Computer with consciousness?

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?

230 miles per gallon

GM says that the Volt, its new electric car, will get 230 mpg in city driving.

General Motors said Tuesday its Chevrolet Volt electric car could get 230 mpg in city driving, making it the first American vehicle to achieve triple-digit fuel economy if that figure is confirmed by federal regulators.

But when the four-door family sedan hits showrooms late next year, its efficiency will come with a steep sticker price: $40,000.

Still, the Volt’s fuel efficiency would be four times more than the popular Toyota Prius hybrid, the most efficient car now sold in the U.S. . . .

Unlike the Prius and other traditional hybrids, the Volt is powered by an electric motor and a battery pack with a 40-mile range. After that, a small internal combustion engine kicks in to generate electricity for a total range of 300 miles. The battery pack can be recharged from a standard home outlet.

In city driving? If you can go less than 40 miles without using any gasoline at all, however they calculate it would give city driving a big advantage. For once, highway driving would give you poor mileage. (Again, the Volt is an all-electric car that uses its small gasoline engine to recharge its battery after a point.) Still this is pretty impressive. Do you want one?

Internet scammers are people too

You know those e-mail scams you get from Nigeria? Well, it turns out that the promises of untold wealth if you help with a financial transfer and other scams, including romantic connections, have become a major industry in that nation. The Washington Post has published a fascinating portrait of the so-called yahoo-yahoo boys who are in this particular line of work. From Worldwide Slump Makes Nigeria’s Online Scammers Work That Much Harder:

Banjo is a polite young man in a button-down shirt, and he is the sort of guy on the other end of that block-lettered missive requesting your “URGENT ASSISTANCE” in transferring millions of dollars. He is the sort who made Nigeria infamous for cyberscams, which experts say are increasing in these tough times.

U.S. authorities say Americans — the easiest prey, according to Nigerian scammers — lose hundreds of millions of dollars a year to cybercrimes, including a scheme known as the Nigerian 419 fraud, named for a section of the Nigerian criminal code. Now financially squeezed, Americans succumb even more easily to offers of riches, experts say. . . .

The scammers, known as “yahoo-yahoo boys,” are glorified in pop songs such as “Yahoozee,” which gained even more fame after former secretary of state Colin L. Powell danced to it at a London festival last year.

“My maga don pay/Shout alleluia!” goes another Nigerian anthem, which celebrates, in slang and pidgin English, that a victim — maga — sent money. . . .

Felix and Banjo said they started as college students. Their campus, one state away from Lagos, teemed with young men with fancy cars, designer clothing and beautiful girlfriends — scammers all.

In the lingo of swindlers, Felix said he went “on the street.” He got “tools”: formats, or “FMs,” for letters; “mailers,” or accounts that send e-mails in bulk; and huge lists of e-mail addresses, bought online.

In good months, he said, he has made $30,000, which he blew on clothes, hotel rooms and Dom Perignon at “VVIP” clubs. These days, he lamented, proceeds are down 40 percent. . . .

In good months, Banjo said, he has made $60,000.

But in these tough times, the scammers said, they are relying more on a crucial tool: voodoo. At times, Banjo said, he has traveled six hours to the forest, where a magician sells scam-boosters. A $300 powder supposedly helps scammers “speak with authority” when demanding payment. A powder, rubbed on the face, reportedly makes victims viewing the scammer through webcams powerless to say no.

“No matter what, they will pay,” said Olumide, a college student, adding that he is boosting his romance scams by wearing a magical, live tortoise hanging from a cord around his neck.

Nissan’s electric car

Next year the Japanese automaker Nissan will come out with the Leaf, an all-electric car that will cost no more than its equivalent gasoline-powered model, under $30,000. GM’s Volt is expected to cost over $40,000. The Volt was supposed to come out next year when the Leaf does, but now reports are that it might not come out until 2011. The Volt’s electric engine will go for 40 miles, whereupon a gasoline engine kicks in to charge the battery. The Leaf uses no gasoline at all, but its electric engine will go 100 miles before recharging, which can be done in 30 minutes. Nissan is working on setting up charging stations all over so that you do not have to charge the car at home. The company seems to be using the “freemium” model we blogged about earlier: The car is inexpensive, but the battery will be leased separately with monthly payments, parallel to but said-to-be less than what a person would spend for gasoline. Here is a picture:

Nissan Leaf

So does this sound like another case of the Japanese auto industry beating out the Americans? Would you buy one of these?

The new business model: Give it away free

Here is an interestingreview of a new book by Wired editor Chris Anderson entitled Free: The Future of a Radical Price:

It’s called “freemium.”

That term, first popularized by venture capitalist Fred Wilson, describes a business model that combines free with premium and is based on the underlying assumption that the most effective price is free. Anderson says that companies can use the powerful marketing tool of “free” to garner the largest possible audience, and then convert a portion to additional premium services for which companies would charge a fee, or “premium.” From there, one figures out his optimal free-to-paid ratio. “You give away 75% to 90% of your goods and sell the rest,” Anderson said.

Applying the freemium model to mobile phones, you would get the cell phone but pay for the minutes. For the music industry, you would give away your music for free, people would sample it, some would pay for the mp3, and some would attend the concert — the premium part of the equation. . . .

