The Computer and the Brain

The Computer and the Brain, first published in 1958, is a delightful little book by John von Neumman, his attempt to compare two very different information processing devices: computers and brains. Although written more than sixty years ago, it has more than historic interest, even though it addresses two topics that have developed enormously in the decades since von Neumann’s death.

John von Neumann’s genius comes through very clearly in this essay. Sixty years ago, very few persons knew what a computer was, and probably even less had some idea how the brain performed its magic. This book, written just a few years after the invention of the transistor (by Bardeen and Brattain), and the discovery of the membrane mechanisms that explain the electrical behaviour of neurons (by Hodgkin and Huxley), nonetheless compares, in very clear terms, the relative computational power of computers and brains.

Von Neumann aim is to compare many of the characteristics of the processing devices used by computers (vacuum tubes and transistors) with the ones used by the brain (neurons). His objective is to perform an objective comparison of the two technologies, as of their ability to process information. He addresses speed, size, memory and other characteristics of the two types of information processing devices.

One of the central and (to me) most interesting parts of the book is the comparison of artificial information processing devices (vacuum tubes and transistors) with natural information processing devices (neurons), in terms of speed and size.

Von Neumman concludes that vacuum tubes and transistors are faster, by a factor of 10,000 to 100,000, than neurons, and occupy about 1000 times more space (with the technologies of the day). All together, if one assumes that speed can be traded by number of devices (for instance, reusing electronic devices to perform computations that, in the brain, are performed by slower, but independent, neurons), his comparisons lead to the conclusion (not explicit in the book, I must add) that an electronic computer the size of a human brain would be one to two orders of magnitude less powerful than the human brain itself.

John von Neumann could not have predicted, in 1957, that transistors would be packed, by the billions, on integrated circuits no larger than a postal stamp. If one uses the numbers that correspond to the technologies of today, one is led to conclude that a modern CPU (such as the Intel Core i7), with a billion transistors, operating in the nanoseconds range, is a few orders of magnitude (10000 times) more powerful than the human brain, with its hundred billion neurons operating in the milliseconds range.

Of course one has to consider, as John von Neumann also wrote, that a neuron is considerably more complex and can perform more complex computations than a transistor. But even if one takes that into account, and assumes that a transistor is roughly equivalent to a synapse, in raw computing power, one gets the final result that the human brain and an Intel Core i7 have about the same raw processing power.

It is a sobering thought, one which von Neumann would certainly have liked to share.


LIFE 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

Max Tegmark’s latest book, LIFE 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, is an enthralling journey into the future, when the developments in artificial intelligence create a new type of lifeform on Earth.

Tegmark proposes to classify life in three stages. Life 1.0, unintelligent life, is able to change its hardware and improve itself only through the very slow and blind process of natural evolution. Single cell organisms, plants and simple animals are in this category. Life 2.0 is also unable to change its hardware (excepto through evolution, as for Life 1.0) but can change its software, stored in the brains, by using previous experience to learn new behaviors. Higher animals and humans, in particular, belong here. Humans can now, up to a limited point, change their hardware (through prosthetics, cellphones, computers and other devices) so they could also be considered now Life 2.1.

Life 3.0 is the new generation of life, which can change both its software and its hardware. The ability to change the computational support (i.e., the physical basis of computation) results from technological advances, which will only accelerate with the advent of Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). The book is really about the future of a world where AGI enables humanity to create a whole range of new technologies, and expand new forms of life through the cosmos.

The riveting prelude, The Tale of the Omega Team, is the story of the group of people who “created” the first intelligence explosion on planet Earth makes this a “hard-to-put-down” book.  The rest of the book goes through the consequences of this intelligence explosion, a phenomenon the author believes will undoubtedly take place, sooner or later. Chapter 4 focus on the explosion proper, and on how it could happen. Chapter 5, appropriately titled “Aftermath: The Next 10,000 Years” is one of the most interesting ones, and describes a number of long term scenarios that could result from such an event. These scenarios range from a benevolent and enlightened dictatorship (by the AI) to the enslaved God situation, where humanity keeps the AI in chains and uses it as a slave to develop new technologies, inaccessible to unaided humanity’s simpler minds. Always present, in these scenarios, are the risks of a hostile takeover by a human-created AGI, a theme that this book also addresses in depth, following on the ideas proposed by Nick Bostrom, in his book Superintelligence.

