A New Marriage of Brain and Computer

posted Nov 05, 2007

Quantum consciousness has attracted a lot of total quacks, running 10 steps ahead of science and using "quantum word salad" to justify whatever beliefs they already had. For so many people, "quantum" reads as "magic", and flick the critical thinking is turned off, and off we go on an adventure of telepathy, auras, out-of-body adventures, and the whole litany of New Age-isms that might as well come from the late 19th century. Only this time with the word quantum in it, for that extra helping of plausibility. That's never a valid use of science.

But that's unfair of me to use that as justification to dismiss the entire idea. There is no idea so right that idiots can't misuse it. "Quantum" itself is the canonical case. Quantum mechanics is now over a hundred years old, but you'd never know it from the public perception. It remains counterintuitive, but it's not fair to call it a mystery any more. A mystery to you and I, perhaps, but it has long ceased to be an anything-box in physics.

If consciousness research has proved anything, it is that all our simple models are inadequate, and the final answer, whatever it may be, is going to be complicated.

A New Marriage of Brain and Computer recently went by on the Google TechTalk feed, and while there's still a little bit of the quantum = magic in there, there is also interesting material to chew over regarding the simple question of "How does the brain really work?" You can consider the consciousness discussion an irrelevancy and still learn some interesting things. The rest of this post assumes you've watched that video. (Google's video interface is superior to the embed version, so I give you the link.)

The most intriguing aspect of the video to me is the assertion that there is more to thinking that what we see in the traditional neural model. Two things are interesting about that:

  1. The moderately intelligent behavior of a paramecium, as discussed in the video would seem to indicate non-neuronal computation can occur. I have not examined the claims in detail, but any intelligence is more than than can be explained with 0 neurons.
  2. We've never really built a successful model of biological neuronal intelligence; in particular, we've never built a computer-executable model of a neural net that we'd consider "intelligent". We have some things we call neural networks, but we are stuck with either "feed-forward" networks, which have no feedback loops in the net and can't demonstrate anything like symbolic intelligence, or networks with feedback, which nobody seems to have any really good idea how to train, at least in the sense of seeing intelligence. Adding another entity to the system may be necessary; in the short term it violates Occam's Razor, but if the "microtubules" prove a necessary entity, then so be it.

The idea that there may be more to the brain is worth considering. The scientific demonstration of phenomena in the brain that can only be explained in the quantum regime is interesting.

The computational estimates have striking implications, if true. Kurzweil estimates approx. 10^16 operations per second in a human brain, Dr. Hameroff estimates 10^28 operations per second. (Plus, left unspoken in the video, these extra operations are at least partially in the quantum regime, which may or may not mean anything for the resulting computational power but certainly means that true simulation on a conventional computer would be harder yet again.)

What immediately leaps to mind is that we sure don't seem to get much for that. No, I don't mean that old tired adage about using only 10% of your brain. I mean that for 10^28 operations per second, you'd really expect us to be able to do more impressive things with it. Then again, given how little we know about consciousness, perhaps that's simply a necessary aspect. We don't have the first clue how to even formulate the question "What is the minimal conscious computational system?" in any sort of computationally-useful formalism.

On the list of things that bother me:

I found this very stimulating, and I recommend it. Better than any ol' hour-long Nova repeat.


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