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Back-to-Back, Failed Visions of the “Brain as a Supercomputer” 


It’s a delicious failed prediction. As neuroscientist Henry Markham summarized at the end of a TED Talk, “I hope that you are at least partly convinced that it is not impossible to build a brain. We can do it within 10 years, and if we do succeed, we will send to TED, in 10 years, a hologram to talk to you. Thank you.” If he had asked anyone now gathered at Discovery Institute’s Walter Bradley Center, I think they would have advised him not to go out on that particular tree branch.

As Ed Yong points out at The Atlantic, Dr. Markham recorded his talk in July 2009, now just past a decade ago. “It’s been exactly 10 years,” Yong notes, adding perhaps superfluously, “He did not succeed.”

The Brain as a Supercomputer

The title of the talk was, “A brain in a supercomputer.” Well, maybe the prophecy failed because the brain is not just a computer, super- or otherwise, and because nothing like real consciousness will be available to a machine, now or perhaps ever. Sure, a machine can give a TED Talk — as you would have guessed if you’ve seen the Hall of Presidents attraction at Disneyland, introduced in 1971 — but whether it would understand what it was saying is the real question.

Another Anniversary

Over at Mind Matters, Walter Myers has an excellent post reflecting on another anniversary, this one the publication of an iconic book, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (1979), 40 years old next month. I’d never read it and, out of curiosity, I picked up a copy for myself and started in on this huge work, which won a Pulitzer Prize for author Douglas Hofstadter. As Dr. Myers recalls, many readers got to the end and completely misunderstood Hofstadter’s point.

It’s not really about Kurt Gödel, M.C. Escher, or J.S. Bach, or about math, art, and music and their interplay. As Hofstadter clarified in a preface to the 20th anniversary edition, he was arguing in much the same vein as Henry Markham, that the brain can be understood in rules-bound machine terms, with consciousness dancing on top as an “emergent” property.

The book was intended to ask the fundamental question of how the animate can emerge from the inanimate, or more specifically, how does consciousness arise from inanimate, physical material? As philosopher and cognitivist scientist David Chalmers has eloquently asked, “How does the water of the brain turn into the wine of consciousness?”

Hofstadter believes he has the answer: the conscious “self” of the human mind emerges from a system of specific, hierarchical patterns of sufficient complexity within the physical substrate of the brain. The self is a phenomenon that rides on top of this complexity to a large degree but is not entirely determined by its underlying physical layers.

In the 1999 preface, he notes an apparent contradiction. When we look at computers, we see inflexible, unintelligent, rule-following beasts with no internal desires, which he describes as “the epitome of unconsciousness.” Is it a contradiction that intelligent behavior can be programmed into unintelligent machines? Is there an “unbreachable gulf” between intelligence and non-intelligence?

Hofstadter believes that through large sets of formal rules and levels of rules generated by AI, we can finally program these inflexible computers to be flexible, thinking machines. If so, we were wrong in thinking that there is a marked difference between human minds and intelligent machines.

The Culture of Materialism

Or to put it another way, a brain is a supercomputer. Forty years later, that assertion remains just that, an assertion. Walter Myers concludes:

[T]he view that human consciousness is something unique is the most tenable philosophical position unless we learn definitively otherwise.

There is, quite simply, no mechanical explanation of how the human mind has emerged from brawling chimpanzees over the course of millions of years of evolution.

The idea of the mind as a “meat machine” retains its hold on smart people for reasons other than neuroscience. It’s not science but the culture of materialism speaking. Read the rest at Mind Matters. And if you have not done so yet, watch Episode 2 of Science Uprising, which deals concisely with the issue:

Image at the top: Neuroscientist Henry Markham gives a Ted Talk, “A brain in a supercomputer.”