Say what you will about transhumanism, but one thing’s for certain: it really polarises opinion, and nowhere more so than in the halls of academia and scientific research. Observe: Wired/Gizmodo had a chat with Singularitarian-in-chief Ray Kurzweil, who restated his theory (considered unrealistically optimistic by some transhumanists) that we’ll be able to reverse-engineer the human brain and simulate it with computers within a decade or so.
Here’s how that math works, Kurzweil explains: The design of the brain is in the genome. The human genome has three billion base pairs or six billion bits, which is about 800 million bytes before compression, he says. Eliminating redundancies and applying loss-less compression, that information can be compressed into about 50 million bytes, according to Kurzweil.
About half of that is the brain, which comes down to 25 million bytes, or a million lines of code.
Now enter PZ Myers, prominent atheism advocate (I like to think of him as “Dawkins’ Bulldog”, though I’m not sure Dawkins really needs a bulldog in the way that Darwin did) and vigorous debunker of fringe science. Broad claims in the Kurzweil vein are like a red rag to Myers, especially on his home turf of genetic biology, and he’s not afraid of mixing in a little ad hominem disparagement with his rejoinders, either:
Kurzweil knows nothing about how the brain works. It’s design is not encoded in the genome: what’s in the genome is a collection of molecular tools wrapped up in bits of conditional logic, the regulatory part of the genome, that makes cells responsive to interactions with a complex environment. The brain unfolds during development, by means of essential cell:cell interactions, of which we understand only a tiny fraction. The end result is a brain that is much, much more than simply the sum of the nucleotides that encode a few thousand proteins. He has to simulate all of development from his codebase in order to generate a brain simulator, and he isn’t even aware of the magnitude of that problem.
To simplify it so a computer science guy can get it, Kurzweil has everything completely wrong. The genome is not the program; it’s the data. The program is the ontogeny of the organism, which is an emergent property of interactions between the regulatory components of the genome and the environment, which uses that data to build species-specific properties of the organism. He doesn’t even comprehend the nature of the problem, and here he is pontificating on magic solutions completely free of facts and reason.
Now, I’m not taking sides here*; I don’t know enough computer science or evolutionary biology to cut into either interpretation. But a high-minded slapfight like this is always of interest, because it highlights just how seriously some very intelligent people take the issue. Kurzweil has more than a tinge of the evangelist about him, which is (I suspect) a large part of what bothers Myers about him, but there’s obviously something powerful about the idea (the meme?) of transhumanism/singularitarianism that he feels makes it worth fighting.
Ideas that get people arguing are important ideas. I consider myself a fellow traveller of transhumanism for this very reason; the ways we imagine tomorrow says a lot about where we are today, and vice versa. There’s a lot to learn by listening to both sides, I think.
[ * Yeah, yeah, I know, I’ve got marks on my ass from sitting on the fence. That’s just how I roll, baby; you want clenched-fist advocacy of anything but the right to think for yourself, you’re gonna need to read a different blog. ]