Of Rats and Men: Rat brains, Blue Brains, and the coming AI age.

SEED magazine reports on the Blue Brain, which IMHO is the most likely project to attain machine-based self consciousness.  This in turn will change everything completely and usher in a new era that will bring more change to humanity than any previous event in history.

“The column has been built and it runs,” Markram says. “Now we just have to scale it up.” Blue Brain scientists are confident that, at some point in the next few years, they will be able to start simulating an entire brain. “If we build this brain right, it will do everything,” Markram says. I ask him if that includes selfconsciousness: Is it really possible to put a ghost into a machine? “When I say everything, I mean everything,” he says, and a mischievous smile spreads across his face.

As I’ve noted many times before I believe that machine consciousness will bring profound changes to humanity which will be hugely positive.   Now, we allocate resources very ineffectively.   Conscious computers will be able to do vastly superior resource allocations and staggering design improvements. These alone will likely resolve all global resource issues such as energy, food, and water.   It’s not as clear if the AI age will bring a resolution to problems that have as a a core cause our human defects.   Health, Education should benefit enormously but some of the human thinking that creates war, intolerance, crime and suicide will persist and it will resist the improvements. 

 However the abundance that the AI age will bring to the world should allow us to manage many of these human problems much more effectively. 

Markram:  “What is holding us back now are the computers.”  
Markram estimates that in order to accurately simulate the trillion synapses in the human brain, you’d need to be able to process about 500 petabytes of data – about 200 times more information than is stored on all of Google’s servers. 
Energy consumption is another huge problem …. Markram estimates that simulating the brain on a supercomputer with existing microchips would generate an annual electrical bill of about $3 billion …. But if computing speeds continue to develop at their current exponential pace, and energy efficiency improves, Markram believes that he’ll be able to model a complete human brain on a single machine in ten years or less.

This 10 year estimate is even more optimistic than Ray Kurzweil’s but in the same league.    Although most of the computer programmers I know strongly reject this view, I think it’s also possible that AI could emerge with very limited human intervention from the massive parallel processing environments such as Google’s search server farm of hundreds of thousands of connected machines.    Consciousness and human intelligence, if it is as overrated as I believe, is best seen as something of a byproduct of simpler, evolutionarily derived mental processes and other mental activities.  As the number of interconnections in machines approaches the number we have in our brains (again we bump into a 10-20 year time frame), and machines are programmed with current routines to do the same mental tasks we do, I’ll be very surprised if machine consciousness will require more than a modest level of additional tweaking of the type they have already started at Blue Brain. 

So, I’m not buying my laptop a birthday cake quite yet, but remain cautiously optimistic about the end of the world as we know it.   

4 thoughts on “Of Rats and Men: Rat brains, Blue Brains, and the coming AI age.

  1. Howdy Joe!
    We’ve been pondering the same thoughts lately, it seems. Although I am tending to lean in the opposite direction – I’m more of a pessimist when it comes to the advent of fully human-like Artificial Intelligence. But I do agree with you that we are coming to a singularity with Semantic Web and massively parallel processing.

  2. Hi Leah, thanks for the thoughtfulness of the comment but I don’t understand what you think will happen after the singularity – you mean we’ll just get left behind as defective sentient beings (possible but I think unlikely) or that our thinking will somehow remain in some ways superior to the machines?

  3. Markram estimates that simulating the brain on a supercomputer with existing microchips would generate an annual electrical bill of about $3 billion ….

    The 3 billion-dollar brain, however, when it arrives (probably still decades away) merely establishes the prototype, doesn’t it. The AI people will most likely succeed in creating some sort of “replicant”: a brain in a vat–or hard drive–does not quite equal “human”, however. Imagine if surgeons could preserve just Duck’s brain, and keep it (you) in a vault, without body, or senses: not much phunn being a body-less human, for one (Which is to say thinking does not follow routines or algorithms, but relates to perception, visual awareness, and even one might say “desire”, doesn’t it).

    Given the massive computing requirements, it seems a bit optimistic to think AI will start solving all political/economic/scientific problems. While I tentatively agree with you, and am not opposed in principle to the Kurzweilian “Singularity,” I don’t think it will be cost-effective for decades, if not centuries.

    One can PK Dick or bad Matrix sorts of scenarios with the brain-bots gone rogue as well. If the replicant functions anything like a typical human-primate brain, it might like morph into a Diane Feinstein-like creature–the Di-bot!–and implement some chi chi police state. That might sound preposterous, but the supposed “democratic” Congress recently passed a massive security act, and “Real ID” cards—a mini-data base with your life-history and bio-data on a driver’s license type of card, most likely with GPS tracking capabilities—may be required in the very near future.

  4. Horatiox – No, I just KNOW it’s going to be … wonderful!

    You are raising several good points, esp. the possibility that simply reconstructing a model of a human brain won’t create the conditions needed for conscious thinking. Clearly our human processes involve a lot of other moving, oozing, and electrified parts.

    However, my speculation is that most of the perceptual fun we have and pretty much all the ‘consciousness’ is very much rooted in the neocortex, which models the world in ways that were evolutionarily advantageous to us. Also I’d suggest that human thought is not profoundly different from other animal thought, which in turn is rooted in the very basic neuronal responses we’d find in simple life.

    Ergo, Markram and Blue Brain are on to something really, really big and perhaps the beginning of a new era. [symphony plays here]

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