Creating a computer with a human brain?

Are we on the brink of creating a computer with a human brain?

By Michael Hanlon

Brain
 
Professor Markram claims he plans to build an electronic human brain ‘within the next ten years’

There are only a handful of scientific revolutions that would really change the world. An immortality pill would be one. A time machine would be another.

Faster-than-light travel, allowing the stars to be explored in a human lifetime, would be on the shortlist, too.

To my mind, however, the creation of an artificial mind would probably trump all of these – a development that would throw up an array of bewildering and complex moral and philosophical quandaries. Amazingly, it might also be within reach.

For while time machines, eternal life potions and Star Trek-style warp drives are as far away as ever, a team of scientists in Switzerland is claiming that a fully-functioning replica of a human brain could be built by 2020.

This isn’t just pie-in-the-sky. The Blue Brain project, led by computer genius Henry Markram – who is also the director of the Centre for Neuroscience & Technology and the Brain Mind Institute – has for the past five years been engineering the mammalian brain, the most complex object known in the Universe, using some of the most powerful supercomputers in the world.

And last month, Professor Markram claimed, at a conference in Oxford, that he plans to build an electronic human brain ‘within ten years’.

If he is right, nothing will be the same again. But can such an extraordinary claim be credible? When we think of artificial minds, we inevitably think of the sort of machines that have starred in dozens of sci-fi movies.

Indeed, most scientists – and science fiction writers – have tended to concentrate on the nuts and bolts of robotics: how you make artificial muscles; how you make a machine see and hear; how you give it realistic skin and enough tendons and ligaments underneath that skin to allow it to smile convincingly.

But what tends to be glossed over is by far the most complex problem of all: how you make a machine think.

This problem is one of the central questions of modern philosophy and goes to the very heart of what we know, or rather do not know, about the human mind.

Most of us imagine that the brain is rather like a computer. And in many ways, it is. It processes data and can store quite prodigious amounts of information.

‘They are copying a brain without understanding it’

But in other ways, a brain is quite unlike a computer. For while our computers are brilliant at calculating the weather forecast and modelling the effects of nuclear explosions – tasks most often assigned to the most powerful machines – they still cannot ‘think’.

We cannot be sure this is the case. But no one thinks that the laptop on your desk or even the powerful mainframes used by the Met Office can, in any meaningful sense, have a mind.

So what is it, in that three pounds of grey jelly, that gives rise to the feeling of conscious self-awareness, the thoughts and emotions, the agonies and ecstasies that comprise being a human being?

This is a question that has troubled scientists and philosophers for centuries. The traditional answer was to assume that some sort of ‘soul’ pervades the brain, a mysterious ‘ghost in the machine’ which gives rise to the feeling of self and consciousness.

If this is the case, then computers, being machines not flesh and blood, will never think. We will never be able to build a robot that will feel pain or get angry, and the Blue Brain project will fail.

But very few scientists still subscribe to this traditional ‘dualist’ view – ‘dualist’ because it assumes ‘mind’ and ‘matter’ are two separate things.

Instead, most neuroscientists believe that our feelings of self-awareness, pain, love and so on are simply the result of the countless billions of electrical and chemical impulses that flit between its equally countless billions of neurons.

So if you build something that works exactly like a brain, consciousness, at least in theory, will follow.

In fact, several teams are working to prove this is the case by attempting to build an electronic brain. They are not attempting to build flesh and blood brains like modern-day Dr Frankensteins.

They are using powerful mainframe computers to ‘model’ a brain. But, they say, the result will be just the same.

Two years ago, a team at IBM’s Almaden research lab at Nevada University used a BlueGene/L Supercomputer to model half a mouse brain.

Half a mouse brain consists of about eight million neurons, each of which can form around 8,000 links with neighbouring cells.

Creating a virtual version of this pushes a computer to the limit, even machines which, like the BlueGene, can perform 20trillion calculations a second.

The ‘mouse’ simulation was run for about ten seconds at a speed a tenth as fast as an actual rodent brain operates. Nevertheless, the scientists said they detected tell-tale patterns believed to correspond with the ‘thoughts’ seen by scanners in real-life mouse brains.

