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Jeffrey Fadness

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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?

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  • Mar 26 2013: 'Brink' is a subjective term.
    Several comments have been posted referring to a 'rapture'. I believe the posters are referring to 'The Rapture of the Nerds'; sometimes called the technological singularity.
    Ray Kurzweil does a good job of this topic with a simple thought experiment.
    Imagine that it becomes possible to simulate a single neuron with absolute fidelity down to the molecular level. Keeping in mind the exponential increase in computational capability, now imagine we can simulate with absolute fidelity down the the molecular level 2 neurons and their interaction. Now 4 neurons, now 8, now 16...
    Eventually, we reach 100 billion neurons. If, as some believe, that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon, would not the behavior of the simulation be an exact duplicate of the brain being simulated? Would not the subjective 'experience' of the emergent consciousness be identical to the original?
    So the question becomes, does it matter what substrate consciousness runs on?
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      Mar 27 2013: Your questions exclude the possibility that our brains leverage quantum computing techniques, in which case modeling or simulating the 100 billion neurons is just the beginning of the physical substrate required for consciousness.

      Whether or not that is also required, there is also the issue of the speed at which the simulation runs relative to its surrounding environment. If the simulation of a mind is running at, say, 1000 times slower than a brain-based mind, then it may not succeed at producing what we would consider a human-like mind. This would be true even if all the neurons in a brain were somehow mapped out.

      Alternatively, we might discover that trees are in fact conscious - it's just that they think so slowly we are unaware of their minds. But being in a forest, they do send chemical messengers around and so colonies of trees do communicate. For that matter, the largest living thing in the universe, as far as we have seen, is a fungus in Oregon that is four square miles big. Maybe that has a type of consciousness living at a different time scale?

      Indigenous herbalists discover drugs our scientists can not discover, and they say the plants spoke to them and told them about their healing properties. Do they have a mind that lives on plant or fungus substrate?

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