Friday, July 31, 2009

Futurology and the Brain

One of the more curious works of recent times was a book called ‘The Singularity is Near’ by the futurist Ray Kurzweil. In it Kurzweil claimed that between now and the year 2050 technology will have reached such giddy heights that homo sapiens will have reached a new stage of evolution and develop into cybernetically augmented humanoids with self improving artificial intelligences as sidekicks. At this point, as it is so often predicted, ‘history will end’ in a Fukuyama-esque fashion and human/civilisation will explode across the cosmos and develop into a universal super-intelligence.

This is just one of several preposterous pieces of futurology I have read this year. The first was Susan Blackmore’s article on how the ‘gene machines’ (our DNA) have created ‘memes’ (the contents of our minds) which will all come to be enslaved by the ‘temes’ (the stuff we are putting on the internet). The other was a gleeful article in one of the British tabloids which argued that we shall all be proud owners of ‘robot sex slaves’ by the middle of this century; although, if Kurzweil’s and Blackmore prophesies come true I think we would be just as likely to end up being bred as sex slaves by the robots. Frankly I am not raising my expectations and would be happy just to get a TV remote that doesn’t get lost down the back of the sofa by 2050. I can’t say that becoming the 21st centuries equivalent of Robocop is top of my to-do list.

Not surprisingly Kuzweil has been the object of some criticism, the science-fiction writer Ken MacLeod describing his vision of immortal software-based humans as ‘the rapture for nerds’. The journalist John Horgan has described it as ‘a religious rather than a scientific vision’, an ‘escapist, pseudoscientific’ fantasy; he has also mocked Kuzweil’s ambitions to ”live long enough to live forever” and resurrect his dead relatives with nanobots.

A while back, Horgan followed up ‘The End of Science’ with a book called ‘The Undiscovered Mind’ which highlighted the ways in which the human brain currently defies explanation. In a recent article called ‘The Conciousness Conundrum’ he uses similar ideas to attack the idea of the singularity and the creation of humanlike machines. Horgan writes:

In spite of all those advances, neuroscientists still do not understand at all how a brain (the squishy agglomeration of tissue and neurons) makes a conscious mind (the intangible entity that enables you to fall in love, find irony in a novel, and appreciate the elegance of a circuit design). ”No one has the foggiest notion,” says the neuroscientist Eric Kandel of Columbia University Medical Center, in New York City. ”At the moment all you can get are informed, intelligent opinions.”

The problem apparently is the complexity:

A healthy adult brain contains about 100 billion nerve cells, or neurons. A single neuron can be linked via axons (output wires) and dendrites (input wires) across synapses (gaps between axons and dendrites) to as many as 100 000 other neurons. Crank the numbers and you find that a typical human brain has quadrillions of connections among its neurons. A quadrillion is a one followed by 15 zeroes; a stack of a quadrillion U.S. pennies would go from the sun out past the orbit of Jupiter…..Adding to the complexity, synaptic connections constantly form, strengthen, weaken, and dissolve. Old neurons die and--evidence now indicates, overturning decades of dogma--new ones are born…..Far from being stamped from a common mold, neurons display an astounding variety of forms and functions. Researchers have discovered scores of distinct types just in the optical system. Neurotransmitters, which carry signals across the synapse between two neurons, also come in many different varieties. In addition to neurotransmitters, neural-growth factors, hormones, and other chemicals ebb and flow through the brain, modulating cognition in ways both profound and subtle.

It’s an interesting article and well worth reading , especially the speculation concerning the neural code (the rules and algorithms which govern the brains performance). I have recently become interested in neural plasticity, something which was dramatically demonstrated recently by the case of the girl born with only half a brain. Somehow her brain managed to rewire itself and retinal nerves that should normally connect to the missing right half of her brain have moved into two parts of the left brain, thus ensuring perfect vision. In a similar case back in 2002 a girl who had half her brain – including the speech centre- removed was able not only to recover but also master two languages. The comment at the time was that :

‘We should see the brain as a dynamic system fully capable of functional reorganisation to re-establish the most essential functions for independent survival, rather than the somewhat static collection of neurons it is often made out to be.’

Bear that in mind next time you can't remember where your keys are.

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knowingthomas said...

I have a feeling that Blackmore and K. are just the 21st century version of the World of Tomorrow hawkers of the 1950s.

I would like space colonies though.

Noons said...

Apparently, according to Kurziwell's rhetoric, it is our destiny to become the Borg.

Humphrey said...

I preferred the vision of the future set out in 'Dan Dare - Pilot of the Future' in the old Eagle comics which consisted of stiff upped lipped Englishmen from the 1940s battling space aliens and promoting the Judeo-Christian virtues (it was started by the Rev Marcus Morris)