It is just possible a fleeting, mousey, ‘consciousness’ emerged in the mind of this machine. But building a thinking, remembering human mind is more difficult. Many neuroscientists claim the human brain is too complicated to copy.

‘Turning it off might be seen as murder’

Markram’s team is undaunted. They are using one of the most powerful computers in the world to replicate the actions of the 100billion neurons in the human brain. It is this approach – essentially copying how a brain works without necessarily understanding all of its actions – that will lead to success, the team hopes. And if so, what then?

Well, a mind, however fleeting and however shorn of the inevitable complexities and nuances that come from being embedded in a body, is still a mind, a ‘person’. We would effectively have created a ‘brain in a vat’. Conscious, aware, capable of feeling, pain, desire. And probably terrified.

And if it were modelled on a human brain, we would then have real ethical dilemmas. If our ‘brain’ – effectively just a piece of extremely impressive computer software – could be said to know it exists, then do we assign it rights?

Would turning it off constitute murder? Would performing experiments upon it constitute torture?

And there are other questions, too, questions at the centre of the nurture versus nature debate. Would this human mind, for example, automatically feel guilt or would it need to be ‘taught’ a sense of morality first? And how would it respond to religion? Indeed, are these questions that a human mind asks of its own accord, or must it be taught to ask them first?

Thankfully, we are probably a long way from having to confront these issues. It is important to stress that not one scientist has provided anything like a convincing explanation for how the brain works, let alone shown for sure that it would be possible to replicate this in a machine.

Not one computer or robot has come near passing the famous ‘Turing Test’, devised by the brilliant Cambridge scientist Alan Turing in 1950, to prove whether a machine could think.

It is a simple test in which someone is asked to communicate, using a screen and keyboard, with a computer trying to mimic a human, and another, real human. If the judge cannot tell the machine from the other person, the computer has ‘passed’ the test. So far, every computer we have built has failed.

Yet, if the Blue Brain project succeeds, in a few decades – perhaps sooner – we will be looking at the creation of a new intelligent lifeform on Earth. And the ethical dilemmas we face when it comes to experimenting on animals in the name of science will pale into insignificance when faced with the potential torments of our new machine mind.

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1205677/Are-brink-creating-human-brain.html#ixzz29l69zP3l

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2050 – and immortality is within our grasp

2050 – and immortality is within our grasp

 

 David Smith, technology correspondent

Britain’s leading thinker on the future offers an extraordinary vision of life in the next 45 years

Cross section of the human brain

Supercomputers could render the wetware of the human brain redundant. Photograph: Gregor Schuster/Getty Images

Aeroplanes will be too afraid to crash, yoghurts will wish you good morning before being eaten and human consciousness will be stored on supercomputers, promising immortality for all – though it will help to be rich.

These fantastic claims are not made by a science fiction writer or a crystal ball-gazing lunatic. They are the deadly earnest predictions of Ian Pearson, head of the futurology unit at BT.

‘If you draw the timelines, realistically by 2050 we would expect to be able to download your mind into a machine, so when you die it’s not a major career problem,’ Pearson told The Observer. ‘If you’re rich enough then by 2050 it’s feasible. If you’re poor you’ll probably have to wait until 2075 or 2080 when it’s routine. We are very serious about it. That’s how fast this technology is moving: 45 years is a hell of a long time in IT.’

Pearson, 44, has formed his mind-boggling vision of the future after graduating in applied mathematics and theoretical physics, spending four years working in missile design and the past 20 years working in optical networks, broadband network evolution and cybernetics in BT’s laboratories. He admits his prophecies are both ‘very exciting’ and ‘very scary’.

He believes that today’s youngsters may never have to die, and points to the rapid advances in computing power demonstrated last week, when Sony released the first details of its PlayStation 3. It is 35 times more powerful than previous games consoles. ‘The new PlayStation is 1 per cent as powerful as a human brain,’ he said. ‘It is into supercomputer status compared to 10 years ago. PlayStation 5 will probably be as powerful as the human brain.’

