TED Conversations

Jeffrey Fadness

This conversation is closed.

Are we on the brink of creating a human-like digital mind?

The human brain contains some 100 billion neurons, grouped in specialized function zones, connected by a hundred thousand billion synapses - the neurons representing individual data processing and storage units; and synapses the data transfer cabling, connecting all the processing units.

Correlating its processing ability to a supercomputer, it's been estimated it can perform more than 38 thousand trillion operations per second, and hold about 3.6 million gigabytes of memory. Equally impressive, it's estimated that the human brain executes this monumental computational task on a mere equivalent of 20 watts of power; about the same energy to power a single, dim light bulb. In today's technology, a supercomputer designed to deliver comparable capabilities would require roughly 100 megawatts (100 million watts) of power; an energy equivalent that could fully satisfy the power consumption needs of roughly a thousand households.

An ambitious $1.3 billion project was very recently announced in Europe to simulate a human mind in the form of a complete human brain in a supercomputer. It's named the Human Brain Project. A similar project in the U.S. planned by National Institutes of Health (NIH) is called the Brain Activity Map project.

Assuming we learn enough from these efforts to design a new architecture in computer processing which can approximate the ability of the human brain - what's to stop us from creating the cognitive faculties that enable consciousness, thinking, reasoning, perception, and judgement? After all, we as human beings develop these abilities from data we acquire over time through sensory inputs connecting us to our experiences, and from information communicated to us by others.

Think about it. Is there anything related to our experience - be it physical, historical or conceptual - that cannot be described in language, and therefore be input as executable data and programming to create a human-like digital mind?


Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.

  • thumb
    Mar 11 2013: One key element is "human-like". The definition itself leaves wiggle room. But just for fun, let's say extremely "human like". Think HAL in 2001 a Space Odyssey. I still think it's very much possible. But then again, I'm one of those people that believe there's pretty much no limit to what we can do. It doesn't always happen in the exact form we originally imagine -- for instance flying. Man dreamed of flying, and at some point the idea would have seemed absurd. It's common place now, even though we don't individually glide through the air on feathers attached to our arms. But who's to say with a little genetic engineering that's not possible? We've put men on the moon and are now planning for Mars.

    Clearly we create programs that learn from their environment now. We're constantly moving in that direction. The "Human-like" aspect begs the question of self-reflection based on self awareness. Are we as humans the only animals capable of such thoughts? And how do we define intelligence?

    In the evolutionary chain of events, a great deal of which is thought to have been nudged along by environmental change, mankind has risen to the top of the heap. We are the masters of our world, but I often wonder if our hubris is so well deserved. Our success in storing, communicating and sharing information (knowledge) has paved the way for rapid progression compared to other animal species. It has given us the ability to leverage our experiences and exponentially multiply the output of our ingenuity. What makes all this possible is the somewhat novel architecture of our brains, physically and operationally.

    This is precisely one of the reasons the Human Brain Project and Brain Activity Map are being pursued -- to study the physical and operational architecture of the human brain. It will likely lead to revolutionary changes in computer software and hardware design. Once understood, the sky is the limit.
    • thumb
      Mar 11 2013: Re: "The "Human-like" aspect begs the question of self-reflection based on self awareness. Are we as humans the only animals capable of such thoughts?"

      Dolphins, whales, elephants, and other animals are thought to have self awareness.

      Re: "And how do we define intelligence?" -- That's the #1 question. Is human "intelligence" anything more than a sophisticated ability to draw associations between events and experiences? If not, then perhaps, our intelligence is not, in principle, different than the intelligence of a Pavlov's dog. The only difference is the degree of sophistication.

      If this is the case, then an automatic vacuum cleaner able to detect and go around obstacles can be (and is, by the way) called "intelligent".

      Can words have meaning separated from experience that they represent? Can we say that machines "experience" something? E.g., can it be said that an automatic vacuum cleaner "experiences" or "perceives" the obstacle? Apparently, an obstacle is somehow represented in the machine's software.
      • thumb
        Mar 12 2013: Very cool that you mentioned Dolphins, Whales and Elephants! Those are three of the top three animal groups I was thinking of about as well, but also Chimps and Apes.



        We as Humans may simply just be a bit further along in the evolutionary brain development process...
        • thumb
          Mar 12 2013: Somebody on TED recently mentioned Ota Benga in one of the conversations. I looked the name up. It was a pigmy who was displayed in a zoo as an example of a "lower stage of human evolution" in early 1900s. As a teenager, I once saw a gorilla in a little cage in a zoo in Ukraine. He was sitting there calmly watching people who watched him with a sad expression. It was awkward to look him in the eyes, because he, definitely, looked like a human.

          After I read about Ota Benga, I thought, why do we consider it moral to display animals in cages at the zoo? What is it exactly that makes us feel "human" and "intelligent"?

Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.