Reverse engineering the brain is a very slow way to make a smart computer

The race is on to build conscious and smart computers and brain replicas. This article explains some of Markam’s approach.

It is a nice project, and its aims are to make a working replica of the brain by reverse engineering it. That would work eventually, but it is slow and expensive and it is debatable how valuable it is as a goal.

Imagine if you want to make an aeroplane from scratch.  You could study birds and make extremely detailed reverse engineered mathematical models of the structures of individual feathers, and try to model all the stresses and airflows as the wing beats. Eventually you could make a good model of a wing, and by also looking at the electrics, feedbacks, nerves and muscles, you could eventually make some sort of control system that would essentially replicate a bird wing. Then you could scale it all up, look for other materials, experiment a bit and eventually you might make a big bird replica. Alternatively, you could look briefly at a bird and note the basic aerodynamics of a wing, note the use of lightweight and strong materials, then let it go. You don’t need any more from nature than that. The rest can be done by looking at ways of propelling the surface to create sufficient airflow and lift using the aerofoil, and ways to achieve the strength needed. The bird provides some basic insight, but it simply isn’t necessary to copy all a bird’s proprietary technology to fly.

Back to Markam. If the real goal is to reverse engineer the actual human brain and make a detailed replica or model of it, then fair enough. I wish him and his team, and their distributed helpers and affiliates every success with that. If the project goes well, and we can find insights to help with the hundreds of brain disorders and improve medicine, great. A few billion euros will have been well spent, especially given the waste of more billions of euros elsewhere on futile and counter-productive projects. Lots of people criticise his goal, and some of their arguments are nonsensical. It is a good project and for what it’s worth, I support it.

My only real objection is that a simulation of the brain will not think well and at best will be an extremely inefficient thinking machine. So if a goal is to achieve thought or intelligence, the project as described is barking up the wrong tree. If that isn’t a goal, so what? It still has the other uses.

A simulation can do many things. It can be used to follow through the consequences of an input if the system is sufficiently well modelled. A sufficiently detailed and accurate brain simulation could predict the impacts of a drug or behaviours resulting from certain mental processes. It could follow through the impacts and chain of events resulting from an electrical impulse  this finding out what the eventual result of that will be. It can therefore very inefficiently predict the result of thinking, but by using extremely high speed computation, it could in principle work out the end result of some thoughts. But it needs enormous detail and algorithmic precision to do that. I doubt it is achievable simply because of the volume of calculation needed.  Thinking properly requires consciousness and therefore emulation. A conscious circuit has to be built, not just modelled.

Consciousness is not the same as thinking. A simulation of the brain would not be conscious, even if it can work out the result of thoughts. It is the difference between printed music and played music. One is data, one is an experience. A simulation of all the processes going on inside a head will not generate any consciousness, only data. It could think, but not feel or experience.

Having made that important distinction, I still think that Markam’s approach will prove useful. It will generate many useful insights into the workings of the brain, and many of the processes nature uses to solve certain engineering problems. These insights and techniques can be used as input into other projects. Biomimetics is already proven as a useful tool in solving big problems. Looking at how the brain works will give us hints how to make a truly conscious, properly thinking machine. But just as with birds and airbuses, we can take ideas and inspiration from nature and then do it far better. No bird can carry the weight or fly as high or as fast as an aeroplane. No proper plane uses feathers or flaps its wings.

I wrote recently about how to make a conscious computer: and

I still think that approach will work well, and it could be a decade faster than going Markam’s route. All the core technology needed to start making a conscious computer already exists today. With funding and some smart minds to set the process in motion, it could be done in a couple of years. The potential conscious and ultra-smart computer, properly harnessed, could do its research far faster than any human on Markam’s team. It could easily beat them to the goal of a replica brain. The converse is not true, Markam’s current approach would yield a conscious computer very slowly.

So while I fully applaud the effort and endorse the goals, changing the approach now could give far more bang for the buck, far faster.

5 responses to “Reverse engineering the brain is a very slow way to make a smart computer

  1. So If someone did give you the same amount money as makram and some good scientist Team. Could you dó it and how fast mr. Ian pearson? And If idea is so brilliant, why don’ t any use that to create sentient. Do you still believe your timeframe 2015-2018 is possible to create sentient AI?


  2. Well, I wouldn’t build it, I have a most enjoyable job already, but someone could and I’d be happy to offer what little insight I can to help. As I said, it could be done in a couple of years. So yes, that 2015-2018 timeframe is possible to create sentient AI, but that doesn’t mean it will happen then, someone has to actually build it. There are no big gaps left in the required fundamental technology to do so, so the only bottleneck is actually doing it.


  3. I partly agree but…

    Interestingly the bird wing analogy actually enforces the argument for bio replication. Yes, we studied birds as best could for centuries and I think it was the guys up at Glasgow University that eventually formulated flight dynamics as we know them today. But we never seriously attempted to replicate the bird’s wing because we quite simply couldn’t. We just did not have the materials technology nor the level of understanding necessary to make it work. So instead we went down the largely rigid airfoil (US) / aerofoil (UK) route with wood, metal, other materials and now composites (carbon plastics). It so turns out that such wing designs are often non-ideal in so much as they tend to be a compromise across many flight phases and / or are often niche optimised. For example, achieving long endurance requires operation at higher altitudes where the air is thin (hence drag is low) andthis is further improved by high aspect ratio wings and a low flight speed. The Global Hawk UAV is a good example here. But, such a wing design cannot readily support the need for fast flight when one needs to get to somewhere fast and provides very unhelpful sensitivity at lower altitudes (ride quality is the term used).

    The ability to ‘morph’ or ‘contort’ ones wing in flight and change the air flow dynamics in real time has potentially massive benefits to flight – just like a bird does with its wings. It can provide a near optimal solution in a whole range of circumstances. And, by increasing our understanding of the biological world and the advent of ‘designer’ materials including those stemming from nanotech research we are making this possibility a reality.

    In summary, when the time is right for the tech to support an endeavour then bio-mimicry / replication often turns out to be the best approach.

    One other thing to perhaps consider is the development of Quantum Computing or at least the currently popular branch of this, Quantum annealing. This will transpire to be a huge enabler for neuro bio-mimicry for too many reasons to explain here. As Kurzweil says, the singularity is near. Very near in fact.


  4. Pingback: We could have a conscious machine by end-of-play 2015 | The more accurate guide to the future

  5. Pingback: Too late for a pause. Minimal AI consciousness by Xmas. | Futurizon: the future before it comes over the horizon

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