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Ray Kurzweil Responds To PZ Myers 238

Posted by Soulskill
from the dem's-fightin'-woids dept.
On Tuesday we discussed a scathing critique of Ray Kurzweil's understanding of the brain written by PZ Myers. Reader Amara notes that Kurzweil has now responded on his blog. Quoting: "Myers, who apparently based his second-hand comments on erroneous press reports (he wasn't at my talk), [claims] that my thesis is that we will reverse-engineer the brain from the genome. This is not at all what I said in my presentation to the Singularity Summit. I explicitly said that our quest to understand the principles of operation of the brain is based on many types of studies — from detailed molecular studies of individual neurons, to scans of neural connection patterns, to studies of the function of neural clusters, and many other approaches. I did not present studying the genome as even part of the strategy for reverse-engineering the brain."
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Ray Kurzweil Responds To PZ Myers

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  • by jeffmeden (135043) on Friday August 20, 2010 @11:37AM (#33314560) Homepage Journal

    This whole discussion reminds me way too much of the million partisan pundit sissy fights that rage endlessly on the internet. If I wanted to see two guys argue about what the other did or didnt say, I would gladly head over to DailyKos or BigJournalism and drown myself in their pedantry. This is slashdot; please save the inanity for the comments and at least give us stories that have meaning!

  • by truthsearch (249536) on Friday August 20, 2010 @11:41AM (#33314606) Homepage Journal

    I agree, but the original story was interesting (800+ comments). This followup is almost required.

    Having "editors" /. should have only quality posts. I'm disappointed almost daily but it's still better than many other sites.

  • Here We Go Again (Score:5, Insightful)

    by eldavojohn (898314) * <eldavojohn@gm[ ].com ['ail' in gap]> on Friday August 20, 2010 @11:42AM (#33314628) Journal

    Myers, who apparently based his second-hand comments on erroneous press reports (he wasn’t at my talk), goes on to claim that my thesis is that we will reverse-engineer the brain from the genome.

    So put your speech up on your site, all I can find are videos from previous summits [magnify.net]. TED seemingly posted videos as they happened and therefore we could openly debate them. Summits are great but not everyone has the time or resources to attend them. I would suggest you move towards a more open format of disseminating your ideas and the very specific and lengthy details about them. I'm not going to buy a book on futurism and wade through it for the details you provide about neurobiology and I don't think PZ Meyers would do that either.

    I mentioned the genome in a completely different context. I presented a number of arguments as to why the design of the brain is not as complex as some theorists have advocated. This is to respond to the notion that it would require trillions of lines of code to create a comparable system. The argument from the amount of information in the genome is one of several such arguments. It is not a proposed strategy for accomplishing reverse-engineering. It is an argument from information theory, which Myers obviously does not understand.

    Well, frankly, I don't understand it either. You're applying information theory to lines of code ... and that just doesn't make any sense to me. I haven't heard of it. I haven't heard of anyone say "theoretically could be reduced to x lines of code." I don't know why we're talking about information theory when we're talking about simulating the brain or even understanding the brain.

    The amount of information in the genome (after lossless compression, which is feasible because of the massive redundancy in the genome) is about 50 million bytes (down from 800 million bytes in the uncompressed genome). It is true that the information in the genome goes through a complex route to create a brain, but the information in the genome constrains the amount of information in the brain prior to the brain’s interaction with its environment.

    So first it was information theory on the genome and now you're on about compression of the genome. Great, you've applied theoretical limits to lines of code in order to describe a complex biological system and then argued that due to redundancy we can reduce it to 50 million bytes. And what did that buy us exactly? Look at how many lines of code we've devoted to simulating a single neuron or synapse ... and it's not even a complete and accurate simulation. Your theoretical limits are amusing but pointless ... to further apply your 'exponential growth' of the lines of code we can program is further amusing.

