Not Enough Atoms in the Universe to Model Your Brain

Not Enough Atoms in the Universe to Model Your Brain August 25, 2020


Elon Musk, our real-life Tony Stark, plans to announce this week the progress of his company Neuralink, which is dedicated to developing a Body Machine Interface (BMI); specifically, implanting a computer connection into the human brain.

Musk has described how robotic surgery will sew ultra-fine filaments into the cerebral cortex, which will be able to “stream full broadband electrophysiology data” into a computer, whereupon a “single USB-C cable provides full-bandwidth data streaming from the device.”

So reports Claudia Glover, in Computer Business Review, in her article Your Brain, With a USB Port in It: Elon Musk’s Neuralink Vision Divides Experts.

 In this early stage of development, Musk hopes that such a Body Machine Interface will be helpful in brain research and that the technology might enable disabled individuals to operate computers simply by their mental activity.  But he has far greater ambitions.  He started the project because of his fears of Artificial Intelligence developing to the point that computers might develop consciousness, exceed the powers of the human mind, and take over–or possibly extinguish–the human race.  He plans for his BMI technology to enable humans to themselves draw on this coming mega-intelligence so that the human race will be the ones attaining super-human power.
A nearer-term dream is to form a “neural network” connecting the minds of all human beings so that we can communicate our thoughts to each other directly, making language obsolete.  As Glover reports,
The ambitions of those working closely on BMI include, for some, the hope that technology could eventually to be used to connect the human race via a bona fide “neural network”; allowing people to communicate using thoughts and images rather than words, and even give over their motor function to others, with their consent*. The ideas behind this have their roots in a dizzying transhumanism. . . .
Ideally in the next 50 years some BMI advocates hope to equip those who can afford it with tech that will ostensibly enable them to communicate without speaking, access a “hive mind” for any information they need and sense their houses and the appliances in them as easily as if they were on their bodies: no more “Alexa, do this…”, or “Hey Google…” You just think it and it happens: an “Internet of Things” in which you are at one with the things.
Glover interviews those who have high hopes for this technology, but also those who throw cold water on those hopes, explaining why it is dangerous (e.g., the brain doesn’t heal like the rest of the body, so sticking things into it can have dire consequences), premature (we aren’t close to understanding how the brain works), or impossible (even if we did understand how the brain works, plugging it into a computer would do nothing).
You may recall our post from a few years ago entitled  The Brain Is NOT a Computer, which links to an article by someone who is an expert both in brain research and in computer technology.  He points out that although we use words such as “memory,” “information,” “intelligence,” and other mind-related words to describe what computers do, these are only metaphors.  Computers do not work like our minds do, and they are, in fact, nothing like the brain.  And increasing their processing power or attaining an ever-greater accumulation of data on the internet will never bring on consciousness, a phenomenon that scientists understand even less than how the brain works.

Glover comes around to this, more fundamental difficulty.  She quotes Oliver Armitage, who himself is working on BMI technologies (my bolds):

Armitage summed up the complexity of the human brain with what he called a theoretically intractable problem: “Famously, there aren’t enough atoms in the universe to build a full model of what every cell is doing [in the brain]. It’s a theoretically intractable problem, you can’t even conceive of a computer large enough because there isn’t enough material in the universe to make it.

We sometimes feel overwhelmed at how small we are in the vastness of the universe.  But it appears that as vast as the universe is, your brain is vaster still.  That is to say, you are vaster still.


Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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