Is the brain computable? Neuroscientist on Kurzweil’s singularity

Nicolelis Source: technologyreview.com
Nicolelis
Source: technologyreview.com

MIT Technology review published this report on Duke University neuroscientist Miguel Nicoleli’s objections to the notion of singularity because, “The brain is not computable.

Journalist Antonio Regalado writes:

Miguel Nicolelis, a top neuroscientist at Duke University, says computers will never replicate the human brain and that the technological Singularity is “a bunch of hot air.”

“The brain is not computable and no engineering can reproduce it,” says Nicolelis, author of several pioneering papers on brain-machine interfaces.

The Singularity, of course, is that moment when a computer super-intelligence emerges and changes the world in ways beyond our comprehension.

Among the idea’s promoters are futurist Ray Kurzweil, recently hired on at Google as a director of engineering and who has been predicting that not only will machine intelligence exceed our own but that people will be able to download their thoughts and memories into computers (see “Ray Kurzweil Plans to Create a Mind at Google—and Have It Serve You”).

Nicolelis calls that idea sheer bunk. “Downloads will never happen,” Nicolelis said during remarks made at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston on Sunday. “There are a lot of people selling the idea that you can mimic the brain with a computer.”

The debate over whether the brain is a kind of computer has been running for decades. Many scientists think it’s possible, in theory, for a computer to equal the brain given sufficient computer power and an understanding of how the brain works.

Kurzweil delves into the idea of “reverse-engineering” the brain in his latest book, How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed, in which he says even though the brain may be immensely complex, “the fact that it contains many billions of cells and trillions of connections does not necessarily make its primary method complex.”

But Nicolelis is in a camp that thinks that human consciousness (and if you believe in it, the soul) simply can’t be replicated in silicon. That’s because its most important features are the result of unpredictable, non-linear interactions amongst billions of cells, Nicolelis says.

“You can’t predict whether the stock market will go up or down because you can’t compute it,” he says. “You could have all the computer chips ever in the world and you won’t create a consciousness.”

The neuroscientist, originally from Brazil, instead thinks that humans will increasingly subsume machines (an idea, incidentally, that’s also part of Kurzweil’s predictions).

This review by Regalado also covers the current work of Miguel Nicolelis.  Click here to read the rest.

Here’s the video interview with Ray Kurzweil, Google’s new director of engineering:

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