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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Pink Wall May Block the Superintelligence Singularity

Ray Kurzweil has advanced a very popular theory that the Singularity is near – a time where there will be an explosive growth in machine intelligence, one that sees computers and robots becoming far smarter than humans. To back up this theory, Kurzweil and his supporters typically show graphs showing exponential growth in the power and speed of computer hardware and computer memory.

But in order for you to have anything like machine superintelligence, we would need to see more than just computer hardware increasing by orders of magnitude (factors such as 100, 1000 or 10,000). We would also need to see computer software making similar strides. If today someone were to create a computer with a million times the speed and memory of the human mind, that computer would not be even as intelligent as a mouse. For such a computer to become even as intelligent as a mouse, you need strides in computer software on the same scale as the strides in computer hardware.

One problem is that computer software is not advancing at anything like the rate of progress of computer hardware. Computer software is progressing at a relatively slow rate, an issue I discussed in this blog post. Computer software is not progressing at anything like an exponential rate. The basic process of software development today is not fundamentally different from the process of software development in the 1990's – programmers slowly and laboriously grinding out code line by line. Code generators can create lots of code, but in a typical project most of the code still has to be created manually.

It would seem that we would need many centuries to complete the project of creating the software needed for a computer to be as smart as a human, assuming that most of it would have to be manually coded. But many singularity enthusiasts assume that we will have a gigantic shortcut – the ability to acquire much of this software by studying the human brain.

We can find an example of this type of thinking by looking at the Wikipedia.org page which summarizes Ray Kurzweil's predictions. In the predictions for the 2020's, we see this prediction:

Early in this decade, humanity will have the requisite hardware to emulate human intelligence within a $1000 personal computer, followed shortly by effective software models of human intelligence toward the middle of the decade: this will be enabled through the continuing exponential growth of brain-scanning technology, which is doubling in bandwidth, temporal and spatial resolution every year, and will be greatly amplified with nanotechnology, allowing us to have a detailed understanding of all the regions of the human brain and to aid in developing human-level machine intelligence by the end of this decade.

The above description is imagining the mother of all shortcuts – the shortcut to end all shortcuts. The description imagines that we will be able to get the needed software for an intelligent machine by studying the operations of the human brain.

The problem is that there is little reason to assume that we will be able to do any such thing anytime in the next hundred years. Why? Because the mystery of how human consciousness and human memory work is one of the greatest mysteries of the universe, and nature does not give up its secrets easily.

Philosophers have long been troubled by what is called the hard problem of consciousness – the problem of how mind can be produced by matter, something that is fundamentally different. So far very little light has been cast on this problem. We do not understand how the brain stores memories, or how the brain produces thoughts. There is actually little hope that we will be able to solve this problem any time in our century.

You might get the wrong idea from studies that look at which parts of the brain have higher electrical activity when a particular brain operation occurs. Such studies merely show correlations, without throwing any light on how the mental activity is produced. Imagine a 3-year-old child studying a computer. Such a child may make some observations that lead him to conclude that a particular green light (at the front of a computer) blinks whenever some type of operation occurs, such as a file save. But that doesn't really move the child any closer to understanding the deep mysteries of how the computer is computing, and how its data is being saved. Similarly, MRI studies on electrical brain activity really don't take us very far in understanding the mysteries of how the brain works.

Although you hear about gray matter when people talk of brain cells, the human brain is actually a pinkish color. We may use the term the Pink Wall to refer to mysteries of the human brain which are blocking us from understanding its inner secrets. We want to pierce this Pink Wall, and make our way to the inner secrets of the brain. But the Pink Wall seems all but impenetrable. We have little hope of being able to get through it in the next several decades. 

Brain barrier
The Pink Wall

The idea expressed in the italicized quotation above (that we can unravel the secrets of the human brain through brain-scanning) seems like wishful thinking. Imagine an extraterrestrial culture that had not learned the details of electromagnetism, had not learned about atoms or subatomic particles, and had not learned about quantum mechanics. Such a culture might think it could learn the fundamental mysteries of how matter is organized just by making scans of rocks with higher and higher resolutions. But such a thinking would be fallacious. It would seem to be just as fallacious to think that we can unravel the secrets of the human mind by scanning brain tissue in higher and higher resolutions.

Can we, for example, imagine a scientist of the future saying something like this?

I couldn't understand before how a neuron produces a thought, but now that I can view the neuron more closely with my new brain scanner, now I can see how the thought is produced.

Or can we imagine a scientist of the future saying something like this?

I couldn't understand before how a piece of brain tissue produces a thought, but now that I can view that tissue more closely with my new brain scanner, now I can see how the thought is produced.

We can't really imagine either of these things happening, because we can't imagine how anything that a scientist could see in a scanner could lead him to say, “Aha, there is a human thought being produced.”

It seems, therefore, that the Pink Wall will be blocking us for a long, long time. We will not have any time soon any brain-scanning shortcut that allows us to get the software for a silicon brain by borrowing it from the human brain. It seems that for a long time, the only option for getting the software for a silicon brain will be to build it through software development processes similar to those now in use. Such processes might take centuries before they could produce something like human consciousness.

So if you do not see the Singularity anytime in this century, blame it on the slow process of software development and the Pink Wall which blocks us from uncovering the sublime secrets of exactly how the brain works.