    Kurzweil is a futurist with just enough knowledge to sell people. His exponential growth to a singularity and proof of it doesn't do him much good when he doesn't understand the complexity of the brain and then applies theoretical limits to that from other disciplines. He's free to keep preaching, I just question at what point people will give up on him. If he dies soon and pulls a L. Ron Hubbard what sort of cult then will we have on our hands?

  • Two decades? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by mcgrew (92797) * on Friday August 20, 2010 @11:43AM (#33314650) Homepage Journal

    I said that we would be able to reverse-engineer the brain sufficiently to understand its basic principles of operation within two decades, not one decade, as Myers reports.

    We don't have more than a rudimentary understanding of how the brain works, or even what Consciousness [wikipedia.org] is.

    Although humans realize what everyday experiences are, consciousness refuses to be defined, philosophers note (e.g. John Searle in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy):[3]

    "Anything that we are aware of at a given moment forms part of our consciousness, making conscious experience at once the most familiar and most mysterious aspect of our lives."
    --Schneider and Velmans, 2007[4]

  • by Lord Ender (156273) on Friday August 20, 2010 @11:49AM (#33314722) Homepage

    It isn't really a dispute.

    Kurzweil is obviously optimistic about his time tables. But his theory of technology growth accelerating calls for optimism; there's good reason to believe that experts historically underestimate the rate of advancement.

    Clearly, Myers has discovered that being unnecessarily angry and insulting leads to more pageviews in his blog. I'm sure he knows his field, and it's great when he tears into real jokers, but he has moved beyond that. He is now being inflammatory just for page hits.

  • Re:Two decades? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Zarf (5735) on Friday August 20, 2010 @11:52AM (#33314770) Journal

    A good point. I think Kurzweil is one of those that would say "consciousness is computing" so all you need is enough of the right computations. This is definitely something brain simulations would have to explore. We simply have no idea yet.

  • Re:Two decades? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Angst Badger (8636) on Friday August 20, 2010 @12:05PM (#33314970)

    We don't have more than a rudimentary understanding of how the brain works, or even what consciousness is.

    People say this a lot, and I don't understand why. Our understanding of how the brain works is a good deal more than rudimentary. The advances we've made in understanding the brain on both the large and small scales in just the last five years are breathtaking. Our understanding is a long way from complete, but Kurzweil is correct at least to the extent that our understanding is significant and appears to be growing at an accelerating rate. It may not be accelerating as fast as he expects, but keeping up with new developments in neurology at even a cursory level is quite challenging. The main difficulty we face at present in implementing the structures we do understand in silicon is the lack of adequate parallelism in current computing hardware, not our understanding of the relevant neural structures.

    As for consciousness, unless you believe in some kind of pre-scientific vitalism, a reasonable working assumption is that it is an emergent property of brain-like structures. Unless and until we discover otherwise, there is no reason to wait for an understanding of consciousness to begin working on replicating the functionality of the brain. Quite likely, the attempt to replicate the brain will reveal more about consciousness than idle philosophical inquiries. Those so inclined might want to settle on a definition of consciousness before trying to figure out how it works.

  • by jcampbelly (885881) on Friday August 20, 2010 @12:22PM (#33315190)

    http://www.vimeo.com/siai/videos/sort:oldest [vimeo.com]
    http://singinst.org/media/interviews [singinst.org]
    http://www.youtube.com/user/singularityu [youtube.com]

    Well, lack of searching is not a lack of material, you can find several hours of Ray's talks on video at Singularity Summit 2007, 2008, 2009, TED.com, Singularity University and just plain independent YouTube videos. He also has two movies out (I haven't seen either), the Transcendent Man criticisng his esoteric side and The Singularity Is Near (based on his book) supporting his ideas.

    All of this talk about his figures being wrong is quite far from the point. To say we'll have conversations with virtual humans in 2030 or that we may have to cope with an AI superintelligence by 2050 is quite far from noting that either of these situations are entirely possible extrapolated from trends and the discussion should be had.

    As a computer scientist, I can say that it will be hard to do. As a scientist, it's pretty foolish to say that because something is hard that it will never happen (we did and building a human is pretty hard).

