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Think Tank

The Most Amazing Race: Reverse-Engineering the Brain

If the race to map the human genome was the last great competition in science, the challenge to reverse-engineer the brain is the most amazing race today. But experts wildly disagree on how we'll get there. 

How long will it take for computers to exhibit human-level intelligence?

If you are obsessed (as you should be) with this question, there are several must-reads that will be referenced here. The first is the essay The Singularity Isn't Near, published by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen in Technology Review, in which Allen takes Ray Kurzweil to task, arguing that computing speed alone won't get us to sentient technology, while also questioning advances in AI as "narrow, rigid, and brittle." 

Allen described to Forbes that engineering the brain is like a medieval blacksmith trying to reverse-engineer a jet engine. Simply put, the brain is "hideously complex," and we will hit a "complexity break," where we find our progress in understanding biology, shaped by millions of years of evolution, is considerably slower than our progress in computing power. 

Kurzweil responded to these critiques here, and also responds to Allen in his highly anticipated new book, How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed. Kurzweil describes Allen's objections as "scientist's pessimism." In other words, "scientists working on the next generation are invariably struggling with that next set of challenges, so if someone describes what the technology will look like in 10 generations, their eyes glaze over."

Kurzweil predicted this would happen in 2045, based on the rate of technological change that is forecast by Moore's Law. Paul Allen, however, says that "creating the software for a real singularity-level computer intelligence will require fundamental scientific progress beyond where we are today."

In order to build complex software, Allen argues we need to have a better understanding of the brain, as "an architectural guide." That is to say, we need to gain an understanding of "how billions of parallel neuron interactions can result in human consciousness and original thought." 

We are looking forward to having Ray Kurzweil into Big Think's studio at the end of this month to challenge Allen, but in the meantime, we will hear Allen's perspective from Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandell. 

Watch the video here:

What's the Significance?

In the following video, Kandel tells us the difference between the brain and a computer. 

Watch the video here:

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Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @Daniel Honan

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