Being a cosmologist, Tegmark could not leave out the question of how life can spread through the Cosmos, a topic covered in depth in chapter 6, in a highly speculative fashion. Tegmark’s view is, to say the least, grandiose, envisaging a future where AGI will make it possible to spread life through the reachable universe, climbing the three levels of the Kardashev scale. The final chapters address (in a necessarily more superficial manner) the complex topics of goal setting for AI systems and artificial (or natural) consciousness. These topics somehow felt less well developed and more complete and convincing treatments can be found elsewhere. The book ends with a description of the mission of the Future of Life Institute, and the Asilomar AI Principles.

A book like this cannot leave anyone indifferent, and you will be likely to take one of two opposite sides: the optimistis, with many famous representatives, including Elon Mush, Stuart Russel and Nick Bostrom, who believe AGI can be developed and used to make humanity prosper; or the pessimists , whose more visible member is probably Yuval Noah Harari, who has voiced very serious concerns about technology developments in his book Homo Deus and in this review of Life 3.0.

Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist

Christoph Koch, the author of “Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist”  is not only a renowned researcher in brain science but also the president of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, one of the foremost institutions in brain research. What he has to tell us about consciousness, and how he believes it is produced by the brain is certainly of great interest for anyone interested in these topics.

However, the book is more that just another philosophical treatise on the issue of consciousness, as it is also a bit of an autobiography and an open window on Koch’s own consciousness.

With less than 200 pages (in the paperback edition), this book is indeed a good start for those interested in the centuries-old problem of the mind-body duality and how a physical object (the brain) creates such an ethereal thing as a mind. He describes and addresses clearly the central issue of why there is such a thing as consciousness in humans, and how it creates self-awareness, free-will (maybe) and the qualia that characterize the subjective experiences each and (almost) every human has.

In Koch’s view, consciousness is not a thing that can be either on or off. He ascribes different levels of consciousness to animals and even to less complex creatures and systems. Consciousness, he argues, is created by the fact that very complex systems have a high dimensional state space, creating a subjective experience that corresponds to each configuration of this state space. In this view, computers and other complex systems can also exhibit some degree of consciousness, although much smaller than living entities, since they are much less complex.

He goes on to describe several approaches that have aimed at elucidating the complex feedback loops existing in brains, which have to exist in order to create these complex state spaces. Modern experimental techniques can analyze the differences between awake (conscious) and asleep (unconscious) brains, and learn from these differentes what exactly does create consciousness in a brain.

Parts of the book are more autobiographical, however. He describes not only his life-long efforts to address these questions, many of them developed together with Francis Crick, who remains a reference to him, as a scientist and as a person. The final chapter is more philosophical, and addresses other questions for which we have no answer yet, and may never have, such as “Why there is something instead of nothing?” or “Did an all powerful God create the universe, 14 billions year ago, complete with the laws of physics, matter and energy, or is this God simply a creation of man?”.

All in all, excellent reading, accessible to anyone interested in the topic but still deep and scientifically exact.

Portuguese Edition of The Digital Mind

IST Press, the publisher of Instituto Superior Técnico, just published the Portuguese edition of The Digital Mind, originally published by MIT Press.

The Portuguese edition, translated by Jorge Pereirinha Pires, follow the same organization and has been reviewed by a number of sources. The back-cover reviews are by Pedro Domingos, Srinivas Devadas, Pedro Guedes de Oliveira and Francisco Veloso.

A pre-publication was made by the Público newspaper, under the title Até que mundos digitais nos levará o efeito da Rainha Vermelha, making the first chapter of the book publicly available.

