A leading neuroscientist says Kurzweil’s Singularity isn’t going to happen.
Instead, humans will assimilate machines.
Miguel Nicolelis <http://www.nicolelislab.net/>, a top neuroscientist at
Duke University, says computers will never replicate the human brain and
that the technological Singularity is “a bunch of hot air.”
“The brain is not computable and no engineering can reproduce it,” says
Nicolelis, author of several pioneering papers on brain-machine interfaces.
The Singularity, of course, is that moment when a computer
super-intelligence emerges and changes the world in ways beyond our
Among the idea’s promoters are futurist Ray Kurzweil, recently hired on at
Google as a director of engineering and who has been predicting that not
only will machine intelligence exceed our own but that people will be able
to download their thoughts and memories into computers (see “Ray Kurzweil
Plans to Create a Mind at Google—and Have It Serve
Nicolelis calls that idea sheer bunk. “Downloads will never happen,”
Nicolelis said during remarks made at the annual meeting of the American
Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston on Sunday. “There are
a lot of people selling the idea that you can mimic the brain with a
The debate over whether the brain is a kind of computer has been running
for decades. Many scientists think it’s possible, in theory, for a computer
to equal the brain given sufficient computer power and an understanding of
how the brain works.
Kurzweil delves into the idea of “reverse-engineering” the brain in his
latest book, *How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought
*, in which he says even though the brain may be immensely complex, “the
fact that it contains many billions of cells and trillions of connections
does not necessarily make its primary method complex.”
But Nicolelis is in a camp that thinks that human consciousness (and if you
believe in it, the soul) simply can’t be replicated in silicon. That’s
because its most important features are the result of unpredictable,
non-linear interactions amongst billions of cells, Nicolelis says.
“You can’t predict whether the stock market will go up or down because you
can’t compute it,” he says. “You could have all the computer chips ever in
the world and you won’t create a consciousness.”
The neuroscientist, originally from Brazil, instead thinks that humans will
increasingly subsume machines (an idea, incidentally, that’s also part of
In a study published last week <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23403583>,
for instance, Nicolelis’ group at Duke used brain implants to allow mice to
sense infrared light, something mammals can’t normally perceive. They did
it by wiring a head-mounted infrared sensor to electrodes implanted into a
part of the brain called the somatosensory cortex.
The experiment, in which several mice were able to follow sensory cues from
the infrared detector to obtain a reward, was the first ever to use a
neural implant to add a new sense to an animal, Nicolelis says.
That’s important because the human brain has evolved to take the external
world—our surroundings and the tools we use—and create representations of
them in our neural pathways. As a result, a talented basketball player
perceives the ball “as just an extension of himself” says Nicolelis.
Similarly, Nicolelis thinks in the future humans with brain implants might
be able to sense X-rays, operate distant machines, or navigate in virtual
space with their thoughts, since the brain will accommodate foreign objects
including computers as part of itself.
Recently, Nicolelis’s Duke lab has been looking to put an exclamation point
on these ideas. In one recent experiment, they used a brain implant so that
a monkey could control a full-body computer avatar, explore a virtual
world, and even physically sense it.
In other words, the human brain creates models of tools and machines all
the time, and brain implants will just extend that capability. Nicolelis
jokes that if he ever opened a retail store for brain implants, he’d call
But, if he’s right, us ain’t machines, and never will be.
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