Cognitive computing seeks to engineer the mind by reverse engineering the brain

Earlier this month, I wrote about Sebastian Seung and his ideas on mapping the connections between the neurons of the human brain. Seung thought that by analyzing brain images and identifying neural pathways through the use of intelligent supercomputers, scientists would be able to analyze trillions of synapses and ultimately create a computing architecture based on how the mind works. According to Ray Kurzweil, an artificial intelligence expert, inventor and futurist, we may be only a decade away from having the technology to map out and reverse engineer the human brain.

Reverse engineering is a common practice, just think of the software industry as an example. By modeling the behavior of a certain piece of software, engineers can recreate it and then produce almost identical computer code. Kurzweil says: “The purpose of reverse engineering the human brain is to understand the basic principles of intelligence. Once you have a simulation working, you can start modifying things and certain things may not matter, some things may be very critical, and you learn what’s important and what the basic principles by which the human brain handles hierarchies, and variance, properties of patterns, and high-level features and so on.”

The key to reverse-engineering the human brain lies in decoding and simulating the cerebral cortex – the seat of cognition. The human cortex has about 22 billion neurons and 220 trillion synapses.  A supercomputer capable of running a software simulation of the human brain would require a computational capacity of at least 36.8 petaflops and a memory capacity of 3.2 petabytes – a scale that supercomputer technology is expected to hit in a few years, according to IBM researcher Dharmendra Modha. Modha leads the cognitive computing project at IBM’s Almaden Research Center.

“Reverse engineering of the human brain is within reach”, agrees Terry Sejnowski, head of the computational neurobiology lab at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

“Reverse-engineering is being pursued in different ways, the objective is not necessarily to build a grand simulation – the real objective is to understand the principle of operation of the brain”, says Kurzweil.

As longevity experts, we feel that the approach to neuronal network mapping and reverse-engineering are the first steps to preserving something extremely precious – our consciousness. Also a future of self-programming computers and brain implants that would allow humans to think at speeds nearing today’s microprocessors is an expected outcome given the current rate of advancement in biotechnology and information technology.

Technology will predictably get to the point of making artificial intelligence. The mere fact that the exact date cannot be predicted is no excuse for closing our eyes and refusing to think about it.

Read the article from Wired and learn more about reverse engineering the human brain



Filed under Artificial Intelligence

4 responses to “Cognitive computing seeks to engineer the mind by reverse engineering the brain

  1. In-silico assist can’t come soon enough as more and more nouns fall into the memory lint trap!

  2. This is not as far-fetched as some might think. Three years ago, a team of scientists ran a simulation of one hemisphere of a mouse brain, although the limitations of computer processing power required it to run at only one-tenth of real-time speed.

    Kurzweil’s remarks at the end of the post are a bit misleading since a functioning adult brain is several orders of magnitude more complex than the genome which guides its initial development. To be of any use, reverse engineering would need to be able to handle the fully developed brain. Of course Kurzweil’s discussion in The Singularity Is Near shows that he’s well aware of the difference.

    In any case, this is where our efforts toward long-term life extension will focus. Saving ourselves from the ravages of aging is important as a bridge which will keep millions of people alive until computer technology reaches the point where it can take over from biology, but only when we’ve escaped our dependence on fragile organic bodies and brains will we become truly immortal.

  3. I don’t think that new memories are the biggest issue, it’s the understanding and simulation of those mechanisms that are responsible for the new memories, storaging and processing of new words, images, etc. Once we figure those things out, we’ll be able to deal with a large, but still finite amount of incoming information.

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