Skip to comments.The Singularity is Far: A Neuroscientist's View
Posted on 07/23/2011 5:20:05 AM PDT by LibWhacker
Ray Kurzweil, the prominent inventor and futurist, can't wait to get nanobots into his brain. In his view, these devices will be equipped with a variety of sensors and stimulators and will communicate wirelessly with computers outside of the body. In addition to providing unprecedented insight into brain function at the cellular level, brain-penetrating nanobots would provide the ultimate virtual reality experience. In an interview with GOOD magazine, Kurzweil says:
"By the late 2020s, nanobots in our brain, that will get there noninvasively, through the capillaries, will create full-immersion virtual-reality environments from within the nervous system. So if you want to go into virtual reality the nanobots shut down the signals coming from your real senses and replace them with the signals that your brain would be receiving if you were actually in the virtual environment. So this will provide full-immersion virtual reality incorporating all of the senses."
Of course, there's no reason why these nanobots must be restricted in their manipulations to the sensory portions of the brain. In Kurzweil's scenario, brain nanobots could just as easily manipulate motor functions, cognitive processes, memories, emotions, and basic drives. But nanobot-mediated virtual reality, virtual emotion, and modulated cognition are only the beginning. Kurzweil predicts that by the late 2030s, we will be able to routinely scan an individual's brain with such molecular precision and with such a complete understanding of the rules underlying neuronal function and plasticity that we will be able to "upload" our mental life into a vastly powerful and capacious future computer. As Kurzweil describes it his book The Singularity is Near , "This process would capture a person's entire personality, memory, skills and history."
At that point, boundaries between brain, mind, and machine would fall away. Once our individual mental selves are instantiated in machine form, manipulations of mental function, perception, and action just become software modules. Want to improve your mood? Want to preserve all your experiences in memories with perfect fidelity? Want to have the mother of all orgasms? There's an app for that.
As much as I respect Ray Kurzweil and appreciate his willingness to make predictions about and argue for specific future events, I take issue with his timetables for both the introduction of brain-nanobots and the ability to upload the contents and meaning of a brain.
Image: Harris KM, Fiala JC, Ostroff L. Structural changes at dendritic spine synapses during long-term
potentiation.. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series B 358, 745-748 (2003).
I am a neurobiologist and I have spent the past 28 years engaged in studies of the cellular and molecular basis of memory and cognition. I am an optimist and a technophile, but I believe that I speak for the vast majority of brain researchers when I express serious doubts about Kurweil's timetable.
The central premise underlying his predictions is that enabling technologies like computer processors, computer memory, microscopes, brain scanners, and DNA sequencing machines have been on an exponential rather than a linear trajectory in terms of their capacity, speed, resolution, and real-world cost, and that it is reasonable to imagine that this exponential trend will continue. Kurzweil also assumes that the human mind resides entirely in the brain (or at least in the nervous system): There is no immortal soul, collective energy, or other nonbiological component that encodes our individual mental selves. At this point in his argument I'm still on board.
However, Kurzweil then argues that our understanding of biologyand of neurobiology in particularis also on an exponential trajectory, driven by enabling technologies. The unstated but crucial foundation of Kurzweil's scenario requires that at some point in the 2020s, a miracle will occur: If we keep accumulating data about the brain at an exponential rate (its connection maps, its activity patterns, etc.), then the long-standing mysteries of development, consciousness, perception, decision, and action will necessarily be revealed. Our understanding of brain function and our ability to measure the relevant parameters of individual brains (aided by technologies like brain nanobots) will consequently increase in an exponential manner to allow for brain-uploading to computers in the year 2039.
That's where I get off the bus.
I contend that our understanding of biological processes remains on a stubbornly linear trajectory. In my view the central problem here is that Kurzweil is conflating biological data collection with biological insight.
A Lake of Data, A Puddle of Knowledge
Let's take genetic sequencing as an example. Yes, we have now sequenced quite a few human genomes and, yes, the speed and cost of doing so are improving exponentially. The human genome sequenceand those of the rat, mouse, fly, zebrafish and rhesus monkeyare an invaluable tool for biologists. That said, while the fundamental insights that have emerged to date from the human genome sequence have been important, they have been far from revelatory.
For example, we have learned that gene duplication is more common than we originally thought. It's not all that rare for regions of chromosomes to repeat themselves. We have also learned that humans have fewer genes, but that those genes have more complex modes of regulation and more splice-forms than we had initially predicted.
That's all useful information, but it doesn't represent a game-changing, exponential transformation in our understanding of genetics. When the human genome sequence was finished, no one was able to look at it and say, "A-ha, now I can understand what makes us uniquely human," or "A-ha, now I see how a fertilized egg becomes a newborn during the course of gestation."
There have been a number of genuine paradigm-shifting insights in genetics in recent years. For example, we now know that chemical modification of DNA through a process called methylation can alter its structure and the way in which it interacts with a set of regulatory/structural proteins called histones, thereby silencing the expression of certain genes. This is one of several mechanisms that controls the regulation of gene expression or "epigenetics". Such insights have explained a whole set of puzzles and are a major step forward in our understanding of genetics.
