Duke neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis made it clear at this year’s American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting: he is not a Singularitarian. Addressing fellow scientists, he dismissed the singularity as “a bunch of hot air,” and went on further to declare that “the brain is not computable and no engineering can reproduce it.”
Ray Kurzweil, no doubt, couldn’t disagree more. You know, the guy who’s last book was entitled “How To Create a Mind”?
But Nicolelis isn’t backing down from critics. A very lively Twitter discussion took place in the days after he made the comments. “How in heavens do you simulate something you have no algorithm for?” went one Tweet. “…we would not be talking about consciousness. Our brain is ‘copy-write’ protected by its own evolutionary history!” went another. And the most damning hurl in the direction of Singularitarians: “Fallacy is what people are selling: that human nature can be reduced to [something] that [a] computer algorithm can run! This is a new church!”
I had to use Google Translate to translate the comments from Portuguese, but they seem to be accurate translations given his argument at the meeting.
Describing his new Pattern Recognition Theory of Mind (PRTM) during a Singularity Hub drive along interview last October, Ray Kurzweil voiced an opinion that couldn’t be more different from Nicolelis’. “We now have enough evidence to support a particular theory, …a uniform theory about how the neocortex works. And it’s basically comprised of 300 million pattern recognizers. Most important they can wire themselves in hierarchies to other pattern recognizers. The world is inherently hierarchical and the neocortex allows us to understand it in that hierarchical fashion.”
That is to say, Kurzweil thinks there is a certain simplicity to the structure of the neocortex, the part of the brain where the most complex human mental activities take place, that lends itself to being reproduced – by 2029, he famously predicts.
But Nicolelis isn’t buying it. He thinks the brain/neocortex is much more than a hierarchy of pattern recognizers, and it’s that complexity that futurists like Kurzweil underestimate. “You can’t predict whether the stock market will go up or down because you can’t compute it,” he said at the AAAS conference, MIT Technology Review reports. “You could have all the computer chips ever in the world and you won’t create a consciousness.”
Even if he thinks human thought won’t one day be recreated with silicon, Nicolelis certainly believes it will be augmented by it. A leading researcher in brain-computer interface technologies, he presented such an apparatus at the AAAS meeting: a device that enabled rats to detect infrared light. They did this by mounting on the rats’ heads infrared sensors that were connected to stimulating electrodes implanted in the brain. Infrared signals were translated to a stimulation pattern in the area of the brain that processes touch sensations, the somatosensory cortex. In this way they created a “sensory neuroprosthesis.” He hopes that these sorts of devices may one day “serve to expand natural perceptual capabilities in mammals.”
Of course, Nicolelis is not the first to suggest Kurzweil and his Singularitarian followers could use more hard science and less wishful thinking in their predictions. In fact, New York University psychology professor Gary Marcus wrote a scathing condemnation of Kurzweil’s “How To Create A Mind” in the New Yorker: “Kurzweil’s pointers to neuroanatomy serve more as razzle-dazzle than real evidence for his theory” is the take-home message.
As he always does, Kurzweil is sure to fire back at his critics. And as the newly appointed Director of Engineering at Google, where his explicit mission is to create an artificial intelligence that will “make all of us smarter,” he’s certainly got the money to put where his mouth is. He’s teaming up with Google to create the most sophisticated AI assistant the world has ever seen. It might not be the brain that many of his fans are waiting for, but it could very well help the cause. Because it’s already 2013, and 2029 will be here before you know it.