The world’s fastest computer, IBM’s BlueGene, can perform 70.72 trillion calculations per second (teraflops) and is accelerating all the time. But anyone who believes in the uniqueness of consciousness or the soul will find Pearson’s next suggestion hard to swallow. ‘We’re already looking at how you might structure a computer that could possibly become conscious. There are quite a lot of us now who believe it’s entirely feasible.

‘We don’t know how to do it yet but we’ve begun looking in the same directions, for example at the techniques we think that consciousness is based on: information comes in from the outside world but also from other parts of your brain and each part processes it on an internal sensing basis. Consciousness is just another sense, effectively, and that’s what we’re trying to design in a computer. Not everyone agrees, but it’s my conclusion that it is possible to make a conscious computer with superhuman levels of intelligence before 2020.’

He continued: ‘It would definitely have emotions – that’s one of the primary reasons for doing it. If I’m on an aeroplane I want the computer to be more terrified of crashing than I am so it does everything to stay in the air until it’s supposed to be on the ground.

‘You can also start automating an awful lots of jobs. Instead of phoning up a call centre and getting a machine that says, “Type 1 for this and 2 for that and 3 for the other,” if you had machine personalities you could have any number of call staff, so you can be dealt with without ever waiting in a queue at a call centre again.’

Pearson, from Whitehaven in Cumbria, collaborates on technology with some developers and keeps a watching brief on advances around the world. He concedes the need to debate the implications of progress. ‘You need a completely global debate. Whether we should be building machines as smart as people is a really big one. Whether we should be allowed to modify bacteria to assemble electronic circuitry and make themselves smart is already being researched.

‘We can already use DNA, for example, to make electronic circuits so it’s possible to think of a smart yoghurt some time after 2020 or 2025, where the yoghurt has got a whole stack of electronics in every single bacterium. You could have a conversation with your strawberry yogurt before you eat it.’

In the shorter term, Pearson identifies the next phase of progress as ‘ambient intelligence’: chips with everything. He explained: ‘For example, if you have a pollen count sensor in your car you take some antihistamine before you get out. Chips will come small enough that you can start impregnating them into the skin. We’re talking about video tattoos as very, very thin sheets of polymer that you just literally stick on to the skin and they stay there for several days. You could even build in cellphones and connect it to the network, use it as a video phone and download videos or receive emails.’

Philips, the electronics giant, is developing the world’s first rollable display which is just a millimetre thick and has a 12.5cm screen which can be wrapped around the arm. It expects to start production within two years.

The next age, he predicts, will be that of ‘simplicity’ in around 2013-2015. ‘This is where the IT has actually become mature enough that people will be able to drive it without having to go on a training course.

‘Forget this notion that you have to have one single chip in the computer which does everything. Why not just get a stack of little self-organising chips in a box and they’ll hook up and do it themselves. It won’t be able to get any viruses because most of the operating system will be stored in hardware which the hackers can’t write to. If your machine starts going wrong, you just push a button and it’s reset to the factory setting.’

Pearson’s third age is ‘virtual worlds’ in around 2020. ‘We will spend a lot of time in virtual space, using high quality, 3D, immersive, computer generated environments to socialise and do business in. When technology gives you a life-size 3D image and the links to your nervous system allow you to shake hands, it’s like being in the other person’s office. It’s impossible to believe that won’t be the normal way of communicating.

“Humanity is about going beyond biological limitations”

Image: Drawing of The Vitruvian Man

Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing of The Vitruvian man.

NEW YORK Dreams of immortality inspired the fantastical tales of Greek historian Herodotus and Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon’s legendary search for the fountain of youth. Nowadays, visionaries push for the technologies to transplant human brains into new bodies and download human consciousness into hologram-like avatars.

The latest science and schemes for achieving long life and the “singularity” moment of smarter-than-human intelligence came together at the Singularity Summit held here October 15-16. Some researchers explored cutting-edge, serious work about regenerating human body parts and defining the boundaries of consciousness in brain studies. Other speakers pushed visions of extending human existence in “Avatar”- style bodies — one initiative previously backed by action film star Steven Seagal — with fuzzier ideas about how to create such a world.

