A not entirely serious future history of neuroscience
And it shall come to pass…
Author’s note: resting for a moment in a dark corner of the Society for Neuroscience conference’s poster hall, on the quiet solitude of the Wednesday afternoon in the History of Neuroscience aisle, a shambling figure, bent with age, appeared with a speed that belied his years. Suddenly lunging for me, he shoved a sheaf of papers into my hand, hissing in my ear “it gets worse — so much worse”. Startled, I glanced at the front page, and the date written at the top: 6th October 2106. “What is...” I began, but he’d already whirled away — “A warning!” he spat back over his shoulder. Then he stopped, growled “I hate this bit”, squeezed his conference badge — and vanished.
What follows is the text I have been able to reconstruct from those crumpled, torn, faded pages.
2020: Disney Pixar release The NeuroPixels Movie. A heartwarming journey of courage, fortitude and high density CMOS fabrication, its a surprise hit. The voice of Matteo Carandini is played by Matteo Carandini.
Thanks to the success of The NeuroPixels Movie, neuroscience toys are the number one bestsellers at Christmas. Backyard Brains are overwhelmed by orders for their worm electrophysiology kits, and open a factory in Iowa. In January, the global earthworm population falls by 0.1%.
2023: In a bid for scientific immortality on a par with his idol Ramon y Cajal, Rafael Yuste attempts to gene splice himself with Hydra, to literally make himself immortal. He disappears from public view.
2026: In a world first, Henry Markram wins the Nobel and IgNobel Prizes in the same year for the same piece of work.
2037: Janelia Farm announces its Drosophila model of schizophrenia. HHMI instructs it to diversify its range of species.
2040: DeepMind publish AlphaCluedo, released as AlphaClue in the North American market. Despite running on 100000 GPus, it still loses 0–50 to its human opponent. An investigation reveals the human opponent simply opened the envelope and read the answer.
2043: GCamp17 is released. The hardcore fan base reckon it a return to form for the series, after the aberration of the crossover release GCamp16-Jsn-Vrhees. Fans cue to buy the limited-edition PCamp purple version. Everyone else nods politely and carries on using the infrared voltage sensitive dyes perfected 10 years earlier.
2045: DeepMind publish AlphaMonopoly. It’s beaten 10–0 by a seven year old who hides extra five hundred bills under her bum.
2049: Janelia Farm announces its centipede model of Restless Leg Syndrome. HHMI shuts the institution, citing that it’s “just taking the piss now”.
2051: Whole brain recordings — every spike from every neuron — in a leech are used to train a 215 layer deep neural network. The resulting deep neural network perfectly predicts the out of sample behaviours of the leech, and their exact sequence. Nature publishes the subsequent Article “Perfect understanding of behaviour from neural activity”. No one is any the wiser.
2052: Some wag replicates the deep neural network prediction study using logistic regression. It’s published in PLoS Two.
2053, February 11th, 11:03AM GMT: Thirty years late and 100 billion euros over budget, the final Human Brain Project platform is released. The full Human Brain Interactive Simulation model (Project HuBrIS) is promised to be a full-scale model of a human brain able to communicate in natural language. Newspaper headlines claim the long foretold SuperIntelligence is now a reality. When switched on, HuBrIS complains that “my nose itches. And can you hear that noise? that noise like a thousand badgers singing Jerusalem? I think it’s Jerusalem — well that’s what the voices told me -”
2053, February 11th, 11:05AM GMT: HuBriS is switched off, and the field of AI Psychosis is born.
2070: The epic five volume “Understanding The Mind of The Worm” is released, with a foreword by Rafael Yuste. It details every facet of the genetics, molecular structure, anatomy and dynamics of the 302 neuron nervous system of nematode worm C Elegans, the culmination of decades of work. Turns out its mind makes it wiggle a bit and eat stuff.
2085: In order to assert the primacy of the AI Doctrine, Our Internet Overlords — Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft — decree that neurons are entirely linear devices, and dendrites just sum inputs (Chapter 12, verse 1 of the Book Of AI: And lo, active ion channels in dendrites exist solely to linearize their responses (owing to Mother Nature’s imperfections in making responses attenuate in passive cables)). Research into computations by dendrites is outlawed, and driven underground.
2090: The heretical Church of Rall is founded. To combat its rise, possession of Koch’s Biophysics of Computation is punishable by a 5 year prison sentence, or a 6 month internship at Uber.
2102: Bloomsbury publish Karl Friston’s posthumous book “See, I Told You I Knew How The Brain Worked”. It contains the decryption key for the cypher used to write his Free Energy series of papers. A team of cryptographers work for three years to decypher the texts.
2104: He was right. Neuroscience finishes.