Plastic Brains, Femmebots, and Aliens Watching TV

Dispatches from the Humanity+ Summit


Cambridge, Mass. The Humanity+ Summit convened at the Harvard University Science Center earlier this month to talk about plastinated brains, conscious computer chips, iPhone apps that display brain spikes, and other topics both fun and futuristic. Most of the folks gathered for the conference were transhumanists, people who support the use of science and technology to radically improve human intelligence, emotional capacities, and physical characteristics, including making death voluntary. Critics, such as Johns Hopkins University political theorist Francis Fukuyama, have called transhumanism the world's most dangerous idea.

The first day of the Humanity+ summit—the group is a rebranded version of the World Transhumanist Association—was roughly divided into two segments, each a series of rapid fire 10 minute talks: enhanced brains in the morning and artificial brains in the afternoon. (Sadly, my schedule did not allow me to attend the second day.) Notably, far more women participated in and attended this summit than those in years past. In addition, the average age of attendees dropped from middle-aged to late 20s and early 30s.

Enhanced Natural Brains

Regarding enhanced brains, Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher, Ed Boyden, who heads up the Synthetic Neurobiology Group, launched the morning sessions with a talk on controlling brain circuits with light. His team has developed ways of inserting particular genes into neurons so that they respond to specific wavelengths of light. Blue light causes the gene-doped neurons to fire, and yellow light silences them. The goal is to figure out ways to reprogram corrupted neural computation enabling the treatment of brain diseases such as strokes, depression, and drug addiction.

In her talk, "Do We Click?," Lauren Silbert, a graduate student with the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, showed recent research in which she found that speaker listener neural coupling underlies successful communication. While in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, her brain was scanned to see what parts of it "lit up" as she told a story. Later a recording of the story was played while 11 different listeners were having their brains scanned by fMRI machines. Silbert found that speaker and listener brains are coupled; the same areas of the brain "lit up" in each. As a check, listeners heard recordings of a story in Russian and a different story in English and there was no coupling. In fact, Silbert reported that the degree of neural coupling predicts the success of the communication.

Alexandra Elbakyan, a researcher on brain-machine interfaces, speculated on the development of computer chips that could seamlessly add to a human brain's conscious experience. Basically, the idea is to create "artificial consciousness." She cited work by New York University nanotechnologist Rodolfo Llinas whose team is developing a way to insert a network of nanowires smaller than the diameter of red blood cells through the capillaries in a brain. Snaking such nanowires through the brain's vascular system might enable computational devices such as Elbakyan's consciousness chips to interface with individual neurons. Although Elbakyan didn't speculate that far out, perhaps inserting such consciousness chips would enable a user to upload Chinese or calculus immediately.

Plastinating Brains

These new neurotechnologies are all very well, but you will still likely die. Is there a way to preserve your brain, and thus your identity for the future? Traditionally, some people have turned to cryonics—basically freezing their brains and bodies in a vat of liquid nitrogen with the idea that in the future nanotechnology will be able to unthaw and revive them. At the summit, John Smart, president of the Acceleration Studies Foundation, announced the Brain Preservation Prize. (Disclosure: I made a $50 contribution to the foundation while at the summit.) Modeled on the X Prizes, the Brain Preservation Foundation wants to encourage researchers to develop techniques "capable of inexpensively and completely preserving an entire human brain for long-term storage with such fidelity that the structure of every neuronal process and every synaptic connection remains intact and traceable using today's electron microscopic imaging techniques."

The idea is that the precise pattern of information in an individual's brain constituting that person's identity would be preserved and could be revived later by being uploaded into an advanced information technology network or perhaps a new body and brain. Although any technique could qualify for the prize, Smart evidently believes that a kind of plastination is the most likely way to go. People who attend the Body Worlds exhibition are familiar with one type of plastination that is used to preserve entire human bodies for display. One technique involves flooding a brain shortly after death with glutaraldehyde to fix proteins, followed by osmium tetroxide to stabilize lipids and other compounds. This process turns a brain into a black block of plastic that will last indefinitely.

Smart was followed by Harvard researcher Kenneth Hayworth whose work focuses on using electron microscopy to delineate every synaptic connection from plastinated mouse brains. Plastination preserves both structure and molecular level information. He predicted that scientists would produce a synapse level atlas of an entire human brain over the next decade. "Can a mind be extracted from a plastic embedded brain?" ask Hayworth. "The answer is almost certainly yes." When? In the next 50 years, predicted Hayworth.

An infectiously exuberant Timothy Marzullo, a post-doc at the Kauffman Foundation and co-founder of Backyard Brains, offered an example of do-it-yourself neurotech at the summit. Marzullo claims to have been entranced by brain spikes (electrical impulses that travel down neurons) since childhood. Backyard Brains (slogan: Neuroscience For Everyone!) has created an inexpensive "spikerbox" that students can use to detect and record neuron spikes in invertebrates which he demonstrated at the summit. The output from a spikerbox can also be loaded onto an iPhone using Backyard Brains's new app for neuroscience on the go.

