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Ray Kurzweil Responds To PZ Myers 238

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 Zarf ( 5735 ) on Friday August 20, 2010 @11:38AM (#33314586) Journal

    Myers may have been focused on the "reverse engineer from the genome" argument but really the main issue is whether Kurzweil is within a few orders of magnitude of guessing the right level of complexity necessary to simulate a brain. The gist of the Myers argument isn't so much about genomics and ontogeny as it is about the emergent complexity of inter-related systems and I think the real nugget there might be something like: "We could model a brain but that wouldn't mean we modeled a mind. To model a mind you need to model a great deal of the environment the mind lives in... and that is many many orders of magnitude more complex."

    For the record: I hope Kurzweil is right but I rather doubt he is. I don't think he's wrong about how powerful machines will be in 2050 I think he may be wrong about whether those machines can simulate a mind well enough because I really wonder if the complexity of a mind is actually a superpolynomial problem due to the hyper connected-ness of a mind and its environment.

  • by Stargoat ( 658863 ) <> on Friday August 20, 2010 @11:44AM (#33314666) Journal

    I'm actually glad to see that Slashdot is participating in such a debate. As a longtime Slashdot resident, I'm happy that Slashdot is attempting to find a niche in the Internet that involves scientific (or semi-scientific) and computer related matters.

    The draw to Slashdot needs to be the articles, but also the response to the articles. The comments should be a cut above what you see at other websites.

  • by timepilot ( 116247 ) on Friday August 20, 2010 @12:09PM (#33315036)

    The major flaw I can see in his response (which I think was addressed by Myers) is

    but the information in the genome constrains the amount of information in the brain prior to the brain’s interaction with its environment.

    He even underlined it. The problem is that the brain doesn't just spring into existence fully formed and THEN get exposed to the environment. The brain starts out as a few cells and is constantly exposed to the environment as it develops. I think this was a major point in Myers response and RK just blew right past it.

  • by SmallFurryCreature ( 593017 ) on Friday August 20, 2010 @12:42PM (#33315422) Journal

    When are we human? Abortion hinges on this, WHEN is the foetus a human being with a human brain. Is there some magic moment the brain switches on OR are we a bacteria that evolves rapidly into a complex life form?

    Can it be that the brain "knows" the human body and how to operate it because it "grew up" with it? We imagine a robot being build typically on a long assembly line and only at the last moment the head is connected and the robot switches on. Could a brain instead function as a very small simple "cpu" that has more and more peripherals (but small ones) learns about it when they are still simple and then grows familiar with them as they and itself grow? Are WE created from a single egg, not the just he body but the WE, the spirit, the bit that makes us, makes any animal able to think? It would explain low level functions far more. A full grown heart is hard to control, but when you can get to grips with it when it is still just a few cells, that makes a lot more sense. Even fits what we know of brain cells being able to learn how to fly. Start simple, then add more complexity rather just plump some brain cells into a 747 and asking it to fly to Hong Kong and boink the stewardess.

    But building something like this? Fat chance. We use rat brain cells for a reason. Even building an AI that could teach itself to fly is beyond us. We can build AI that can fly but NOT AI that can teach itself to fly. Not even in very simple environments. That says something.

    I think the old "And the egg starts to divide" bit is a bit more complex then we think.

  • by edw ( 10555 ) <> on Friday August 20, 2010 @12:51PM (#33315528) Homepage

    I believe you may be falling prey to what Kurzweil warns about in his response to Meyers: linear thinking. Things go from impossible to inevitable without us much noticing. The bottom of a parabola looks a lot like a horizontal line.

    Let's say Kurzweil has been too optimistic about the rate of growth of our understanding of the way the brain works. Assuming the exponent on the rate of growth of our knowledge and technology is greater than one, and assuming that Penrose and Searle are full of it—which they IMO are—and there isn't some mystical quantum mechanical woo-woo that is just as irrational as the Silicon Valley Deepak Chopra mumbo-jumbo that Meyers's crew accuses the Singularity Crows of pedaling, Kurzweil will ultimately be vindicated, even if he—or his cyborg replacement body—is not around to say, "I told you so."

  • by oh_my_080980980 ( 773867 ) on Friday August 20, 2010 @01:11PM (#33315772)
    Uh no..because Kurzweil does not refute Myer's claims. Kurzweil's response underscores Myer's points.

    Kurzweil is an idiot.
  • by divisionbyzero ( 300681 ) on Friday August 20, 2010 @01:15PM (#33315848)

    is right. Myers criticism may be off the mark but Kurzweil's speculation about brain design, like some much of his other speculation, is bullshit. His basic argument in the blog post is that the amount of information in the human genome constrains the amount of information (and the complexity) required to design the brain. This thesis is wrong on a bunch of levels but let's take the most obvious. The amount of information in the genome is the amount of information that the "body" (to simplify) requires to replicate or create parts of itself. The amount of information required is relative to the machinery which is going to interpret it. There is no reason to believe we are dealing with a Turing machine here where the amount of bits required for a program to perform a function is going to be more or less consistent across languages and platforms (assuming similar complexity of the code). The machine interpreting the bits matters. So while the body may only need "50 million bytes" to create itself we may need many, many more millions of bits to specify how to build it. Just consider the complexity of protein folding.

