: My perspective, in the choices I’ve made who to talk to and how I’ve edited the film, its only as close to objectivity as I can get. I’ve already encountered people on both sides of the argument of being too tough or not tough enough. I do believe I’ve been fair.

Markram seemed to step away from the documentary when he ghosted you in 2017; why did he cancel your interview appointment?

Hutton: Me being a one-man band, I had to schlep all my camera gear from New York to Geneva, Switzerland twice a year to film. I was doing commercial work to fund the film, as I didn’t have funding until year nine of this 10-year film. I got on a plane, arrived, and got stood up by Markram, even though I asked him in advance when I should come to shoot. He pushed his interview to the last day, then cancelled.

The end part blew my mind, how the team planned on making their own film and showed you a shell of what they plan to make?

Hutton: There’s an aspect of salesmanship and marketing that has always been a part of the DNA of the project. Going back to the TED Talk, a lot of the wow-factor has been the visualizations, which are carefully constructed... there’s creativity, something to dazzle people. When you see Markram making his own film at the end, it goes back to the TED Talk at the beginning.

Buy tickets to watch In Silico online here, available from November 11 to 19 with DOC NYC.

Correction: A previous version of this article suggested that the Human Brain Project has potential dates for completion. It does not. Further, the project referred to in the open letter was the Human Brain Project, not the Blue Brain Project. The article has been updated to reflect these changes and we regret the errors.

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