Transhumanist science clash! Kurzweil vs. Myers

Paul Raven @ 18-08-2010

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. ]


Swarming behaviour enlarges brains

Paul Raven @ 26-05-2010

… if you’re a locust, that is. When the droughts make times tough for the normally solitary little critters, they get packed close together, and a sort of insect mob law takes over in response to a flood of serotonin – swarm time! This change to a more risky social lifestyle demands more brain power from the individual locusts, and their brains expand to cope.

Immediate parallels thrown up by my own brain: Teilhard de Chardin’s noosphere; Clarke’s Childhood’s End. Putting on an uncritically optimistic technophiliac hat for a moment, might we imagine the increased global socialisation enabled by modern communications networks to provoke some similar expansion of human brain capacity?

We might… but bear in mind the locust’s brain-boost is necessary to cope with a life where fierce resource competition and cannibalism is the norm. Hey presto: a grimly allegorical sf dystopia that writes itself!


Humans may have a brain-deep aversion to income inequality

Paul Raven @ 03-03-2010

… or at least that’s the case according to researchers at CalTech, who’ve been using fMRI to examine how the human brain responds to rewards [via Freakonomics; image by jsmjr].

… what was unknown was just how hardwired that dislike really is. “In this study, we’re starting to get an idea of where this inequality aversion comes from,” he says. “It’s not just the application of a social rule or convention; there’s really something about the basic processing of rewards in the brain that reflects these considerations.”

The brain processes “rewards”—things like food, money, and even pleasant music, which create positive responses in the body—in areas such as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) and ventral striatum.

Procedural and methodological stuff follows, so let’s skip to the kicker:

As it turned out, the way the volunteers—or, to be more precise, the reward centers in the volunteers’ brains—reacted to the various scenarios depended strongly upon whether they started the experiment with a financial advantage over their peers.

“People who started out poor had a stronger brain reaction to things that gave them money, and essentially no reaction to money going to another person,” Camerer says. “By itself, that wasn’t too surprising.”

What was surprising was the other side of the coin. “In the experiment, people who started out rich had a stronger reaction to other people getting money than to themselves getting money,” Camerer explains. “In other words, their brains liked it when others got money more than they liked it when they themselves got money.”

“We now know that these areas are not just self-interested,” adds O’Doherty. “They don’t exclusively respond to the rewards that one gets as an individual, but also respond to the prospect of other individuals obtaining a reward.”

That’s a lovely interpretation that I’d dearly love to believe in, and I have not even a fraction of the medical knowledge I’d need in order to attempt to refute it, nor refute the way the research was framed.

So instead I’ll pose a question: if we’re so hardwired to loathe income inequality, and those starting with greater fortunes are supposed to enjoy seeing others rewarded more than themselves, why exactly is income inequality such a widespread feature of almost every culture on the planet?


Neurocapitalism

Paul Raven @ 23-02-2010

Move over, neurocinematicsneurocapitalism reaches far beyond the theatre and focus group in its all-pervasive influence! Well, not quite, but Martin Börjesson responds to an article that uses the term as its title in order to make a point about the increasing ubiquity of neuroscience and the effects that it will have on every aspect of our lives, be they public or private:

The real reason why neurophysiological knowledge will have huge impact is rather that we are heading into a world where 1st person experiences, emotions and perspective will dominate. This shift is very well matched to what neurophysiology is promising: e g to solve people’s (perceived) disorders and fix (perceived) shortcomings, but also to boost experiences and create (artificial) peace of mind. Institutions will, part from selling all the neuro-based drugs, devices and services to people, use the new knowledge to both manipulate people but also get new insight in what people wants in order to be able and develop and market products and services more efficiently and effectively.

So even if we will not have a Neurocapitalism, we will most likely have a market in where many, many products and services will be based on or transformed by the new knowledge, ideas and innovations that stem from neurophysiological research.

As with basic psychology, knowledge is power; if you want to be able to resist the imminent finely-crafted importunings of anyone who can afford the right neurological research, you’ll need to learn which tricks they’ve found effective so as to protect yourself against them. But start small – why not learn a little about the emotional psychology of retail as a warm-up [via BoingBoing; image via Hljod.Huskona]?


IBM cat-brain sim actually a scam?

Paul Raven @ 24-11-2009

Branding the work of other scientists as fraudulent scams seems to be the flavour of the week. Remember IBM’s cat-sized brain simulation as mentioned last week? Well, it was pointed out by calmer minds than my own that I overstated the significance of the announcement… but Henry Markham, another scientist who’s also affiliated with IBM, has delivered a hearty broadside in the form of an open letter to IBM’s CTO:

… what IBM reported is a scam — no where near a cat-scale brain simulation […] I am absolutely shocked at this announcement. Not because it is any kind of technical feat, but because of the mass deception of the public.

1. These are point neurons (missing 99.999% of the brain; no branches; no detailed ion channels; the simplest possible equation you can imagine to simulate a neuron, totally trivial synapses; and using the STDP learning rule I discovered in this way is also is a joke).

2. All these kinds of simulations are trivial and have been around for decades – simply called artificial neural network (ANN) simulations. We even stooped to doing these kinds of simulations as bench mark tests 4 years ago with 10’s of millions of such points before we bought the Blue Gene/L. If we (or anyone else) wanted to we could easily do this for a billion “points”, but we would certainly not call it a cat-scale simulation. It is really no big deal to simulate a billion points interacting if you have a big enough computer. The only step here is that they have at their disposal a big computer. For a grown up “researcher” to get excited because one can simulate billions of points interacting is ludicrous…

There’s more where that came from, too. As Wired points out, though, Markham isn’t exactly an innocent bystander in this matter, as he has his own high-level brain simulation project being run under the same company aegis


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