  • by GreatAntibob (1549139) on Friday August 20, 2010 @12:27PM (#33315236)

    Kurzweil is more than optimistic - he's just plain guessing. His predictions for the near term are accurate because they don't require big leaps in imagination or technology. His predictions for further out tend to be wrong or loony (many, if not most, of the predictions he made for technology achieved by 2010 back in the 90s were wrong in whole or in part).

    His "theory" of technology growth is ridiculous in the face of prima facie evidence. It's true that experts historically underestimate the rate of technology advancement. It's also true they almost always underestimate the field in which explosive exponential growth takes place. In the 1950s, we were dreaming about flying cars and meals in pill form. Who actually predicted the full extent of the internet in our lives back in 1960? Or ubiquitous celluar communication? Or that we wouldn't have just 3 broadcast television stations? Technological progress is a given and the more limited of Kurzweil's predictions are correct because they typically require modest improvements in current technology - but epiphenomenalism, i.e. the singularity, is far from a given.

    .

    Kurzweil does a fine job making the simple types of predictions (the type that led to predicting flying cars in the 50s). The problem is that, like everybody, he can't predict the "next big thing". Exponential growth in technology always relies on discovering and exploiting as yet undiscovered technologies, and Kurzweil mostly relies on existing tech. That's fine for 10 or 20 years out but gets progressively worse at predictive power past that (see his predictions for 2010 and beyond made in the 90's, as opposed to the predictions he made in the last 10 years). And, to be honest, most scientists could have (and did) made the same short-term predictions Kurzweil made. It's not a stretch to think that Moore's Law will keep chugging along for at least 5 years and that people in different fields will exploit that.

  • by popsicle67 (929681) on Friday August 20, 2010 @12:28PM (#33315252)
    P.Z. Meyers is not some headline grabbing putz like half the republican party. He would have an interested following regardless of whether he even bothered to talk about Kurzweil or not. Kurzweil has a vested interest in trying to shout down dissenting opinion while Meyers has no dog in the fight save illustrating the scientific fallacies and fantasies foisted upon a credulous public by pompous windbags such as Kurzweil.
  • by FelxH (1416581) on Friday August 20, 2010 @12:46PM (#33315470)

    Well, frankly, I don't understand it either. You're applying information theory to lines of code ... and that just doesn't make any sense to me. I haven't heard of it. I haven't heard of anyone say "theoretically could be reduced to x lines of code." I don't know why we're talking about information theory when we're talking about simulating the brain or even understanding the brain.

    Kurzweil doesn't advocate the use information for understanding or modeling the brain. He only used it in combination with other methods to get an estimate on how complex the brain actually is (whether his methods and estimates are correct I can't tell). That was, imo, the whole point of the paragraph you quoted ...

  • by Chris Burke (6130) on Friday August 20, 2010 @01:04PM (#33315674) Homepage

    Kurzweil is obviously optimistic about his time tables. But his theory of technology growth accelerating calls for optimism; there's good reason to believe that experts historically underestimate the rate of advancement.

    Hey, optimism regarding the exponential growth of (some) technology, and the unpredictable and amazing consequences of such is fantastic. I try to be optimistic that it will continue myself (being in a field that has been the poster child for exponential improvement and not liking the idea of this ending).

    Exponential growth in technology ergo artificial brains isn't optimism, it's a (specific) leap of faith.

    Clearly, Myers has discovered that being unnecessarily angry and insulting leads to more pageviews in his blog. I'm sure he knows his field, and it's great when he tears into real jokers, but he has moved beyond that. He is now being inflammatory just for page hits.

    I guess, but what I considered to be the biggest failing that Myers tore into in the previous article still remains. Kurzweil says Myers is mischaracterizing his thesis, and sure maybe he was at some point. But then he goes right on to emphasize that "the genome constrains the amount of information in the brain prior to the brain's interaction with its environment."

