Could a neuroscientist understand a microprocessor? (2017)

There is a popular belief in neuroscience that we are primarily data limited, and that produc- ing large, multimodal, and complex datasets will, with the help of advanced data analysis algorithms, lead to fundamental insights into the way the brain processes information. These datasets do not yet exist, and if they did we would have no way of evaluating whether or not the algorithmically-generated insights were sufficient or even correct. To address this, here we take a classical microprocessor as a model organism, and use our ability to perform arbitrary experiments on it to see if popular data analysis methods from neuroscience can elucidate the way it processes information. Microprocessors are among those artificial information processing systems that are both complex and that we understand at all levels, from the overall logical flow, via logical gates, to the dynamics of transistors. We show that the approaches reveal interesting structure in the data but do not meaningfully describe the hierarchy of information processing in the microprocessor. This suggests current analytic approaches in neuroscience may fall short of producing meaningful understanding of neural systems, regardless of the amount of data. Additionally, we argue for scientists using complex non-linear dynamical systems with known ground truth, such as the microprocessor as a validation platform for time-series and structure discovery methods.

  • Author Summary

Neuroscience is held back by the fact that it is hard to evaluate if a conclusion is correct; the complexity of the systems under study and their experimental inaccessability make the assessment of algorithmic and data analytic technqiues challenging at best. We thus argue for testing approaches using known artifacts, where the correct interpretation is known. Here we present a microprocessor platform as one such test case. We find that many approaches in neuroscience, when used naïvely, fall short of producing a meaningful understanding

Written on February 6, 2017