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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 30 2013: If we are, it is because we are limited by our failure to understand the achievement of a major milestone whose observance in society and in technology design should mark a departure and a new logic. Up until the coming of the technology of the digital age, mankind's relationship with the concept we call "tools" hadn't changed much for eons. You could look at a shovel if you didn't know what one was you could ascertain by it's handle, it shaft length and the implement on the bottom that it was a tool for a person to move dirt, snow, etc. A digital device is not obvious. Yet there has been a very small premium placed on getting optimum use out of it. Why is that? Part of it is because society has no information policy and most people don't master their devices. So why should a manufacturer knock themselves out on the aspect of their product that has to do with achieving mastery and 100% value realization by the consumer? It's because we have an ad-hoc culture of technology use where there is no distinction between what digital tools do and mechanical or simple electronic tools do. What society needs, besides observing this milestone (which is worth billions in productivity) is to establish that "utility" and "authority"--two models which govern the worth of "old tools" need a successor interpretations. I'm running out of space so I'll try to be quick. The ultimate outcome of technology through the utilitarian/authoritarian mind is a computer robot with perfect artificial intelligence. What is wrong with this? It fails to address what happens to us. If we follow only those guidelines we will heartlessly and recklessly make ourselves obsolete. Therefore we must note a demarcation point where new understanding guides design. The ultimate outcome of the mind I'm calling for is one that makes technology lead human beings to see themselves as the object of technological development--not "users"--but persons who achieve a growth experience. Sorry, out of space.
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      Mar 31 2013: You can always add. Sounds interesting.
      • Mar 31 2013: I'm working on a philosophy that addresses the limitations of "utility" as the general governing measure which people try to quickly ascertain when they make judgments about worth--worth not only of technology or of a tool or product, but worth of a person. Is a person a measure of utility in an organization who ceases to have value when the organization changes? What happen to such a person? Are they considered "dead" when out of sight and out of mind? Authority is tied into this because decisions are routinely made based upon this rather superficial and narrow "old world" determination.

        What value might a person have beyond "utility" in some sort of simple Industrial Age work matrix? I'd be curious to hear what words if any would come up rather than just lay out a tiny thumbnail sketch of my thesis on how we need to conventionalize a new dynamic that would clearly establish the scope of value we personally and institutionally squander or ignore and which when put into a product that achieves vast commercial success would draw a constant distinction between Industrial Age and Information Age thinking, values and design. Seriously and respectfully. Have any? I will be continuing this conversation here or through regular e-mail if TED.s software is to restricting. So welcome to it if you want to go there.

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