Anderson’s rationale for why the model will work
Anderson explains the reason this model will work is because people are psychologically drawn to free, and offering content or services over the Internet has no “real” costs associated with it.

According to Anderson, the Internet is the first deflationary industrial economy we’ve ever created. He says that digital is the first to progressively fall 50% every year — and has been for 50 years. Once the Internet took the constrained processing from Moore’s law, a rule stating that the number of transistors on a chip doubles every 24 months, and added storage and bandwidth — both of which fall faster — Anderson says we created a medium that basically says everything can be available in a free form.

As a result, Anderson says media companies have infinite competition, and the marginal cost of production and distribution is zero. “Whatever the cost is today, it’s going to be 50% as much as a year from now, and fall 50% every year forever because of Moore’s law.”

Sooner or later, everyone will compete with free, Anderson says. “Free is not a choice,” he said. “If you don’t do it for free, someone else will. The question is, is yours worth paying for?

What do you think about this business model? Setting aside the techno-utopianism, what might be some applications? (A publisher offering free downloads of titles, but then charging a premium for printing them out? Giving away Volt cars, but charging $40,000 for the batteries?) Give suggestions both real and whimsical.

Back to the moon

Today is the 40th anniversary of a human being walking on the moon. Charles Krauthammer says we simply must go back to the moon. In the course of his argument, he recounts that “Michael Crichton once wrote that if you told a physicist in 1899 that within a hundred years humankind would, among other wonders (nukes, commercial airlines), “travel to the moon, and then lose interest . . . the physicist would almost certainly pronounce you mad.”

It so happens that we have another moon vessel up there now. Its mission is interesting in itself, though it shows how inhospitable the moon is to human life:

The 13-ft.-long, 2-ton spacecraft is not designed for a landing, but rather will settle into a low lunar orbit just 30 miles (48 km) above the surface, or about half the altitude at which the Apollos flew. The ship will be fairly stuffed with scientific instruments, one of the most important — if least sexy sounding — of which will be its laser altimeter. The altimeter will bounce laser beams off the lunar surface and, by measuring the speed at which they reflect back up, calculate the moon’s topography to within inches. That’s critical since long-term lunar stays require finding not only hospitable places to land, but also hospitable places to establish a home.

“We’re going to measure the topography with the level of detail civil engineers need when they’re building a building,” says Jim Garvin, one of the lead developers of the LRO and the chief scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, which will run the mission.

Just as important for choosing where to homestead is knowing the local weather — or at least the local temperature. Nobody pretends that the moon will be a thermally comfortable place to live, but few people realize just how punishing its climate extremes are — a torch-like 250 degrees Fahrenheit (120 Celsius) during the day and a paralyzing -382 Fahrenheit (-230 Celsius) at night. What’s more, says Garvin, “the moon goes through this dance every 28 days.” Those kinds of cycling extremes can be murder on hardware, and until we know more about the hot-cold rhythm, we can’t build properly to withstand it.

Easily the most exciting piece of hardware aboard the ship, however — for lay lunarphiles at least — will be the camera. Even the best reconnaissance photography before the Apollo visits missed things, which is why Apollo 11′s landing almost came to grief when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin found themselves piloting their lander over an unexpected boulder field just seconds before touchdown. That’s less likely to happen this time, thanks to a camera that can visualize objects as small as a few feet across. What’s more, since the LRO will be in a polar orbit instead of an equatorial one — or, vertical rather than horizontal — the moon’s 28-day rotation will eventually carry virtually every spot on the surface beneath the camera’s lens.

“The moon will essentially walk around underneath the orbiter,” says Garvin. “With the detail we get in the photographs, every picture will be like a mini-landing.” That includes photos of the Apollo sites, all half-dozen of which should have their portraits snapped. If NASA gets lucky, Garvin believes the first such images could be in hand by the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11, on July 20.

For all of the LRO’s versatility, one thing it can’t do with much precision is look for water. That’s a problem, since astronauts living on the surface will need plenty of the stuff, and bringing it all with them is out of the question. (A single pint of water weighs about a pound, and every pound you fly to the moon costs about $50,000.) The LRO, however, will not be traveling alone. Launched on the same booster will be another entire spacecraft known as the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS).

Shortly after the paired ships enter space, the LCROSS will separate from the LRO and embark on its own trajectory toward the moon. The LCROSS will lag behind, spending four months in a sweeping orbit that will carry it around both Earth and the moon; throughout its flight, it will remain attached to its upper stage rocket, separating from it only during its final approach to the moon. The rocket stage will then speed ahead, aiming for a deliberate crash in one of several craters in the south lunar pole in which the LRO’s sensors will have detected signs of water ice. The collision will send a debris plume as high as 6.2 miles (10 km) into space and the LCROSS itself, trailing four minutes behind, will fly through it. As it does, its instruments will analyze the chemistry of the plume, looking particularly for water ice, hydrocarbons and other organics that will break down as they are exposed to their first flashes of sunlight in billions of years. Shortly after that, the LCROSS, too, will complete its suicide plunge, smashing into the ground just miles from the first impact site.

It will take about a year before the surviving LRO completes its more leisurely mission, and then another decade at least before humans are once again treading lunar soil.

Since those words were written, the vehicle has arrived at the moon and is sending back pictures, such as these of the original landing sites.

What do you think? Should we go back to the moon, launch off to Mars, and send manned expeditions into outer space?