    More dubious statements follow:

    "The goal of reverse-engineering the brain is the same as for any other biological or nonbiological system – to understand its principles of operation. We can then implement these methods using other substrates other than a biochemical system that sends messages at speeds that are a million times slower than contemporary electronics. The goal of engineering is to leverage and focus the powers of principles of operation that are understood, just as we have leveraged the power of Bernoulli’s principle to create the entire world of aviation."

    This completely begs the question of whether it can be replicated in another substrate. He just assumes that it can be done and by doing so he already assumes a model of the brain that could be (and is most likely) wrong. The brain is clearly not a Turing machine. That's not say it is not another kind of "computer" (for some expanded definition of computer) or follow mechanistic principles however. Assuming the brain is like a Turing machine (which Kurzweil implicitly does) is one of the biggest obstacles to developing real AI.

    Speculation of Kurzweil kind does not belong in the "Science" category, maybe "Idle".

  • by timepilot ( 116247 ) on Friday August 20, 2010 @01:17PM (#33315880)

    My point is that the genomic argument isn't relevant for addressing the objection that the brain is a system too complex to describe in any amount of code.

    Even referencing the genome weakens the argument if you're using it to describe complexity. The genome is more of a bootstrap code than it is a descriptor of the system itself.

    My understanding is that Kurzweil is looking at the brain as an existing system to be simulated, and Myers is saying that it is actually a long process that begins at the formation of a few cells and proceeds through exposure to its environment and its own chemistry. That the meaning of the system is actually bound up as much in that growth process as it is in the chemistry. That even the things that we see as redundancies may (or may not) be significant.

    Both of these people are way smarter than I am. So like any good slashdotter, I feel compelled to criticize one of them to make myself feel better.

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

    by Arlet ( 29997 ) on Friday August 20, 2010 @01:48PM (#33316406)

    Dennett has already provided some insights. The problem is that people find that it doesn't match their intuition, so they keep looking for something else. The biggest hurdle you have to take is to realize that you can't know your own consciousness. Once you get beyond that, the problem becomes a lot easier. []

  • Sceptics are adept at making really quite fetching mincemeat sculptures of religion, alternative medicine and the new age, but we need some serious attention paid to the transhumanist/singularist/cryonicist belief cluster. Because these are smart people, they are likely our friends, they share a lot of our notions and they are proving that the main use apes with delusions of grandeur like ourselves put intelligence to is being stupid with far greater efficiency.

    Obligatory RationalWiki plug: Cryonics []. I was actually neutral-to-positive on the subject until a friend started looking seriously into spending $120k on freezing his head and I started looking seriously into what he was getting into. And goddamn, it's woo all the way down. Woo by people who are ridiculously smarter than you or me and use it to be dumb. How do you fight that sort of woo? Piece by piece, of course. So I have to learn the bollocks on its own terms to take it down (at which point you see goalpost-moving, reversal of burden of proof, etc., all the things apes with delusions of grandeur do so well). And it's just AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA.

    tl;dr: Singularitarians talk as much utter bollocks as creationists, climate change deniers, New Age hippies and the tobacco industry. There needs to be more analysis and dissection of said bollocks.

  • by monoqlith ( 610041 ) on Friday August 20, 2010 @04:23PM (#33318276)

    "I don't deny there are levels of consciousness, they're just all physical. "

    I've had a neurogical disease that affected my level of consciousness, and I can still tell you this question is not nearly as clear cut as you think. I quite certainly believe that all my thoughts and experience originate in my brain, because those were the things that were compromised, or went away, with the disease process, which is physical.

    But beyond that, I'm stumped. I can't account for how *I* come to experience my thoughts and sensations. Yes, my brain represents the world in a 3 dimensional mental map - but represents it *to* whom? That sky appears blue. But it appears blue to what?

    Furthermore I can't decide whether, when I "woke up" from the illness, I popped back into existence out of nowhere *or* the possibility of my experience was present the entire time, even though my brain wasn't functioning correctly.

    There are no certain answers to this question. Anyone who claims they have answered it with any certainty on any side of the issue is mistaken or worse.

    This is the hard problem of consciousness, the fundamental problem of consciousness. To repeat: how is subjective awareness, or experience, possible at all? You haven't answered this question.I suspect its out of our epistemological reach because we can never 100% verify that a physical machine which speaks and acts like us is actually conscious, actually has subjective experience. If the machine insists he has experience of pain, or pleasure, do we believe him? From an ethical standpoint, I think we have to. But from an epistemological standpoint we can never really know for sure. Because our qualia are non-substitutable. There is no way to get your experience into my brain - as soon as it enters my brain it becomes my experience.

    So if you reduce awareness to a set of physical propositions, you lose the experience of "what it is like." and "what is it like to be me" - That's the other side of the coin, the subjective side. The best we can come up as far as how this is possible - physically or spiritually - is at most a hypothesis and at worst a religious assumption, even if we believe in materialism. If we want to be truly scientific we should begin to view this fundamental question as fundamentally undecidable.

The biggest difference between time and space is that you can't reuse time. -- Merrick Furst