Brain Building?

Screen Shot 2013-03-05 at 2.34.40 PMI recently completed a series of public talks connected with my new book, The Visioneers. A neologism of “visionary” and “engineer,” the term captures the hybrid nature of these technologists’ activities. The visionary aspect is central – these are people who aren’t simply imagining some new app for the iPhone. At its core, visioneering entails developing a broad and comprehensive vision for how the future might be radically changed by technology, doing research to advance this vision, and promoting one’s ideas to the public and policy makers in the hopes of generating attention and perhaps even realization.

At the end of all of my talks – which were great fun – audience members asked me for examples of who else – besides the two main characters my book focuses on – “qualify” as a visioneer. One of the examples I always proposed was Ray Kurzweil.

Born in 1948, Kurzweil first achieved national recognition when he appeared as a teen on CBS’s show I’ve Got a Secret where he played a short piece of music. What made the tune special was that a computer Kurzweil had programmed was the composer. Fascinated with broader themes of pattern recognition, Kurzweil experienced early business success by developing software that could match the backgrounds of college students to particular schools while still an undergraduate at MIT. After graduating, he built “reading machines” for the blind that could translate written text into speech, devices that musician Stevie Wonder widely praised and that made Kurzweil a nationally recognized entrepreneur. In 1999, President Clinton awarded Kurzweil the National medal of Technology and Innovation.

In addition to his innovations at the interface of computers and pattern recognition, Kurzweil has achieved a different sort of fame (or infamy, depending on your point of view) for being the most visible advocate of the Singularity. Its proponents have gathered together a wide range of technological ideas – space exploration, nanotechnologies, life extension, biological enhancement – into a broader vision for the technological future. Although the Singularity began attracting considerable mainstream attention in the early 21st century, it was directly descended from something that appeared decades earlier in the pages of, not surprisingly, in Omni magazine.1 Like the pessimistic scenarios in The Limits to Growth, Kurzweil based his expectations for the Singularity on exponential growth. Following the example of Moore’s Law, he formulated his own “Law of Accelerating Returns.” Kurzweil’s maxim posited that technological advances in areas such as nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology will occur exponentially until a “rupture in the fabric of human history” occurs.2 Rooted as it was in selective observations about previous technological trends, critics however saw the Singularity as an “untestable set of assumptions about our near future.”3

Artificial intelligence is the main feature of Singularity-oriented thinking that has recently gotten the most attention. Kurzweil has been a staunch advocate of the idea that, in the not-so-distant future, “artificial intelligence will reach human levels by around 2029. Follow that out further to, say, 2045, we will have multiplied the intelligence, the human biological machine intelligence of our civilization a billion-fold.”4

Kurzweil’s thoughts on the parallels between computer hardware and the human mind are described in his new book How to Create a Mind (Viking, 2012). I thought – with my own grey matter – of this recently as I was reading various materials on the Obama administration’s brain mapping initiative (which I wrote about here). Kurzweil’s conceptualization of the human brain is very reductionist and stems a good deal, not surprisingly, from his extensive and well-respected work in computer science. His main thesis is that the part of the brain that is “most associated with reasoning and conscious thought, the neocortex, is seen as a hierarchical set of pattern-recognition devices, in which complex entities are recognized as a statistical function of their constituent parts.”5

Recently, some critiques of Kurzweil’s have appeared, all of which challenge his mingling of biology, neuroscience, and computer science. The 15 February 2013 issue of Science, for example, has a review of Kurzweil’s new book by Christof Koch, a Caltech scientist and Chief Scientific Officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science. Although he praises Kurzweil’s command of artificial intelligence research, Koch blasts his “knowledge of neuroscience” which “is simply inadequate to the task at hand.” In the spectrum of scientists who are trying to simulate the mind-brain as ranging from the “biological chauvinists” who want to account for “every ionic channel, action potential, and neuron” to the mathematicians who take an austere and “purely algorithmic approach of replicating the mind in software,” Kurzweil falls in the latter camp. Koch concludes that “Kurzweil’s claim that we will soon figure out how the 100 billion neurons of the human brain function” on the basis of artificial intelligence models “is complete bosh.” This does make one wonder about the feasibility or goals of a federal brain mapping initiative.

