Tag Archives: consciousness

How can we make a computer conscious?

I found this article in my drafts folder, written 3 years ago as part of my short series on making conscious computers. I thought I’d published it but didn’t. So updating and publishing it now. It’s a bit long-winded, thinking out loud, trying to derive some insights from nature on how to make conscious machines. The good news is that actual AI developments are following paths that lead in much the same direction, though some significant re-routing and new architectural features are needed if they are to optimize AI and achieve machine consciousness.

Let’s start with the problem. Today’s AI that plays chess, does web searches or answers questions is digital. It uses algorithms, sets of instructions that the computer follows one by one. All of those are reduced to simple binary actions, toggling bits between 1 and 0. The processor doing that is no more conscious or aware of it, and has no more understanding of what it is doing than an abacus knows it is doing sums. The intelligence is in the mind producing the clever algorithms that interpret the current 1s and 0s and change them in the right way. The algorithms are written down, albeit in more 1s and 0s in a memory chip, but are essentially still just text, only as smart and aware as a piece of paper with writing on it. The answer is computed, transmitted, stored, retrieved, displayed, but at no point does the computer sense that it is doing any of those things. It really is just an advanced abacus. An abacus is digital too (an analog equivalent to an abacus is a slide rule).

A big question springs to mind: can a digital computer ever be any more than an advanced abacus. Until recently, I was certain the answer was no. Surely a digital computer that just runs programs can never be conscious? It can simulate consciousness to some degree, it can in principle describe the movements of every particle in a conscious brain, every electric current, every chemical reaction. But all it is doing is describing them. It is still just an abacus. Once computed, that simulation of consciousness could be printed and the printout would be just as conscious as the computer was. A digital ‘stored program’ computer can certainly implement extremely useful AI. With the right algorithms, it can mine data, link things together, create new data from that, generate new ideas by linking together things that haven’t been linked before, make works of art, poetry, compose music, chat to people, recognize faces and emotions and gestures. It might even be able to converse about life, the universe and everything, tell you its history, discuss its hopes for the future, but all of that is just a thin gloss on an abacus. I wrote a chat-bot on my Sinclair ZX Spectrum in 1983, running on a processor with about 8,000 transistors. The chat-bot took all of about 5 small pages of code but could hold a short conversation quite well if you knew what subjects to stick to. It’s very easy to simulate conversation. But it is still just a complicated abacus and still doesn’t even know it is doing anything.

However clever the AI it implements, a conventional digital computer that just executes algorithms can’t become conscious but an analog computer can, a quantum computer can, and so can a hybrid digital/analog/quantum computer. The question remain s whether a digital computer can be conscious if it isn’t just running stored programs. Could it have a different structure, but still be digital and yet be conscious? Who knows? Not me. I used to know it couldn’t, but now that I am a lot older and slightly wiser, I now know I don’t know.

Consciousness debate often starts with what we know to be conscious, the human brain. It isn’t a digital computer, although it has digital processes running in it. It also runs a lot of analog processes. It may also run some quantum processes that are significant in consciousness. It is a conscious hybrid of digital, analog and possibly quantum computing. Consciousness evolved in nature, therefore it can be evolved in a lab. It may be difficult and time consuming, and may even be beyond current human understanding, but it is possible. Nature didn’t use magic, and what nature did can be replicated and probably even improved on. Evolutionary AI development may have hit hard times, but that only shows that the techniques used by the engineers doing it didn’t work on that occasion, not that other techniques can’t work. Around 2.6 new human-level fully conscious brains are made by nature every second without using any magic and furthermore, they are all slightly different. There are 7.6 billion slightly different implementations of human-level consciousness that work and all of those resulted from evolution. That’s enough of an existence proof and a technique-plausibility-proof for me.

Sensors evolved in nature pretty early on. They aren’t necessary for life, for organisms to move around and grow and reproduce, but they are very helpful. Over time, simple light, heat, chemical or touch detectors evolved further to simple vision and produce advanced sensations such as pain and pleasure, causing an organism to alter its behavior, in other words, feeling something. Detection of an input is not the same as sensation, i.e. feeling an input. Once detection upgrades to sensation, you have the tools to make consciousness. No more upgrades are needed. Sensing that you are sensing something is quite enough to be classified as consciousness. Internally reusing the same basic structure as external sensing of light or heat or pressure or chemical gradient or whatever allows design of thought, planning, memory, learning and construction and processing of concepts. All those things are just laying out components in different architectures. Getting from detection to sensation is the hard bit.