    Aside from the fact that you can't separate the brain's development from its interaction with the environment even in the womb and it's doubtful that a brain that somehow developed completely without stimulus would look very much like a functioning human brain at all, that's still just not true. It's like saying that the tiny binary produced by compiling "Hello World" constrains the amount of information needed to actually run the program (especially since it's suppossed to tell you how to make the computer its running on too). Or that the amount of information on a web page is constrained by the size of the .html file. Img tags are not sufficient information to reconstruct the image it references.

    The genome contains instructions for constructing the human body/brain within the context of another human body. The genome itself is not sufficient information to create that body. It's exploiting a huge amount of external information to allow itself to be as compact as it is.

  • by ElectricTurtle (1171201) on Friday August 20, 2010 @01:08PM (#33315726)
    I like how within your perspective a difference of opinion is 'total ignorance'. In that context, I will treat you with equivalent respect. Materialism is so long been disproved that leading biologists like Dr. Richard Dawkins still ascribe to it. Yes, I see what poor company I keep.

    Really, you're going to peddle Peter Russell? A guy who makes his living selling pseudopsychological snake oil to businesses? Lynne McTaggart is even worse, she spreads FUD about modern medicine to suit some whackjob personal political agenda. I recognize that I am not assailing their arguments because they are not worth my time, nor are you, as I said I'm only going to give you as much respect as you've given me, which has been none.

    Oh and Max Plan[c]k's [SIC] opinion of consciousness is about as meaningful as Jung's opinion of quantum electrodynamics. Planck did not have the background in the field of neuroscience or psychology to have an educated opinion about consciousness. He simply had an opinion, and that opinion gains no more automatic credence because he happened to have a Nobel prize in an unrelated field. Even if all of that were different, a lot can change in nearly a century.

    I don't deny there are levels of consciousness, they're just all physical. Just as the levels in a computer are all physical. Software is nothing more than differential physical states on magnetic media and within circuits. The mind is the same, and below that level is electricity again not "spirit", just like in a computer coincidentally.
  • by snowgirl (978879) on Friday August 20, 2010 @01:11PM (#33315768) Journal

    Clearly, Myers has discovered that being unnecessarily angry and insulting leads to more pageviews in his blog. I'm sure he knows his field, and it's great when he tears into real jokers, but he has moved beyond that. He is now being inflammatory just for page hits.

    You missed something. The media will always inaccurately propagate scientific... hell, just about ANY view. They necessarily must summarize, simplify, and downplay. Typically, their own personal interests will cause a bias towards one particularly interesting feature of the advancement or article, and they will focus on that. (Remember the recent "chicken or egg" article whose scientific findings had NOTHING to do with that question?)

    PZ Meyers made a bit of a mistake in responding so vehemently to a strawman construction of media's doing.

  • by Attila Dimedici (1036002) on Friday August 20, 2010 @01:18PM (#33315888)
    You point out what I thought was the failure of Kurzweil's defense against Myers' argument. Kurzweil repeats the claim that Myers said was a wrong assumption on Kurzweil's part: that the genome contains all of the information necessary to create the brain. Myers argument with Kurzweil boils down to this: the genome does not contain all of the information necessary to reconstruct the brain. There is an awful lot of information about building a living creature contained in various ways in the structure of each cell. For example, if you were to take the nucleus of a fertilized monkey ovum and place it in a fertilized shark ovum (after removing the nucleus of the shark ovum), you would not end up with a monkey, although it would be closer than if you just swapped the genome between the two. There is a lot of information about how to interpret the genome in the cell structure. The same sequence of DNA has been shown to code for significantly different proteins in different creatures.
  • by Lord Ender (156273) on Friday August 20, 2010 @01:29PM (#33316044) Homepage

    He isn't being loony. If he were loony, he would predict things known to by impossible based on our understanding of physics. He is very specifically predicting developments which (a) people want, and (b) the universe (seems to) allow. This is necessarily murky business, but he at least attempts to set his time-tables based on quantifiable, empirical observations as best he can.

    So accepting that predicting the longer-term future is inherently difficult, he at least makes an attempt. You are the sort to just throw up your hands and sling mud at those who try. It's a good thing we have a few people like him. It would be tragic if everyone thought like you.

