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.