So design of conscious machines, and in fact what AI researchers call the hard problem, really can be reduced to the question of what makes the difference between a light switch and something that can feel being pushed or feel the current flowing when it is, the difference between a photocell and feeling whether it is light or dark, the difference between detecting light frequency, looking it up in a database, then pronouncing that it is red, and experiencing redness. That is the hard problem of AI. Once that is solved, we will very soon afterwards have a fully conscious self aware AI. There are lots of options available, so let’s look at each in turn to extract any insights.

The first stage is easy enough. Detecting presence is easy, measuring it is harder. A detector detects something, a sensor (in its everyday engineering meaning) quantifies it to some degree. A component in an organism might fire if it detects something, it might fire with a stronger signal or more frequently if it detects more of it, so it would appear to be easy to evolve from detection to sensing in nature, and it is certainly easy to replicate sensing with technology.

Essentially, detection is digital, but sensing is usually analog, even though the quantity sensed might later be digitized. Sensing normally uses real numbers, while detection uses natural numbers (real v  integer as programmer call them). The handling of analog signals in their raw form allows for biomimetic feedback loops, which I’ll argue are essential. Digitizing them introduces a level of abstraction that is essentially the difference between emulation and simulation, the difference between doing something and reading about someone doing it. Simulation can’t make a conscious machine, emulation can. I used to think that meant digital couldn’t become conscious, but actually it is just algorithmic processing of stored programs that can’t do it. There may be ways of achieving consciousness digitally, or quantumly, but I haven’t yet thought of any.

That engineering description falls far short of what we mean by sensation in human terms. How does that machine-style sensing become what we call a sensation? Logical reasoning says there would probably need to be only a small change in order to have evolved from detection to sensing in nature. Maybe something like recombining groups of components in different structures or adding them together or adding one or two new ones, that sort of thing?

So what about detecting detection? Or sensing detection? Those could evolve in sequence quite easily. Detecting detection is like your alarm system control unit detecting the change of state that indicates that a PIR has detected an intruder, a different voltage or resistance on a line, or a 1 or a 0 in a memory store. An extremely simple AI responds by ringing an alarm. But the alarm system doesn’t feel the intruder, does it?  It is just a digital response to a digital input. No good.

How about sensing detection? How do you sense a 1 or a 0? Analog interpretation and quantification of digital states is very wasteful of resources, an evolutionary dead end. It isn’t any more useful than detection of detection. So we can eliminate that.

OK, sensing of sensing? Detection of sensing? They look promising. Let’s run with that a bit. In fact, I am convinced the solution lies in here so I’ll look till I find it.

Let’s do a thought experiment on designing a conscious microphone, and for this purpose, the lowest possible order of consciousness will do, we can add architecture and complexity and structures once we have some bricks. We don’t particularly want to copy nature, but are free to steal ideas and add our own where it suits.

A normal microphone sensor produces an analog signal quantifying the frequencies and intensities of the sounds it is exposed to, and that signal may later be quantified and digitized by an analog to digital converter, possibly after passing through some circuits such as filters or amplifiers in between. Such a device isn’t conscious yet. By sensing the signal produced by the microphone, we’d just be repeating the sensing process on a transmuted signal, not sensing the sensing itself.

Even up close, detecting that the microphone is sensing something could be done by just watching a little LED going on when current flows. Sensing it is harder but if we define it in conventional engineering terms, it could still be just monitoring a needle moving as the volume changes. That is obviously not enough, it’s not conscious, it isn’t feeling it, there’s no awareness there, no ‘sensation’. Even at this primitive level, if we want a conscious mic, we surely need to get in closer, into the physics of the sensing. Measuring the changing resistance between carbon particles or speed of a membrane moving backwards and forwards would just be replicating the sensing, adding an extra sensing stage in series, not sensing the sensing, so it needs to be different from that sort of thing. There must surely need to be a secondary change or activity in the sensing mechanism itself that senses the sensing of the original signal.