But these discoveries, and most of the other key conceptual breakthroughs in this field, have come slowly, the result of stubbornly linear small science, and not of the huge technology-driven data sets that Kurzweil describes.
This linear progress also holds true for the growth in our knowledge of brain function. For example, we now have a map called the Allen Brain Atlas that shows the expression pattern of almost every gene in the mouse brain, detailed in a huge series of microscopic images. This resource, which is available to everyone on the Internet, is a wonderful tool for brain researchers, but it has produced few "Eureka!" moments. The temporal and spatial resolution of our brain scanners is also improving, but these improvements have likewise yielded fundamentally linear insights.
Kurzweil's ideas about nanobots in the brain are problematic, as well.
He says his nanobots will measure seven microns acrossabout half the diameter of a typical neuronal cell bodyand their job will be to maneuver through brain tissue and deploy microsensors and stimulators to evaluate normal brain function.
You might imagine the nanobot as a car, something the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. It drives down the road, until it finds something the size of an SUV (a neuron). Here is the first of many problems in Kurzweil's scenario: The brain is composed of neurons and glial cellsnon-neuronal cells that outnumber neurons 10-to-1 and provide metabolic support and slow forms of information processing in the brain. These cells are packed together very tightly, leaving only miniscule gaps between them.
It is easy to look at the left panel of the figure that shows a computer-based reconstruction of the tip of a growing axon in the brain and imagine that there is plenty of space around it. However, the complete view of this same growing axon tip is shown in the panel on the right. This image is made with a transmission electron microscope and it shows how the same growing axon (marked with asterisks) is packed into a dense and complex matrix of tissue containing other neurons and glial cells. The scale bar in the left panel is 0.5 microns long, about 1/160th of the diameter of a human hair. So you can imagine Kurzweil's brain nanobot, a structure about fourteen times larger in diameter than the scale bar, crashing through this delicate web of living, electrically-active connections.
What's more, the tiny spaces between these cells are filled not just with salt solution, but with structural cables built of proteins and sugars, which have the important function of conveying signals to and from neighboring cells. So let's imagine our nanobot-Volkswagen approaching the brain, where it encounters a parking lot of GMC Yukon SUVs stretching as far as the eye can see. The vehicles are all parked in a grid, with only one half-inch between them, and that half-inch is filled with crucial cables hooked to their mechanical systems. (To be accurate, we should picture the lot to be a three-dimensional matrix, a parking lot of SUVs soaring stories into the sky and stretching as far as the eye can see, but you get the idea).
Even if our intrepid nanobot were jet-powered and equipped with a powerful cutting laser, how would it move through the brain and not leave a trail of destruction in its wake?
The nanobot also needs its own power source. And it needs to evade reactive microglia, specialized brain cells that attack and engulf foreign bodies. And all of this has to happen in a way that does not compromise the physiology that the nanobot is trying to measure. These problems are not fundamentally or philosophically unsolvable, but they are enormous. The 2020s are coming up fast, and so there's a lot that would need to be accomplished in a very short time to keep Kurzweil's nanobot timetable on track.
Don't get me wrong. I do believe that the fundamental and long-standing mysteries of the brain will ultimately be solved. I don't hold with those pessimists who claim that we can never understand our minds by using our brains. I also share Kurzweil's belief that technological advancement will be central to unlocking the enduring mysteries of brain function. But while I see an exponential trajectory in the amount of neurobiological data collected to date, the ploddingly linear increase in our understanding of neural function means that an idea like mind-uploading to machines being usefully deployed by the 2020s or even the 2030s seems overly optimistic.
We are Borg.
You will be assimilated.
Resistance is futile.
As we are dealing in the realms of predicting future progress, I am glad to have another researcher put forward his input.
Your personal and technological unigueness will be added to the Collective.
Quote...”I am a neurobiologist and I have spent the past 28 years engaged in studies of the cellular and molecular basis of memory and cognition.”
Give me one hour in a lab under scientific scrutiny and I will prove that memories are not stored in the body, but are anchored in the body. I've been to the neuroscience symposiums and listened to Kandel, LeDoux, and others present about memory storage. Memories are no more stored in the brain than the music you hear coming from a radio is stored within it!
I do a simple experiment that reads people's memories with a methodology that is easily verifiable. It bypasses their critical senses and the critical mind, thus eliminating the biased variable of perception influencing results. It is a cause and effect measurable stimulus/response technique. I never considered psychology a science(even though I also have a degree in it)prior to discovering this methodology as study results could only show correlation.
When I stand ten feet from a blindfolded person who has ear plugs in, do not say anything or physically touch their body, I move my hand through their stored memories and their body moves in specific patterns which indicate who the memory involved, how they responded to the event, and approximately how old they were when the event happened. It's instant depth psychology. Forget the years of psychoanalysis. This technique is pretty accurate with memories since conception.
