2021, NR, 83 min. Directed by Noah Hutton. Narrated by Noah Hutton.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., April 30, 2021
There are two ways to study the brain: in vivo (in a living organism) or in vitro (in the petri dish). But what if there was a third way? Neuroscientist Henry Markram envisions in silico, and that was the root of his Blue Brain Project: a plan to create a full electronic brain. But was Markram an interdisciplinary visionary, an arrogant techno dude bro, or Don Quixote?
It's incorrect to describe In Silico as Noah Hutton's documentary follow-up to to his brilliant, incisive techno-satire Lapsis, since he's been working on it for a decade. Filming, he notes in his own commentary, began not long after Markram took to the TED stage and predicted that, not only was replicating the human brain doable, but that if it worked then he would be able to send a hologram to deliver a talk by itself.
The ambition, and Markram's best intentions, are clearly laid out. If the brain can be genuinely replicated electronically – not emulated, not simulated – then we can understand how it works and, if from there, what can be done to fix it. Markram is also presented by many of his peers, a succession of neuroscientists, as a game changer: Rather than a technologist coming in and saying that they can make a computer as smart as a human, this was a researcher applying patterns from prior research through the most complicated modeling ever envisioned.
Once past the introductory essay on neuroscience to give the audience even the faintest clue what Markram is planning, Hutton pulls out the real subject up for dissection. Matrkram's ambition was undeniable, but there were a lot of researchers who saw it as a billion-euro boondoggle, driven by hubris and tolerating no criticism or dissent – the very core of the scientific process. It becomes a story of shifting goals and landmarks, of sparring approaches, and Hutton is undoubtedly embedded on one side of the conflict, making him a inadvertent player in the battle. However, unlike many documentarians, he doesn't paint himself as some naif: Films like Deep Time prove his adeptness with massive, complicated, longitudinal systems, and the fact he spent a decade on this film means that he deeply understands the subject, and can engage with the issues. Yet that decade may have played against him: In attempting to synthesize so much material into In Silico, he creates something that feels more like a series of encyclopedia entries than a story.
Available as a virtual cinema release now.