That’s a pretty open task, and it could even be embedded in the detecting process or in the production process for the output signal. But even recognizing that we need this extra property narrows the search. It must be a parallel or embedded mechanism, not one in series. The same logical structure would do fine for this secondary sensing, since it is just sensing in the same logical way as the original. This essential logical symmetry would make its evolution easy too. It is easy to imagine how that could happen in nature, and easier still to see how it could be implemented in a synthetic evolution design system. Such an approach could be mimicked in natural or synthetic evolutionary development systems. In this approach, we have to feel the sensing, so we need it to comprise some sort of feedback loop with a high degree of symmetry compared with the main sensing stage. That would be natural evolution compatible as well as logically sound as an engineering approach.

This starts to look like progress. In fact, it’s already starting to look a lot like a deep neural network, with one huge difference: instead of using feed-forward signal paths for analysis and backward propagation for training, it relies instead on a symmetric feedback mechanism where part of the input for each stage of sensing comes from its own internal and output signals. A neuron is not a full sensor in its own right, and it’s reasonable to assume that multiple neurons would be clustered so that there is a feedback loop. Many in the neural network AI community are already recognizing the limits of relying on feed-forward and back-prop architectures, but web searches suggest few if any are moving yet to symmetric feedback approaches. I think they should. There’s gold in them there hills!

So, the architecture of the notional sensor array required for our little conscious microphone would have a parallel circuit and feedback loop (possibly but not necessarily integrated), and in all likelihood these parallel and sensing circuits would be heavily symmetrical, i.e. they would use pretty much the same sort of components and architectures as the sensing process itself. If the sensation bit is symmetrical, of similar design to the primary sensing circuit, that again would make it easy to evolve in nature too so is a nice 1st principles biomimetic insight. So this structure has the elegance of being very feasible for evolutionary development, natural or synthetic. It reuses similarly structured components and principles already designed, it’s just recombining a couple of them in a slightly different architecture.

Another useful insight screams for attention too. The feedback loop ensures that the incoming sensation lingers to some degree. Compared to the nanoseconds we are used to in normal IT, the signals in nature travel fairly slowly (~200m/s), and the processing and sensing occur quite slowly (~200Hz). That means this system would have some inbuilt memory that repeats the essence of the sensation in real time – while it is sensing it. It is inherently capable of memory and recall and leaves the door wide open to introduce real-time interaction between memory and incoming signal. It’s not perfect yet, but it has all the boxes ticked to be a prime contender to build thought, concepts, store and recall memories, and in all likelihood, is a potential building brick for higher level consciousness. Throw in recent technology developments such as memristors and it starts to look like we have a very promising toolkit to start building primitive consciousness, and we’re already seeing some AI researchers going that path so maybe we’re not far from the goal. So, we make a deep neural net with nice feedback from output (of the sensing system, which to clarify would be a cluster of neurons, not a single neuron) to input at every stage (and between stages) so that inputs can be detected and sensed, while the input and output signals are stored and repeated into the inputs in real time as the signals are being processed. Throw in some synthetic neurotransmitters to dampen the feedback and prevent overflow and we’re looking at a system that can feel it is feeling something and perceive what it is feeling in real time.

One further insight that immediately jumps out is since the sensing relies on the real time processing of the sensations and feedbacks, the speed of signal propagation, storage, processing and repetition timeframes must all be compatible. If it is all speeded up a million fold, it might still work fine, but if signals travel too slowly or processing is too fast relative to other factors, it won’t work. It will still get a computational result absolutely fine, but it won’t know that it has, it won’t be able to feel it. Therefore… since we have a factor of a million for signal speed (speed of light compared to nerve signal propagation speed), 50 million for switching speed, and a factor of 50 for effective neuron size (though the sensing system units would be multiple neuron clusters), we could make a conscious machine that could think at 50 million times as fast as a natural system (before allowing for any parallel processing of course). But with architectural variations too, we’d need to tune those performance metrics to make it work at all and making physically larger nets would require either tuning speeds down or sacrificing connectivity-related intelligence. An evolutionary design system could easily do that for us.

What else can we deduce about the nature of this circuit from basic principles? The symmetry of the system demands that the output must be an inverse transform of the input. Why? Well, because the parallel, feedback circuit must generate a form that is self-consistent. We can’t deduce the form of the transform from that, just that the whole system must produce an output mathematically similar to that of the input.

