In Silico


It’s the mind that matters.

(2020) Documentary (SandboxHenry Markram, Noah Hutton, Christof Koch, Eilif Muller, Lori Bargmann, Jeff Lichtman, Terrence Sejnowski, Anna Churchland, Kamila Markram, Kathryn Hess, Felix Schulman, Moritz Holmstaedter, David Engleman, Stephen Larson, Richard Walker, Martin Telefont, Sebastian Seung, Marc-Oliver Gewaltig, Thierry van der Pyl, Lida Kanari,. Directed by Noah Hutton

Scientific discovery is inexact. It doesn’t operate on schedules. It doesn’t adhere to timetables. It takes detours and follows tangents. It never, EVER, goes the way we think it’s going to go, even if we’re the finest scientific mind of our generation.

Henry Markram isn’t the finest scientific mind of his generation, but he’s certainly one of them. Nobody disputes his genius. At a TED talk, he talked about how using a supercomputer, he has begun not only mapping a brain – the most mysterious and complex of human organs – but replicating one, and while starting with a mouse brain, he felt that computers and scientific data about brain function will have given him the ability to do so with a human brain within ten years.

In the audience was a young man named Noah Hutton, freshly graduated from film school. He instantly recognized that this could be a discovery of historic proportion and he meant to be the one documenting the research. Markram agreed to it and with IBM and the Swiss government providing funding to the tune of millions of Euros, Markram was off to the races with some like-minded scientists along to help make this grand plan a reality.

Markram is certainly a charismatic sort and Hutton certainly fell under his spell, but over the years some cracks began to appear in the façade. As work continued on what was dubbed the Blue Brain Project, a second study was commissioned which Markram would oversee – the Human Brain project and it was given a funding kitty of a billion Euros. Soon, it became clear that Markram’s leadership in this second project had become chaotic. Eventually, in protest, some 800 neuroscientists signed a letter stating objections to the goals, methods and style of Markram’s stewardship. Eventually, even Hutton became disillusioned, realizing that Markram had been overly ambitious with his claims. Many neuroscientists had, from the beginning, expressed doubt that there was enough data in existence to allow even the most advanced supercomputer or brilliant scientist to create an accurate model.

It wasn’t long before things went to open warfare between those backing Markram and those opposing him. Early successes hadn’t proved sustainable; it became clear that Markram couldn’t make his self-imposed 2019 deadline.

Hutton’s documentary is a fascinating document not so much on the science which probably requires an advanced degree in neuroscience and computer engineering to understand but on the interpersonal relationships that form, and are fractured in the course of a project. Much of the pressures that Markram is under are self-imposed; one wonders how differently things might have turned out had he not set a date for when his discovery would be completed.

Brilliance is often accompanied by ego, and that’s the case here. There are plenty of scientists who are interviewed here who express their doubts and/or their admiration of Markram, but at the end of the day, we see a lack of hubris which certainly those who mistrust scientists can point to as a reason why. The work continues on what is a promising idea, but now they’re talking in term of multiple decades rather than a single ten year span. Time will tell if they’re right.

The film made its world premiere at the DOC NYC festival this week and is still available through tomorrow online for those residing in the United States who wish to purchase a single viewing ticket at the link below; otherwise, a limited and VOD release is planned although no dates have been announced just yet.

REASONS TO SEE: A fascinating look at the politics of science.
REASONS TO AVOID: Content can be very highbrow and dry.
FAMILY VALUES: Although the tone may be a little bit above the heads of most youngsters, the content is suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The human brain has always been studied in one of two ways; In Vivo (in a living subject) ,or in vitro (brain tissue studied in a nutrient solution from a non-living donor). The Blue Brain Project proposed to discover a third method; in silico, or on a computer model.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: DOC NYC Virtual Festival
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Am Human
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
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Kaali Khuhi