More Brainless Science

In the 21st century, immortality beckons from several directions: cybernetics, artificial intelligence, telomere extension and cell therapy, maybe even an afterlife. But most of humanity’s hope to transcend death revolves around the brain, as the manifestation of our memories and personality. On Pharyngula, PZ Myers considers the merits of new efforts to master the brain, such as a “cryonic brain preservation technique” that promises to preserve your dead gray matter for a future generation. PZ used to prepare tissue for microscopy in the same way: “I was chemically nuking all the proteins in the tissue; I was washing out most of the chemistry; I was destroying most of the physiological information to preserve a structural skeleton of what was there.” He concludes the pattern of synaptic connections is not sufficient to reconstitute a mind. In another post, PZ criticizes a researcher who could not get approval to surgically implant electrodes in human brains, and so had them implanted in his own. PZ writes, “Transhumanists might dream of some amazing Prigogenic leap that abruptly makes their cyborg aspirations reality, but it’s not going to happen that way.” You can read more about brainless science here.

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More Money than Brains

With 2001 in the rear-view mirror, there have been no little green men, no meal-replacement pills, no flying automobiles, no space odysseys. But as big-budget plans to model the human brain prove, proponents of artificial intelligence remain hopeful. In its most literal sense, AI exists already: encoded and executed, endowed with sensors, lenses and microphones, connected to the internet, and stuck in your pocket. But how intelligent does a machine have to be before our worst nightmares come true? Intelligent enough to pass a Turing test? Intelligent enough to nuke the human race? And/or intelligent enough to be self-aware, and thus real by Cartesian standards? Apocalypse notwithstanding, that’s the threshold we’re really interested in: artificial consciousness, artificial free will, and artificial bodies for that matter, if they’re sexy enough.

But spending all the world’s neuroscience dollars on a supercomputer simulation of the brain’s neuronal connections will reveal less about AI and more about human stupidity. PZ Myers writes, “We aren’t even close to building such a thing for a fruit fly brain, and you want to do that for an even more massive and poorly mapped structure? Madness!” If the IT resources exist to simulate 90 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections between them, mediated by dozens of different neurotransmitters and organized into highly specialized networks, there’s still no reason to expect intelligence to emerge or a ghost to glom on to the machine. The scientific consensus is that there’s still much to learn about the brain, and this will only be achieved through less grandiose and far-fetched research.