I now need to write another blog on how to use such circuits in neural vortexes to generate knowledge, concepts, emotions and thinking. But I’m quite pleased that it does seem that some first-principles analysis of natural evolution already gives us some pretty good clues on how to make a conscious computer. I am optimistic that current research is going the right way and only needs relatively small course corrections to achieve consciousness.



42: the answer to life, the universe, and everything

Douglas Adams wrote The Hitchhiker’s guide to the Galaxy’ for which introduction to I am grateful to my friend Padraig McKeag.

He listed 42 as the answer to The Question of Life, the Universe and Everything. A good choice I think.

Optional waffle: (I almost met Adams once since we were booked for the same book launch debate, but sadly he had to withdraw on the day so it never happened, and I never got a chance to be one of the many who asked him. On the other hand, the few personal idols I have actually met have confirmed that you should never meet your idols, and mentioning no names, it can be an extremely disappointing experience, so maybe it’s best that I can keep Douglas Adams as one of my favorite authors of all time.)

Speculation on Adams’ use of 42 is well documented. 42 is 101010 in binary, and in base 13, 6 x 9 = 42, 42 is the wildcard symbol * in ASCII etc. Adams denied these, saying 42 had just been a random choice. Check http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phrases_from_The_Hitchhiker%27s_Guide_to_the_Galaxy for more speculations and commentary. Having picked 42, the 6 x 9 joke is exactly what I suspect I would have written to justify it. It is the probably the most common multiplication error for the mathematically differently gifted. I don’t believe the base 13 or asterisk explanations. They are amusing but don’t hold water as The True Answer. I can happily accept he just picked it at random, but that doesn’t mean it is wrong.

101010 has a nice symmetry, a single number with two digits in three groups and 1-2-3 symmetry is itself a fact of life, the universe and everything. It is universally present. It is the basis of fractals, a sort of recursive symmetry which govern many aspects of the development of life, even a key foundation of consciousness.


Suppose 1 and 0 represent the most fundamental things we observe about nature – wave-particle duality, on or off, life or death, existence or non-existence. Above that, we start to see all sorts of 3-way symmetry:



So if you have a lazy day and no boss breathing down your neck, it’s entirely possible to see at least some aspects of The Question of Life the Universe and Everything that might lead to an answer of 42.

The future of I

Me, myself, I, identity, ego, self, lots of words for more or less the same thing. The way we think of ourselves evolves just like everything else. Perhaps we are still cavemen with better clothes and toys. You may be a man, a dad, a manager, a lover, a friend, an artist and a golfer and those are all just descendants of caveman, dad, tribal leader, lover, friend, cave drawer and stone thrower. When you play Halo as Master Chief, that is not very different from acting or putting a tiger skin on for a religious ritual. There have always been many aspects of identity and people have always occupied many roles simultaneously. Technology changes but it still pushes the same buttons that we evolved hundred thousands of years ago.

Will we develop new buttons to push? Will we create any genuinely new facets of ‘I’? I wrote a fair bit about aspects of self when I addressed the related topic of gender, since self perception includes perceptions of how others perceive us and attempts to project chosen identity to survive passing through such filters:


Self is certainly complex. Using ‘I’ simplifies the problem. When you say ‘I’, you are communicating with someone, (possibly yourself). The ‘I’ refers to a tailored context-dependent blend made up of a subset of what you genuinely consider to be you and what you want to project, which may be largely fictional. So in a chat room where people often have never physically met, very often, one fictional entity is talking to another fictional entity, with each side only very loosely coupled to reality. I think that is different from caveman days.

Since chat rooms started, virtual identities have come a long way. As well as acting out manufactured characters such as the heroes in computer games, people fabricate their own characters for a broad range of kinds of ‘shared spaces’, design personalities and act them out. They may run that personality instance in parallel with many others, possibly dozens at once. Putting on an act is certainly not new, and friends easily detect acts in normal interactions when they have known a real person a long time, but online interactions can mean that the fictional version is presented it as the only manifestation of self that the group sees. With no other means to know that person by face to face contact, that group has to take them at face value and interact with them as such, though they know that may not represent reality.