Memories are stored in fields around the body, in specific patterns that are easily read. I've been doing it for twenty years. Took me this long to figure out the neural pathways to understand how it works.
It's the "A" students' dilemma living in a world run by "C" students.
Where science has gone terribly off course it is because the "C" students took over and started making wild extrapolations with limited data and knowledge. Take global warming (cooling) and evolution (just try to find any work on the mechanisms of biochemical evolution).
Both took a limited set of data at a time when our fundamental understanding was (is) limited and extrapolated to absurd conclusions.
This whole field is fascinating. Randy Jirtle, here at Duke University is a leading researcher in this area. In 2003, his research with the agouti mice showed how to reverse DNA mutation that corrected defects for several generations of offspring in research mice that were genetically predisposed to obesity, cancer and diabetes.
Here is an interesting link.. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/body/epigenetic-mice.html
There was a NOVA special on his research a few years ago.
“When I stand ten feet from a blindfolded person who has ear plugs in, do not say anything or physically touch their body, I move my hand through their stored memories and their body moves in specific patterns which indicate who the memory involved, how they responded to the event, and approximately how old they were when the event happened. It’s instant depth psychology. Forget the years of psychoanalysis. This technique is pretty accurate with memories since conception”
I don’t understand how you “ move your hand through their stored memories “ . Where can I find documention about your experiment?
Do you have a white paper or dissertation on this methodology?
If so, is it published?
I would be very interested in reading it.
> I dont understand how you move your hand through their
> stored memories . Where can I find documention about your
I think he means that he simply moves his hand through the space surrounding the blindfolded, ear-plugged subject.
Is that correct, t&t?
"But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness, Looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat? Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness." (2 Peter 3:10-13)
"And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful." (Revelation 21:4-5)
Anchored or stored: "and the elements shall melt with fervent heat", " . . . all these things shall be dissolved . . . " (2 Peter 3:11a) , " . . . for the former things are passed away. " (Revelation 21:4b)
The details of personality and how it is related to the immortal soul are obscure to say the least. However it is interesting to note what the Bible has to say about the end of the present world and the creation of a new world. There seems to be a wiping out of some aspects of what is "in" the brain ( like synaptic connections and the individual electro/chemistry that has something to do with personality ) when the brain with all the elements of the cosmos "shall melt with fervent heat".
Then there is this: "Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity. " (1 Corinthians 13:8-13)
Personality elements like "Tongues"(= language), they shall cease; "Knowledge" shall vanish away.
What is it that remains? Faith, hope, and love which is the greatest of the three. Those are the essential character of Christ (God is Love) that is imparted to us in salvation. The "Beloved Disciple", John, said this, "Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is." (1 John 3:2) When we "see" Jesus we will be transformed into His likeness. The Apostle Paul said "In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality." (1 Corinthians 15:52-53) Changed in the "twinkling of an eye", instantaneous change into the likeness of Jesus.
And it's instructive to recall that God said to Moses, "And he said, Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live. " (Exodus 33:20) To see the face of God destroys the flesh, but the redeemed shall see Jesus as He is and be instantly changed into the His likeness and put on the newness of life immortal. That is the blessed hope of Christians. And it is through the shed blood of the Lord Jesus Christ that we are redeemed, "But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin." (1 John 1:7)
Just imagine nanobot politics, not using nanobot thought at all.
Good points. This is priceless:
It’s the “A” students’ dilemma living in a world run by “C” students.
we will all be obamabots and romneybots.
Please ping me with the answer about where one might read this. Thanks.
"Science is and must be exciting, since it relies on largely unspecifiable clues which can be sensed, mobilized and integrated only by a passionate response to their hidden meaning.... This is the unaccountable element which enters into science at its source and vitally participates throughout, even in its final result. In science this element has been called intuition." --Michael Polanyi, Scientist and Philosopher
"....In an essay entitled The Unaccountable Element in Science, he explains how it is impossible in the practice of science to replace unspecifiable acts of personal judgment -- AKA, intuition -- with the operation of explicit reasoning, as if our minds operated like machines. This applies not only to scientific discovery, but to "the very holding of scientific knowledge."
Gee, will it kill him in minutes, hours, days, weeks or months?
I am inherently skeptical, but your post is fascinating.
Any further material available?
BTW, I have read The Singularity Is Near by Kurzweil. I concluded that he is an optimist and is not considering the many negative forces that slow economic and scientific progress.
That said, I think that his projections of AI are spot on. It’s just that such research is not all aimed at the betterment of the human race.
I guarantee that governments, e.g., China, large corporations, and wealthy individuals are RACING to develop the next generation of AI.
Imagine the implications of superfast human-like AI as it is applied to cyberwarfare, engineering problems, market trading algorithms, etc.
This research will be motivated by the drive for power and wealth, as always.
"...Now, what is so interesting about this is that, at the top of that mountain, man doesn't discover an equation, or a singularity, or subatomic particle. Rather, what he discovers is another... face
Thanks LibWhacker. Ray Kurzweil ping.