Above all, the summit buzzed with optimism about technology’s ability to reshape the world to exceed humanity’s wildest dreams, as well as a desire to share that vision with everyone. True believers were even offered the chance to apply for a credit card that transfers purchase rewards to the Singularity Institute.

“Humanity is about going beyond biological limitations,” said Ray Kurzweil, the inventor and futurist whose vision drives the Singularity Institute.

Rebuilding a healthy body The most immediate advances related to living longer and better may come from regenerative medicine. Pioneering physicians have already regrown the tips of people’s fingers and replaced cancer-ridden parts of human bodies with healthy new cells.

“What we’re talking about here is not necessarily increasing the quantity of life but the quality of life,” said Stephen Badylak, deputy director of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania.

Success so far has come from using a special connective tissue — called the extracellular matrix (ECM) — to act as a biological scaffold for healthy cells to build upon. Badylak showed a video where his team of surgeons stripped out the cancerous lining of a patient’s esophagus like pulling out a sock, and relined the esophagus with an ECM taken from pigs. The patient remains cancer-free several years after the experimental trial.

The connective tissue of other animals doesn’t provoke a negative response in human bodies, because it lacks the foreign animal cells that would typically provoke the immune system to attack. It has served the same role as a biological foundation for so long that it represents a “medical device that’s gone through hundreds of millions of years of R&D,” Badylak said.

If work goes well, Badylak envisions someday treating stroke patients by regenerating pieces of the functioning human brain.

Live long and prosper The work of such researchers could do more than just keep humans happy and healthy. By tackling end-of-life chronic diseases such as cancer, medical advances could nearly double human life expectancy beyond almost 80 years in the U.S. to 150 years, said Sonia Arrison, a futurist at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco, Calif.

Long-lived humans could lead to problems such as anger over a “longevity gap” between haves and have-nots and perhaps add to stress on food, water and energy sources. But Arrison took a more positive view of how “health begets wealth” in a talk based on her new book, “100 Plus” (Basic Books, 2011).

Having healthier people around for longer means that they can remain productive far later in life, Arrison pointed out. Many past innovators accomplished some of their greatest or most creative work relatively late in life — Leonardo da Vinci began painting the Mona Lisa at 51, and Benjamin Franklin conducted his kite experiment at 46.

“Innovation is a late-peak field,” Arrison told the audience gathered at the Singularity Summit.

Even religion might find a renewed role in a world where death increasingly looks far off, Arrison said. Religion remains as popular as ever despite a doubling of human life expectancy up until now, and so Arrison suggested that religions focused on providing purpose or guidance in life could do well. But religions focused on the afterlife may want to rethink their strategy.

Making ‘Avatar’ real (or not) The boldest scheme for immortality came from media mogul Dmitry Itskov, who introduced his “Project Immortality 2045: Russian Experience.” He claimed support from the Russian Federation’s Ministry of Education and Science, as well as actor Seagal, to create a research center capable of giving humans life-extending bodies.

Itskov’s wildly ambitious plans include creating a humanoid avatar body within five to seven years, transplanting a human brain into a new “body B” in 10 to 15 years, digitally uploading a human brain’s consciousness in 20 to 25 years, and moving human consciousness to hologram-like bodies in 30 to 35 years.

That vision may have exceeded even the optimism of many Singularity Summit attendees, given the apparent restlessness of the crowd during Itskov’s presentation. But it did little to dampen the conference’s overall sense that humanity has a positive future within its collective grasp — even if some people still need to be convinced.

“We are storming the fricking barricades of death, both physically and intellectually, so we have to make it sexy,” said Jason Silva, a filmmaker and founding producer/host for Current TV.

By Jeremy Hsu

    10/17/2011 7:39:40 PM ET2011-10-17T23:39:40

You can follow InnovationNewsDaily Senior Writer Jeremy Hsu on Twitter @ScienceHsu. Follow InnovationNewsDaily on Twitter @News_Innovation, or on Facebook.