These designed personalities may be designed to give away as little as possible of the real person wielding them, and may exist for a range of reasons, but in such a case the person inevitably presents a shallow image. Probing below the surface must inevitably lead to leakage of the real self. New personality content must be continually created and remembered if the fictional entity is to maintain a disconnect from the real person. Holding the in-depth memory necessary to recall full personality aspects and history for numerous personalities and executing them is beyond most people. That means that most characters in shared spaces take on at least some characteristics of their owners.

But back to the point. These fabrications should be considered as part of that person. They are an ‘I’ just as much as any other ‘I’. Only their context is different. Those parts may only be presented to subsets of the role population, but by running them, the person’s brain can’t avoid internalizing the experience of doing so. They may be partly separated but they are fully open to the consciousness of that person. I think that as augmented and virtual reality take off over the next few years, we will see their importance grow enormously. As virtual worlds start to feel more real, so their anchoring and effects in the person’s mind must get stronger.

More than a decade ago, AI software agents started inhabiting chat rooms too, and in some cases these ‘bots’ become a sufficient nuisance that they get banned. The front that they present is shallow but can give an illusion of reality. In some degree, they are an extension of the person or people that wrote their code. In fact, some are deliberately designed to represent a person when they are not present. The experiences that they have can’t be properly internalized by their creators, so they are a very limited extension to self. But how long will that be true? Eventually, with direct brain links and transhuman brain extensions into cyberspace, the combined experiences of I-bots may be fully available to consciousness just the same as first hand experiences.

Then it will get interesting. Some of those bots might be part of multiple people. People’s consciousnesses will start to overlap. People might collect them, or subscribe to them. Much as you might subscribe to my blog, maybe one day, part of one person’s mind, manifested as a bot or directly ‘published’, will become part of your mind. Some people will become absorbed into the experience and adopt so many that their own original personality becomes diluted to the point of disappearance. They will become just an interference pattern of numerous minds. Some will be so infectious that they will spread widely. For many, it will be impossible to die, and for many others, their minds will be spread globally. The hive minds of Dr Who, then later the Borg on Star Trek are conceptual prototypes but as with any sci-fi, they are limited by the imagination of the time they were conceived. By the time they become feasible, we will have moved on and the playground will be far richer than we can imagine yet.

So, ‘I’ has a future just as everything else. We may have just started to add extra facets a couple of decades ago, but the future will see our concept of self evolve far more quickly.


I got asked by a reader whether I worry about this stuff. Here is my reply:

It isn’t the technology that worries me so much that humanity doesn’t really have any fixed anchor to keep human nature in place. Genetics fixed our biological nature and our values and morality were largely anchored by the main religions. We in the West have thrown our religion in the bin and are already seeing a 30 year cycle in moral judgments which puts our value sets on something of a random walk, with no destination, the current direction governed solely by media and interpretation and political reaction to of the happenings of the day. Political correctness enforces subscription to that value set even more strictly than any bishop ever forced religious compliance. Anyone that thinks religion has gone away just because people don’t believe in God any more is blind.

Then as genetics technology truly kicks in, we will be able to modify some aspects of our nature. Who knows whether some future busybody will decree that a particular trait must be filtered out because it doesn’t fit his or her particular value set? Throwing AI into the mix as a new intelligence alongside will introduce another degree of freedom. So already several forces acting on us in pretty randomized directions that can combine to drag us quickly anywhere. Then the stuff above that allows us to share and swap personality? Sure I worry about it. We are like young kids being handed a big chemistry set for Christmas without the instructions, not knowing that adding the blue stuff to the yellow stuff and setting it alight will go bang.

I am certainly no technotopian. I see the enormous potential that the tech can bring and it could be wonderful and I can’t help but be excited by it. But to get that you need to make the right decisions, and when I look at the sorts of leaders we elect and the sorts of decisions that are made, I can’t find the confidence that we will make the right ones.

On the good side, engineers and scientists are usually smart and can see most of the issues and prevent most of the big errors by using comon industry standards, so there is a parallel self-regulatory system in place that politicians rarely have any interest in. On the other side, those smart guys unfortunately will usually follow the same value sets as the rest of the population. So we’re quite likely to avoid major accidents and blowing ourselves up or being taken over by AIs. But we’re unlikely to avoid the random walk values problem and that will be our downfall.

So it could be worse, but it could be a whole lot better too.


