A British newspaper has published an intriguing bit of speculation. From Are we on the brink of creating a computer with a human brain?:
What is it, in that three pounds of grey jelly, that gives rise to the feeling of conscious self-awareness, the thoughts and emotions, the agonies and ecstasies that comprise being a human being?
This is a question that has troubled scientists and philosophers for centuries. The traditional answer was to assume that some sort of ‘soul’ pervades the brain, a mysterious ‘ghost in the machine’ which gives rise to the feeling of self and consciousness.
If this is the case, then computers, being machines not flesh and blood, will never think. We will never be able to build a robot that will feel pain or get angry, and the Blue Brain project will fail.
But very few scientists still subscribe to this traditional ‘dualist’ view – ‘dualist’ because it assumes ‘mind’ and ‘matter’ are two separate things.
Instead, most neuroscientists believe that our feelings of self-awareness, pain, love and so on are simply the result of the countless billions of electrical and chemical impulses that flit between its equally countless billions of neurons.
So if you build something that works exactly like a brain, consciousness, at least in theory, will follow.
In fact, several teams are working to prove this is the case by attempting to build an electronic brain. They are not attempting to build flesh and blood brains like modern-day Dr Frankensteins.
They are using powerful mainframe computers to ‘model’ a brain. But, they say, the result will be just the same.
Two years ago, a team at IBM’s Almaden research lab at Nevada University used a BlueGene/L Supercomputer to model half a mouse brain.
Half a mouse brain consists of about eight million neurons, each of which can form around 8,000 links with neighbouring cells.
Creating a virtual version of this pushes a computer to the limit, even machines which, like the BlueGene, can perform 20trillion calculations a second.
The ‘mouse’ simulation was run for about ten seconds at a speed a tenth as fast as an actual rodent brain operates. Nevertheless, the scientists said they detected tell-tale patterns believed to correspond with the ‘thoughts’ seen by scanners in real-life mouse brains.
It is just possible a fleeting, mousey, ‘consciousness’ emerged in the mind of this machine. But building a thinking, remembering human mind is more difficult. Many neuroscientists claim the human brain is too complicated to copy.
Markram’s team is undaunted. They are using one of the most powerful computers in the world to replicate the actions of the 100billion neurons in the human brain. It is this approach – essentially copying how a brain works without necessarily understanding all of its actions – that will lead to success, the team hopes. And if so, what then?
Well, a mind, however fleeting and however shorn of the inevitable complexities and nuances that come from being embedded in a body, is still a mind, a ‘person’. We would effectively have created a ‘brain in a vat’. Conscious, aware, capable of feeling, pain, desire. And probably terrified.
And if it were modelled on a human brain, we would then have real ethical dilemmas. If our ‘brain’ – effectively just a piece of extremely impressive computer software – could be said to know it exists, then do we assign it rights?
Would turning it off constitute murder? Would performing experiments upon it constitute torture?
And there are other questions, too, questions at the centre of the nurture versus nature debate. Would this human mind, for example, automatically feel guilt or would it need to be ‘taught’ a sense of morality first? And how would it respond to religion? Indeed, are these questions that a human mind asks of its own accord, or must it be taught to ask them first?
Thankfully, we are probably a long way from having to confront these issues. It is important to stress that not one scientist has provided anything like a convincing explanation for how the brain works, let alone shown for sure that it would be possible to replicate this in a machine.
So if this can’t be achieved, I suppose that would be proof of the existence of the soul. If it could be achieved, would that undermine the Christian faith? I don’t think it would. The Bible emphasizes the resurrection of the body, so I have no problem with the notion that consciousness inheres in our physical makeup, even if we also have some immaterial spirit that survives in some manner with God. A conscious computer would not be human, of course. It would lack the Divine Image. But it would bear our image.
Say a conscious computer could be built, one that moreover had will, feelings, and a moral sensibility. Suppose it even had a religious impulse. Would it need to be evangelized? Or would it be unfallen?