Could a neuroscientist understand a computer?

economist-brain-computer… is the title of a recent article by Jonas and Kording, published in Plos Comp Biol and featured in the Economist. The Economist summarizes their findings by stating that ‘testing the methods of neuroscience on computer chips suggests they are wanting’, and on the magazine cover labels neuroscience’s toolkit as ‘faulty’.

Jonas and Kording used a simple microchip (one used in ‘prehistoric’ game computers like the Atari) and asked the question whether the chip could be ‘understood’ by applying the same approaches applied by the large scale human brain projects. These multibillion consortia work under the premise that the human brain works like a supercomputer – doesn’t it process information and use electrical currents? So if you understand the wiring diagram (‘the connectome’) and the firing of electrical signals through it, you would be able to model its working principle. What you need is just lots of data, and heavy computing. Jonas and Kording used this approach and checked whether it allowed them to understand how the game chip works. Since we already know how it works (because it was engineered in the first place) we can test how far this approach takes us. They even threw in ‘interventions’, very similar to how modern neuroscience started, when neurologists like Paul Broca used structural lesions (e.g. after infarction) in their patient’s brains to make inferences about the functions of specific brain regions. So what happens to Donkey Kong  if you tinker with a few transitors on the chip, and what does it tell you about their function? If you follow Jonas and Kording, not much.  They conclude that current analytic approaches in neuroscience ‘may fall short of producing meaningful understanding of neural systems, regardless of the amount of data’.

So the methods used by the BRAIN Initiatitive or the Human Brain Project may be wanting – but what if it is even worse, and their basic tenet (‘The human brain is a computer’) is wrong, and the hype around those projects is not only methodologically but also conceptually flawed?  In a recent post in AEON, Robert Epstein argues that ‘your brain does not process information, retrieve knowledge or store memories. In short: your brain is not a computer’. Click here to follow his argument why it is silly to believe that brains must be information processors just because computers are information processors.


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