Health Learning

The Brain

My friend Trevor has an intriguing post about methods of mapping the brain. This is of interest to me because of how I have been reading “The Singularity is Near” by Ray Kurzweil. Trevor talks about research into “seeing” water flow in the brain, as opposed to glucose or electrical signals or bloodflow. It’s a really cool idea to help understand how the brain works and how it could help humans relate to the world around them.

So why am I interested in the brain? Well, as Ray says, mapping the brain will result in technology beyond anything we could ever imagine for future technology. Using the biologically evolved model of the brain will allow us to leap past prior research in digital and analog technologies to create more advanced computers sooner. This will eventually allow for humans to choose to either become hybrid (biological/machine) beings or even completely machine beings, with transferred knowledge from the biological counterparts. This is also the idea he refers to as “The Singularity”…when human intelligence is surpassed by machine intelligence and machines begin to evolve on their own. Not to worry, he also claims that the machines will consider us “their biological forebears” and they will respect us (and not dominate us and turn us into batteries).

For more reading on/by Kurzweil, be sure to check out The Law of Accelerating Returns, upon which he bases many of his arguments. Some of the ideas he has are pretty radical and optimistic, but they are definitely possible in this lifetime. If you’re not interested in that, make sure you read Trevor’s post (or an part of his blog), it’s quite intriguing.

By Chris Gammell

Chris Gammell is an engineer who talks more than most other engineers. He also writes, makes videos and a couple podcasts. While analog electronics happen to be his primary interests, he also dablles in FPGAs and system level design.

4 replies on “The Brain”


Couldn’t agree more. I find it intruiging that we have 6.5 billion optimally designed computers running around this world and we’re still struggling to figure out how they work. I’m most interested in storage- how the brain seemingly has an endless capacity for memories, patterns, and associations- and how they’re only accessible through certain modes; hypnosis, smells, sounds, and even sleep.

Ok, Kurzweil has some fascinating ideas, but as far as I could tell from reading most (not all, I got impatient) of his page, it’s pretty much based off of Moore’s Law, with some ridiculous charts from excel. His whole beef that everyone mistakenly ascribes linear relationships to future technological progress when they aught to be ascribing exponential relationships is a little presumptuous. None of his data offers any estimate on the errors in measurement, or even an estimate on how well the data represents the entire population (even political polls do that much). I’m not saying he only chose examples that fit his theory, but I am saying that it’s fairly weak support, and he needs to show better data if he expects to convince skeptics.

Additionally, I am particularly bothered by his pairing of “evolution” with “progress”. Evolution is not progress. Evolution is adaptation to the environment. As Stephen Jay Gould said, “Wooly mammoths are an evolved form of elephants, but that does not make wooly mammoths some cosmically better elephant, it’s just better suited to the environment of Siberia, where it lived.” The size of a transistor is not evolution, it’s an extension of technological capability. Regardless even of that though, chip speed does not define technological progress. He goes from discussing the invention of fire and the wheel into computerized natural speech transcription without even taking a breath. I think he’s extrapolating a little too far to really have credible predictions.

Lastly, I think there’s an elephant in the room that he’s not discussing here. I found his discussion very thought provoking on how technology progresses along a path until it runs out of space, and then there is a paradigm shift to allow further progress. Also, that this shift would naturally happen and there would be hardly a perceptible slow-down in the development of new technologies while this shift happened. That is how it was worked in the modern era, but what about Native Americans? They lived in the Americas for centuries and still never developed the wheel. Where was the paradigm shift there? How about writing? Most native american cultures had no written language. Those two technologies are enormously important, and certainly to those of us looking back at history, seem painfully obvious. Yet no paradigm shift occurred in native american cultures to create those technologies. I would like to hear Kurzweil explain why many ancient cultures have missed out on really important technologies like that, and why the world in the future will not miss similarly important ideas.

Sorry for the rant, but I wanted to put that out there and see what other people think about it.

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