  • by Rakishi (759894) on Friday August 20, 2010 @01:38PM (#33316232)

    Using the genome does not address the code issues that's the whole bloody point that anyone who knows molecular biology sees (including Myers).

    The genome is a SUBSET of the code used to describe a human brain. The real code is in the universe. Physics, biology and so on. The computer the genome is run on. It's using a 10 million line library to create a jpeg and then saying that making a jpeg is only a single line of code because the call to the library was 1 line. Utter idiocy.

  • by ccarson (562931) on Friday August 20, 2010 @01:49PM (#33316420)
    These old fuddy duddies have lost all perspective of engineering. They're both right and wrong. Understanding a system can be obtained from different perspective, INCLUDING the genome. To dismiss, as Meyers did, that the genome isn't the approach and Kurzweil's redefinition of his comments misses the point. Both need to realize that in the end the brain will be mastered by many researchers from many disciplines in many labs. The culmination of knowledge will yield from different angles through different experiments. To suggest that our understanding of the mind will only come from angle A, B and Z is like saying the only way to wrap your mind around an application is by studying the database alone.
  • by joeyblades (785896) on Friday August 20, 2010 @02:13PM (#33316706)

    there's good reason to believe that experts historically underestimate the rate of advancement

    Except in the area of artificial intelligence. About every 5 years, starting back in the early 1950s, some group of experts have proclaimed that human level intelligence would be simulated on a computer "within the next 20 years". They all overestimated the growth rate in this field... and continue to do so, in all likelihood.

    Don't confuse what Moore's Law does for technology with growth of knowledge about the human brain. We know a lot more than we did 60 years ago... but we still don't have a clue how the damn things work.

    We're like aliens probing semiconductors at the nanoscale trying to figure out how computers work, with no concept yet of CPUs or software or algorithms...

  • by GrantRobertson (973370) on Friday August 20, 2010 @02:22PM (#33316804) Homepage Journal
    Myers primary complaint was that Kurzweil used the number of genes in the genome and how many bits would be required to store that data as a predictor of how long it will take to completely understand the complexity of the human mind. Myers' post lays out a glimpse of the additional complexity involved and rightly points out the fallacy of making such a grand prediction based on such a small amount of information and understanding. Of course Kurzweil's entire career and fame are now dependent on people continuing to fall for his dramatic generalizations and overreaching predictions that "Something Big" is right around the corner. I have watched Kurzweil talk and sometimes it seems as if he has a messianic complex.
  • by IICV (652597) on Friday August 20, 2010 @03:53PM (#33317944)

    I'm not entirely certain what strawman construction PZ Myers responded to. Ray Kurtzweil said, and yes this is from the article, but presumably he actually said something like this:

    Here's how that math works, Kurzweil explains: The design of the brain is in the genome. The human genome has three billion base pairs or six billion bits, which is about 800 million bytes before compression, he says. Eliminating redundancies and applying loss-less compression, that information can be compressed into about 50 million bytes, according to Kurzweil.

    About half of that is the brain, which comes down to 25 million bytes, or a million lines of code.

    And that is complete bullshit. As other people pointed out, this is like saying that the design of an x86 computer down to the motherboard schematics and the equations for quantum interactions between electrons is contained in the Windows source code.

    If you read PZ's response [scienceblogs.com], you'd see that even that is not an accurate analogy. What DNA does, in a sense, is contain the information needed to create an automated construction crew - Caterpillars, forklifts, jackhammers, etc. That construction crew then goes out and builds the brain, based on interactions with the rest of the body.

    So yes, maybe with a couple million lines of code we could replicate the DNA that codes for your brain. We would then need several billion more lines of code to replicate the processes used to create the brain, many of which we still don't understand at all.

    No, I don't think Ray Kurzweil will ever have an artifical cyborg body, nor do I think I will ever have one (and I'm much younger than he is). Maybe in two or three generations, when we've figured out how to do large-scale, brute force factory science efficiently.

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