Switching people off

A very interesting development has been reported in the discovery of how consciousness works, where neuroscientists stimulating a particular brain region were able to switch a woman’s state of awareness on and off. They said: “We describe a region in the human brain where electrical stimulation reproducibly disrupted consciousness…”


The region of the brain concerned was the claustrum, and apparently nobody had tried stimulating it before, although Francis Crick and Christof Koch had suggested the region would likely be important in achieving consciousness. Apparently, the woman involved in this discovery was also missing some of her hippocampus, and that may be a key factor, but they don’t know for sure yet.

Mohamed Koubeissi and his the team at the George Washington university in Washington DC were investigating her epilepsy and stimulated her claustrum area with high frequency electrical impulses. When they did so, the woman lost consciousness, no longer responding to any audio or visual stimuli, just staring blankly into space. They verified that she was not having any epileptic activity signs at the time, and repeated the experiment with similar results over two days.

The team urges caution and recommends not jumping to too many conclusions. They did observe the obvious potential advantages as an anesthesia substitute if it can be made generally usable.

As a futurologist, it is my job to look as far down the road as I can see, and imagine as much as I can. Then I filter out all the stuff that is nonsensical, or doesn’t have a decent potential social or business case or as in this case, where research teams suggest that it is too early to draw conclusions. I make exceptions where it seems that researchers are being over-cautious or covering their asses or being PC or unimaginative, but I have no evidence of that in this case. However, the other good case for making exceptions is where it is good fun to jump to conclusions. Anyway, it is Saturday, I’m off work, so in the great words of Dr Emmett Brown in ‘Back to the future’:  “Well, I figured, what the hell.”

OK, IF it works for everyone without removing parts of the brain, what will we do with it and how?

First, it is reasonable to assume that we can produce electrical stimulation at specific points in the brain by using external kit. Trans-cranial magnetic stimulation might work, or perhaps implants may be possible using injection of tiny particles that migrate to the right place rather than needing significant surgery. Failing those, a tiny implant or two via a fine needle into the right place ought to do the trick. Powering via induction should work. So we will be able to produce the stimulation, once the sucker victim subject has the device implanted.

I guess that could happen voluntarily, or via a court ordered protective device, as a condition of employment or immigration, or conditional release from prison, or a supervision order, or as a violent act or in war.

Imagine if government demands a legal right to access it, for security purposes and to ensure your comfort and safety, of course.

If you think 1984 has already gone too far, imagine a government or police officer that can switch you off if you are saying or thinking the wrong thing. Automated censorship devices could ensure that nobody discusses prohibited topics.

Imagine if people on the street were routinely switched off as a VIP passes to avoid any trouble for them.

Imagine a future carbon-reduction law where people are immobilized for an hour or two each day during certain periods. There might be a quota for how long you are allowed to be conscious each week to limit your environmental footprint.

In war, captives could have devices implanted to make them easy to control, simply turned off for packing and transport to a prison camp. A perimeter fence could be replaced by a line in the sand. If a prisoner tries to cross it, they are rendered unconscious automatically and put back where they belong.

Imagine a higher class of mugger that doesn’t like violence much and prefers to switch victims off before stealing their valuables.

Imagine being able to switch off for a few hours to pass the time on a long haul flight. Airlines could give discounts to passengers willing to be disabled and therefore less demanding of attention.

Imagine  a couple or a group of friends, or a fetish club, where people can turn each other off at will. Once off, other people can do anything they please with them – use them as dolls, as living statues or as mannequins, posing them, dressing them up. This is not an adult blog so just use your imagination – it’s pretty obvious what people will do and what sorts of clubs will emerge if an off-switch is feasible, making people into temporary toys.

Imagine if you got an illegal hacking app and could freeze the other people in your vicinity. What would you do?

Imagine if your off-switch is networked and someone else has a remote control or hacks into it.

Imagine if an AI manages to get control of such a system.

Having an off-switch installed could open a new world of fun, but it could also open up a whole new world for control by the authorities, crime control, censorship or abuse by terrorists and thieves and even pranksters.



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. http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2013/05/neurologist-markam-human-brain/all/

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:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/02/15/how-to-make-a-conscious-computer/ and https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/02/18/how-smart-could-an-ai-become/

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.