Neuron News

Brute force engineering may not be the best path to The Singularity

Humanity may undergo an evolutionary phase transition within this century at the very moment our computational creations develop a level of intelligence that surpasses that of the typical human being. This predicted development is referred to as The Singularity. This transitional event might be considered a true evolutionary development for our species because our primary evolutionary advantage over the rest of the natural kingdom–high-level tool-making–is driving our engineering of ever-more powerful robots and computing machines.

However, we do often forge ahead in our technological developments with pure brute force in an attempt to make as much progress as possible in as short a time as possible. Notably, the classic Moore’s Law, an idea suggested by the co-founder of Intel, has accurately predicted the advancement of computing power over many decades. This exponential “law” is still expected to continue, and is a key predictive element for the coming Singularity Event.

However, bottlenecks for technical advancements in silicon-chip development that conforms with Moore’s Law have been foreseen in the past–and have been overcome. Making transistors ever smaller has been the primary brute-force method of increasing computational power, but there must be an ultimate limit: the scale of a single atom.

So, if silicon chips with transistors still larger than a single atom do not provide enough computing power to bring about The Singularity, what fork in the road of this bottleneck might we diverge onto? The human brain clearly does not have a circuitry that mimics the traditional structure of the computer chip. Even massively parallel computing systems do not come close to replicating the network structure of our brain. And it is the morphological structure of our networked neurons that ultimately gives rise to the emergent computational power of the mind… it’s just that we don’t yet understand this complex network structure.

A brief commentary on this potential bottleneck in reaching The Singularity with a call to consider alternate approaches was presented recently in a New York Times guest column. How will we finally reach The Singularity? A new technological approach may be necessary; a new philosophical approach may be necessary; a new, more complete understanding of the structure of our own brains will certainly be necessary.

“Computers vs. Brains” :: Guest Column from The Wild Side, The New York Times:: March 31, 2009 :: [ READ ]

The Mind’s Free Will is more Complicated than the Brain’s Free Will

The notion of Free Will has been debated at least since the days of Aristotle, and the proper identification of what this human sensation really is or how it works remains far from our grasp.

However, a recent fascinating study from Angela Sirigu at CNRS Cognitive Neuroscience Centre in Bron, France was published in Science that discovers a possible bread crumb as to how our brain processes what we sense as Free Will. The research uses direct cortical stimulation in awake patients undergoing surgery to identify areas in the brain that seem to directly link to one’s “desire” to move an arm or a tongue and to the actual sensation of movement… even when no actual movement of a limb occurred.

Pulling a direct connection from this work to the observation of Free Will is like pulling a magic rabbit out of a top hat. Free Will as we personally sense it is so much more than a causal relationship between one neural network in the brain telling another neural network to do something else. In fact, it seems that this very description of direct causality is the antithesis of what Free Will might be.

Free Will is more like … well, it’s more like … Of course, if I could complete this sentence then I would be considered more brilliant than 2300+ years of human thinkers. But, it is certainly a real sensation than human beings have, which is why we’ve been talking about it for so long. It’s a complicated sensation and one that can only emerge from a complicated computational network like our brain.

“Possible site of free will found in brain” :: NewScientist :: May 7, 2009 :: [ READ ]

A little background on Free Will … [ here ] and [ here ]

What do you think?

The Human Brain’s Light Bulb Might be on a Dimmer Switch

Sometimes it just comes to us. Sometimes we have to ponder so hard that we break a sweat. But, whatever sort of conscious considering we feel we are performing while trying to solve a problem, it might be the case that all of the real thinking work is happening elsewhere in our brain… just slightly out of reach.

Recent research from Goldsmiths’ College in London and the University of Houston is trying to electrically monitor and predict the moment in a human brain when the “light bulb” turns on. And, it turns out that the light bulb might be flickering on moments before we even consciously know about it.

Our sub-conscious neural networks are working non-stop. You’re likely breathing steadily while reading and you don’t even realize it. (Don’t think about it too hard, or you might breath out of sync!) The research suggests that this sub-conscious also works hard while we are in the process of trying to solve a complex problem, and it might be the one to figure it out before we are aware of the solution.

It almost makes it seem like our consciousness is working hard not at trying to solve the problem at hand, but rather at trying to access the solution from the depths of our brain. Or, maybe the conscious brain is indirectly guiding or monitoring the unconscious efforts while it’s busy cranking away at the numbers… like a nosy boss who is pushing the office assistant to finish the daily reports before tee-time.

However, experimental evidence that might possibly point to this notion of a top-level system controlling a lower-level “ghost” does bring back those old-age ideas–now considered to be bollocks–of the homunculus of the mind where there is a separate entity or function that is the real brain behind the brain. So, how many personalities do you have, now?

“Conscious and unconscious thought” :: Incognito from The Economist:: April 16, 2009 [ READ ]

The Hyperconscious Baby

A few days before the birth of our second child, Andrew Thomas Dearing, I wrote about a little project where I wanted to attempt to identify the onset of his brain’s consciousness… or, at least identify the vague concept that I seem to have of what consciousness really is.

As is clear from my lack of published articles over the past five months, I had decided to take a little break from my writing and reading about the current developments in neurotechnology to focus on the newborn and our first child, Elizabeth Noelle, who is now three years old. I am excited and anxious to work myself back into the great world of neurotechnology, and don’t be surprised if my experiences with my family make their way into future articles.

