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The Brain is Not Computable

by Antonio RegaladoMIT Technology Review
February 18th, 2013

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).

In a study published last week, for instance, Nicolelis’ group at Duke used brain implants to allow mice to sense infrared light, something mammals can’t normally perceive. They did it by wiring a head-mounted infrared sensor to electrodes implanted into a part of the brain called the somatosensory cortex.

The experiment, in which several mice were able to follow sensory cues from the infrared detector to obtain a reward, was the first ever to use a neural implant to add a new sense to an animal, Nicolelis says.  

That’s important because the human brain has evolved to take the external world—our surroundings and the tools we use—and create representations of them in our neural pathways. As a result, a talented basketball player perceives the ball “as just an extension of himself” says Nicolelis.

Similarly, Nicolelis thinks in the future humans with brain implants might be able to sense X-rays, operate distant machines, or navigate in virtual space with their thoughts, since the brain will accommodate foreign objects including computers as part of itself.

Recently, Nicolelis’s Duke lab has been looking to put an exclamation point on these ideas. In one recent experiment, they used a brain implant so that a monkey could control a full-body computer avatar, explore a virtual world, and even physically sense it.

In other words, the human brain creates models of tools and machines all the time, and brain implants will just extend that capability. Nicolelis jokes that if he ever opened a retail store for brain implants, he’d call it Machines“R”Us.

But, if he’s right, us ain’t machines, and never will be. 



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