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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 27 2013: What does 'consciousnesses' mean though? What currently separates human mental capacities from that of the modern PC?

    To me, the main distinction of 'life' is the ability to evolve and reprogram itself. Not just through evolution or selection, but rather cognitive, willing self-change. You can come to a point where you start to disagree with what your biology wants you to do, disagree with social programming, and come to a point where you become fully aware of what everything is trying to make you do, and then, alter it or change it (for example, just realizing how aggressive you might be, seeing the underlying causes of it, and then, change your behavior).

    I mean, who knows what the future will hold as well, and what science will allow us to change about ourselves?

    I think that's what a program would have to do in order to actually mimic consciousness. It has to have the capability to be aware of its own set of instructions, study them, and have some capacity to actually re-write itself if it wants to. When you think about that, and how we currently do that, it's pretty amazing. It's like an OS on a PC constantly re-writing itself and making its own changes/upgrades/etc.
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      Mar 29 2013: In other words, our programming can continue to learn, adjust and modify because it is open-ended, and eventually, computer programming will likely be written the same way...

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