Chapter Four: Achieving the Software of Human Intelligence

IT’S BEEN SO LONG, but I have not given up! I had a dream that I finished The Singularity is Near and it was such a tremendous feeling.

“Software of human intelligence”…now I am NOT one for comparing the brain to a computer, and I greatly appreciate that Kurzweil too does not agree the comparison is so simple. So the previous chapter focused on the computational capacity of the human brain, or the “hardware”. The “software” is a new level that incorporates the subtle and artistic intelligence that the brain is capable of. Yes, you can have circuits that produce effects A then B then C, but Kurzweil (and I) argue that this is not enough to aptly describe the brain. In order to reverse-engineer the brain, we must also understand the subtleties that affect and organize our intelligence and our conscious experience.

It seems like a daunting task to try and replicate every neural connection in our brain. How could we ever simulate the capability of a brain when we don’t even fully understand it? A brilliant way to take the stress out of perfecting every detail is using nature’s self-organizing paradigm to our advantage. The brain is a tool to hold information, designed by nature. It took billions of years to develop the brain, and we’re only a decade or so from COMPLETELY understanding it (even though modern science is only a couple hundred years old). In order to advance our technology, we must embrace biology’s self-organizing paradigm.

Imagine computers that are capable of evolving over time! This is not an outrageous idea (though it does require a good deal of optimism). Nature does not consciously direct evolution, it sets up a paradigm where systems intrinsically evolve! Soon our technology will catch up to this natural logic, at least according to Ray Kurzweil.

How the Human Brain is Different from a Conventional Computer

  • The brain’s circuits are very slow, so imagine the improvements available with future technology.
  • Massively parallel circuitry
  • The brain combines analog and digital phenomena, which is very unique. For example, axon firing can be represented digitally, but it is in actuality an analog process.
  • The brain rewires itself
  • Most of the details in the brain are random, and more efforts are being made to understand neural function through complexity theory and chaos theory.
  • The brain uses emergent properties: “Intelligent behavior is an emergent property of the brain’s chaotic and complex activity. Consider the analogy to the apparently intelligent design of termite and ant colonies…Despite their clever and intricate design, ant and termite hills have no master architects; the architecture emerges from the unpredictable interactions of all the colony members, each following relatively simply rules.”
  • The brain is imperfect
  • We contradict ourselves, and our brain allows us to do so. Our evolution of intelligence and technology depends on the internal diversity of our conscious experience. The fact that our brain can hold contradictory views does not necessarily mean failure, because it serves as a pathway to more superior outcomes. Thus, conscious evolution.
  • The brain uses evolution
  • The patterns are important
  • The brain is holographic
  • The brain is deeply connected
  • (I just realized what a terribly strange word “brain” is)
  • The brain does have an architecture of regions
  • The design of a brain region is simpler than the design of a neuron

Peering into the Brain

The resolution is brain-imaging is constantly being pushed further. When this book was published back in 2004, physicists were already pursuing intracellular surgery, where single mitochondrion could be destroyed without affecting any other part of the cell. Scientists have successfully severed interneuronal connections without damaging surrounding tissue or function. This technology is very young, but it’s important to take pause and understand the state of the field, cause it’s moving right along.

We are heading toward technology that enables us to literally observe neuronal function. As a young neuroscientist, this is obviously incredibly exciting. Right now, brain-imaging falls plenty short of what we need. Most techniques are either poor in temporal resolution and strong in spatial resolution, or vice versa. Overall, there is room for improvement, and I am absolutely thrilled to hear Kurzweil’s perspective on the movement of this technology.

The BBB

Kurzweil predicts that by the 2020s we will be able to scan the brain from the inside using nanobots, which will be the size of human blood cells or smaller. The nanobots would use a network of high-speed communication, allowing nanobots and computers to all communicate using a “wireless local area network”. One of the bigger challenges in the application of nanobots in brain scanning is interfacing with the blood-brain barrier (BBB). The BBB is a semi-permeable barrier, consisting of a series of tight-junction capillaries that separate unwanted fluids and molecules from the blood circulating in the brain.

Here are some methods that Kurzweil suggests in order to cross the BBB with nanobots, some already in development and some that may be developed over the next quarter century:

  • Make nanobots small enough, which is not very likely considering the nanobot would have to be twenty nanometers or less in diameter (the size of 100 carbon atoms).
  • Keep nanobots in bloodstream with robotic arm that extends through BBB
  • Keep nanobots in capillaries and use noninvasive scanning
  • Noninvasively emitting focused signals
  • Creating nanobots that can break through BBB by making a hole, and then immediately repairing the damage, yikes.
  • Triggering/simulating natural processes by which the BBB opens up, this technique is of great interest in cancer treatment studies.
  • Bypass bloodstream and BBB by injecting nanobots directly into brain

Nanotechnology could/will greatly improve brain-imaging resolution, in ways that I have a hard time even imagining. And we won’t even need to observe every neural connection to fully reverse-engineer the brain. We just need to sufficiently understand the basic patterns of each region, which according to Kurzweil will be possible by the 2020s. Time is ticking.

I know a lot of my peers are hesitant to embrace the idea of nanobots in our brains. I hear it, I get it, I respect it. There is a lot at stake as we move forward through the era of biotechnology and into nanotechnology.

Here’s my question: is it better to spend time fearing and half-heartedly preventing the progress of nanobots in our brain, or is it better to dedicate our efforts to ending diseases such as Alzheimer’s or cancer? We have the power and the opportunity to say GOODBYE to neurological disease. Is this not the goal of mankind, to forever improve the human experience?

We have years, maybe even decades to decide what the moral and logistical limits are to improving human well-being. I gotta say though, advancements are moving fast, and before you know it, I think we will have accepted the natural gift that is technology, BECAUSE WE ALWAYS DO.

Will robots inherit the earth? Yes, but they will be our children.
– Marvin Minsky, 1995

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