The original question still remains open, however: At five months old, is Andrew conscious? He is certainly a bright young man, eating well, laughing, reacting, and learning how to move about and function in his environment. He giggles when you play with him and he can’t keep his attention away from his intriguing big sister when she is in the room… even if it is time to eat!

But, is he conscious?

Frankly, I don’t think so … at least in that vague, ill-defined sense that I seem to have of what is consciousness. This sense is so vague I don’t think that I can even put it into words at this moment.

So, how am I supposed to identify something that I apparently don’t even know what it is? My only hope is that I do still recall “sensing” the general onset of consciousness with my daughter. It was not necessarily a particular instant in time, but really just a gut connection that there seemed to be “something more” behind her gaze. It’s this very special “something more” that I am still looking out for in Andrew.

And just because he doesn’t seem to have it yet–at five months old–doesn’t mean he isn’t progressing very well and proving to me every day that is his an awesome kid (hey, I’m a proud Daddy, if that’s OK). I just think that the level of consciousness that we vaguely attribute to the defining characteristic of being human is a threshold experience… a phase transition, of sorts, that the brain completes only after a certain level of complexity has been achieved in a developing brain.

In lieu of my continued speculation on the matter, I will defer to an interesting article that addresses this very issue. Recently published in the Boston Globe, writer Jonah Leher discusses the current ideas on what might be going on inside your baby’s brain. It is surprising, actually, and discusses the notion that the infant brain is incredibly over-active and functions in a sort of hyperconscious way that may provide significant advantages to the seemingly helpless baby–helping it to figure out how to deal with its environment as quickly as possible. And, it also provides us hyperfocused and slow-moving adults an idea toward triggering our sluggish brains to temporarily regress to be more open and creative… just like a baby.

“Inside the baby mind” :: The Boston Globe :: April 26, 2009 [ READ ]

A Neuron is Like a Beautiful Butterfly

Flap its wing in the Brazilian rainforest, trigger a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico…

This is the classic example of how small perturbations in a complex system poised near chaos can have dramatic effects throughout the entire system. The brain is certainly a complex system, although still minimally understood, so discovering physical evidence of the theoretical characteristics of complex systems is quite exciting.

Researchers from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute lead by Yang Dan of the University of California, Berkeley have presented evidence of a complex system in an anesthetized rat brain. They tried to stimulate a single cortical brain cell and then monitor the change in global neuronal activity elsewhere in the brain.

And global change there was. Each neuron can have thousands of interconnections, so the structural network is amazingly complicated. However, the system can be resting in a state that if the network activity just crosses a certain threshold, then the entire system can undergo what might be compared to a phase transition. And the hurricane can begin to form in the brain.

“A Single Neuron Can Change the Activity of the Whole Brain” :: PhysOrg.com :: May 1, 2009 :: [ READ ]

Is Consciousness Just an Illusion or an Evolutionary Advantage?

Nicholas Humphrey posted this thought-provoking article nearly a year ago on Seed Magazine, and although it initially sounds a little out-of-whack, and too flippant for real scientific consideration, after a second thought it does pose a potentially useful thesis and alternative viewpoint (which are certainly needed right now!) for how to approach the understanding of our conscious experience.

As human beings we all experience some form of “magical mystery” in our brains. It’s absolutely not clear what it is, how it is formed, or why it’s there, but there does seem to besomething. Neuroscience would love to provide a thorough explanation of the “NCC”–the neural correlate of consciousness–but the notion of consciousness still seems to be buried deep in the confines of philosophical reasoning and a wide variety of non-specific, generalized notions of mental states and “qualia.”

But, it does seem interesting to ask the question: maybe the magic coming from our brain isn’t really magical at all. Maybe there really isn’t a specific physical correlate to what we consider the conscious experience, but it is rather only an illusion, of sorts, that we somehow sense only as a perception from some as-of-yet unexplainable result of the high level of complexity in our brain’s system.

Remember, the neuron networks comprising your brain is unbelievably complex. There is a structure to the system, but we really have no idea as to the nature of the structure and how this can affect the functioning of the system. We know so much about stars and galaxies billions of light years away, but there is so much still unknown about the closest physical structure to ourselves.

Understanding the nature of consciousness–and if there is even any nature of sorts to understand!–is critically important for neurotechnological developments in the long term. In particular, how will integrated neuron devices affect our perceptions, conscious reasoning, emotions, and overall network function in our brain? If we plug in a few neurons into the back of our heads, will the front of our heads flip out? We really have no idea at this point, and we barely have the ability to write down the best questions to ask to even begin addressing the issue.

Finally, Mr. Humphrey proposes a final idea that suggests that even if a physical nature of consciousness is only a perceived illusion, it is still an experienced illusion that we all have and this could have developed as an evolutionary advantage for our species. Consider the notion that you actually enjoy living life because you sense consciousness; that you might even feel that life is worth living because you sense consciousness. If consciousness is an illusion of a vastly complex neural network, it might have been the key evolutionary survival skill required to insure that our species actually wanted to keep on keeping on when times got rough.

Even if you think these considerations are entirely incorrect, it is certainly still an important approach to cracking consciousness and must be addressed and entertained. We have a long way to go to empirically understand our conscious selves, and we need to work through all of the questions that might be put on the table…

“Questioning Consciousness” :: Seed Magazine :: January 28, 2008 :: [ READ ]

Last updated March 28, 2020