The current New York Review of Books also has a harsh critique, this one by “philosopher of mind” Colin McGinn. McGinn attacks the “theory of mind” proposed by Kurzweil in How to Create a Mind which is heavily rooted in the complexities of pattern recognition in that “it provides the key to mental phenomena in general.” McGinn disagrees – “Pattern recognition pertains to perception specifically, not to all mental activity: the perceptual systems process stimuli and categorize what is presented to the senses, but that is only part of the activity of the mind… Kurzweil makes no serious effort to generalize beyond the perceptual case, blithely proceeding as if everything mental involves perception.”

McGinn also goes after Kurzweil’s use of language, calling it “homunculism” i.e. the attribution of human-like qualities to parts of the human body.6 In this case, it refers to attributing the power of thought to our networks of neurons. As McGinn states, “Why do we say that telephone lines convey information? Not because they are intrinsically informational, but because conscious subjects are at either end of them, exchanging information in the ordinary sense…The mistake is to suppose that wires and neurons are homunculi that somehow mimic human subjects in their information-processing powers; instead they are simply the causal background to genuinely informational transactions.” Such framing can “give rise to the illusion that one is nearer to accounting for the mind…than one really is.”In the end, McGinn concludes that Kurzweil’s book is “interesting in places, fairly readable, moderately informative, but wildly overstated.”

I’m not in a position to evaluate the claims from neuroscientists and philosophers about the best way to think about the brain’s operation or the nature of mind – I am an intrigued yet non-expert reader on such topics. But, coming back to Kurzweil as visioneer, one thing stands out for me. Visioneers have an ability to stimulate and provoke public discussion about far-reaching ideas. Gerard O’Neill’s ideas for space settlements did this as did Eric Drexler’s ideas for molecular engineering at the nanoscale. We want people to probe the extent of what’s possible and prod others to think about it. To my mind, Kurzweil’s ideas seem hyperbolic and overly simplistic/optimistic…but in presenting them in a popularized form to a lay audience, he has managed to generate discussion about the further reaches of what might be possible at the interfaces of neuroscience and artificial intelligence. I see this as a net positive gain.

Will this affect us anytime soon? Google recently announced that “futurist” Kurzweil was joining their engineering team to develop new software tools based on his understanding of the human mind.

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Just what do you think you’re doing, Ray…er…Dave?

  1. In 1983, Omni published a short essay by science fiction writer Vernor Vinge that considered a future where technological change accelerated at an increasing pace. “When this happens, human history will have reached a kind of singularity,” Vinge proposed, “and the world will pass far beyond our understanding.” []
  2. See []
  3. Susan Hassler. “Un-assuming the Singularity,” p. 9 of IEEE Spectrum, June 2008. []
  4. As told to Ray Solman on PBS’s NewsHour []
  5. From []
  6. Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic has a short but nice commentary on this which I draw on here. []

One thought on “Brain Building?

  1. Kurzweil definitely falls into the Visioneer category. And he does seem to be unaware of how much we don’t know about the brain. Just one tidbit: the glial cells in the brain’s white matter appear to send signals using purely chemical, rather than electrochemical, channels–they are doing something extremely important, and different from what the gray matter does. And they make up the majority of the brain. To say “neurons recognize patterns” is true, but pure handwavium when it comes to reconstructing the process in silicon.

    On the other hand McGinn has a much narrower view of pattern recognition than many cognitive scientists. I’d feel no compunction about framing memory and emotion in pattern recognition terms. One of the big things we’re coming to understand about the mind is that the systems we use to perceive the world are the same ones we use to recall it, react to it, and simulate its possible future states. “Everything mental involves perception” is actually a legitimate neuropsychological claim, if not an uncontroversial one.

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