Artificial General Intelligence

Enhanced natural intelligence is all very well, but what about creating supersmart artificial intelligences? Noah Goodman, a young scientist currently working with MIT's Computational Cognitive Science Group, is focusing on revealing the design principles that support human thought with the goal of reverse engineering intelligence. Goodman and his colleagues have created a computer programming language, Church, that makes probabilistic inferences from data much the way that human brains do. He believes that Church represents a big step toward fashioning flexible computer intelligence.

Roboticist Heather Knight, who runs Marilyn Monrobot Labs in New York City, argues that robots will learn from us and their first really successful use will likely be as entertainers. Her show-and-tell featured the interactive Nao robot from Aldebaran Robotics which, among other things, performed a reduced (as in Reduced Shakespeare) version of Stars Wars. While cute, the Nao robot proves that there is still quite a long way to go before the advent of practical femmebots.

Next came Geordie Rose, the founder and chief technology officer of D-Wave Systems, a Canadian company that is building quantum computer systems. Quantum computers making use of quantum mechanical phenomena would be vastly more efficient than traditional computers using transistors. Being able to sort through vast amounts of data quickly will enable machines using quantum processors to learn and develop intelligence. Rose's quantum processors are made using superconductors that must be chilled to below 4 degrees above absolute zero in order to work. Rose argues that biological brains do not and cannot make use of quantum mechanics in their operation.

Stephen Wolfram, the creator of Mathematica and author of A New Kind of Science, gave a long talk about the centrality of computation in explaining life, the universe, and everything. In Wolfram's view, the universe is a kind of cellular automaton that is computing reality. The computation of the universe is fundamentally irreducible. Computational irreducibility means that there is no shortcut for computing the results of an activity and consequently it is basically impossible to accurately predict its ultimate outcome. The only way to find its outcome is effectively just to watch it evolve. Wolfram argued that computational irreducibility is what makes our history meaningful since there is no way to predict in advance what will happen. Whatever artificial intelligence human beings do develop will occur in the context of our history and its purposes will be informed by that history. 

Wolfram also likened our bodies to operating systems that can in the future be rebooted. He predicted that the first thing that will happen with regard to rebooting is that cryonics will be successful and that achievement will immediately revolutionize our view of time. Wolfram also briefly addressed the Fermi Paradox: if there are advanced alien civilizations in the universe why haven't we met them yet? If all we need to do is run computations, suggested Wolfram, who needs to explore the actual universe? Simply making things smaller and more computationally interesting at home is a lot easier than colonizing other planets. Basically, all the aliens may be at home watching television.

The pieces necessary for creating artificial intelligence are already at hand, argued University of Tennessee computer scientist Itamar Arel. He suggested that researchers can model computer circuits on brain organization in which sensory inputs are abstracted at higher and higher cortical levels. Building such circuits to mimic brain processes combined with some kind of system that rewards learning in such a way to encourage strategic thinking could jumpstart an artificial intelligence revolution in just a few years.

The final speaker of the day, AI researcher Ben Goertzel, outlined "The Future History of Artificial General Intelligence." Goertzel, who has been toiling in the field of artificial intelligence for many years, heads up the OpenCog project which is trying, in a sense, to crowdsource the development of beneficial artificial intelligence. In his outline of the future of AI, Goertzel predicted that we would see by 2020 the rise of robot children and the creation of a network of robot scientists. By 2030, many different AIs will be networked globally and we humans will be neurally "jacked into" that network. Around 2040, transapient Archais will emerge that incorporate both artificial and natural intelligences.

The Democratic Threat to Transhumanism

Besides covering the summit as a reporter, I also spoke on the democratic threat to transhumanism. I asked summiteers if they think their neighbors should get to vote on whom they marry? Whether one should be able to use contraception? Likely not. So why should people get to vote on whether a person can increase his or her healthy lifespan using transformative technologies? For example, using human embryonic stem cell lines to cure one's illnesses? And why should balloting limit a person's access to new reprogenetic technologies? I then pointed out that contemporary history unfortunately shows that majorities in modern democracies are only too happy to ban technologies (e.g., stem cells, cloning) that are the precursors to transhuman progress.

I showed that of all the leading democratic countries, only the United States had no national policies banning such technologies. To my surprise, when I pointed that out, the many members of the audience applauded and cheered. I ended by explaining that as a minority preference (at least for now) transhumanists must argue for liberty and not be seduced by democratic happy-talk. When people of good will deeply disagree on moral issues that don't involve the prevention of force or fraud, it is a fraught exercise to submit their disagreement to a panel of political appointees or a democratic vote. That way leads to intolerance, repression, and social conflict.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is available from Prometheus Books.

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