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.