There are also some publicly available reviews and pieces about this edition, including an episode of a podcast and a review in the radio.

To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death

Mark O’Connell witty, insightful and sometimes deeply moving account of his research on the topic of transhumanism deserves a place in the bookshelf of anyone interested in the future of humanity. Reading To Be a Machine is a delightful trip through the ideals, technologies, places and characters involved in transhumanism, the idea that science and technology will one day transform human into immortal computer based lifeforms.

For reasons that are not totally clear to me, transhumanism remains mostly a fringe culture, limited to a few futurists, off-the-mainstream scientists and technology nuts. As shared fictions go (to use Yuval Harari’s notation), I would imagine transhumanism is one idea whose time has come. However, it remains mostly unknown by the general public. While humanists believe that the human person, with his/her desires, choices, and fears, should be the most important value to be preserved by a society (check my review of Homo Deus), transhumanists believe that biological based intelligence is imperfect, exists purely because of historical reasons (evolution, that is) and will go away soon as we move intelligence into other computational supports, more robust than our frail bodies.

O’Connell, himself a hard-core humanist, as becomes clear from reading between the lines of this book, pursued a deep, almost forensic, investigation on what transhumanists are up to. In this process, he talks with many unusual individuals involved in the transhumanist saga, from Max More, who runs Alcor, a company that, in exchange for a couple hundred dollars, will preserve your body for the future in liquid nitrogen (or 80k for just the head) to Aubrey de Grey, a reputed scientist working in life extension technologies, who argues that we should all be working on this problem. In de Grey’s words, cited by O’Connell “aging is a human disaster on an unimaginably vast scale, a massacre, a methodical and comprehensive annihilation of every single person that ever lived“. These are just two of the dozens of fascinating characters in the book interviewed in place by O’Connell.

The narrative is gripping, hilarious at times, but moving and compelling, not the least because O’Connell himself provides deep insights about the issues the book discusses. The characters in the book are, at once, alien and deeply human, as they are only trying to overcome the limits of our bodies. Deservedly, the book has been getting excellent reviews, from many sources.

In the end, one gets the idea that transhumanists are crazy, maybe, but not nearly as crazy as all other believers in immortality, be it by divine intervention, by reincarnation, or by any other mechanisms so ingrained in mainstream culture.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

Homo Deus, the sequel to the wildly successful hit Sapiens, by Yuval Harari, aims to chronicle the history of tomorrow and to provide us with a unique and dispassionate view of the future of humanity. In Homo Deus, Harari develops further the strongest idea in Sapiens, the idea that religions (or shared fictions) are the reason why humanity came to dominate the world.

Many things are classified by Harari as religions, from the traditional ones like Christianism, Islamism or Hinduism, to other shared fictions that we tend not to view as religions, such as countries, money, capitalism, or humanism. The ability to share fictions, such as these, created in Homo sapiens the ability to coordinate enormous numbers of individuals in order to create vast common projects: cities, empires and, ultimately, modern technology. This is the idea, proposed in Sapiens, that Harari develops further in this book.

Harari thinks that, with the development of modern technology, humans will doggedly pursue an agenda consisting of three main goals: immortality, happiness and divinity. Humanity will try to become immortal, to live in constant happiness and to be god-like in its power to control nature.

The most interesting part of the book is in middle, where Harari analyses, in depth, the progressive but effective replacement of ancient religions by the dominant modern religion, humanism. Humanism, the relatively recent idea that there is a unique spark in humans, that makes human life sacred and every individual unique. Humanism therefore believes that meaning should be sought in the individual choices, views, and feelings, of humans, replaced almost completely traditional religions (some of them with millennia), which believed that meaning was to be found in ancient scriptures or “divine” sayings.

True, many people still believe in traditional religions, but with the exception of a few extremist sects and states, these religions plays a relatively minor role in conducting the business of modern societies. Traditional religions have almost nothing to say about the key ideas that are central to modern societies, the uniqueness of the individual and the importance of the freedom of choice, ideas that led to our current view of democracies and ever-growing market-oriented economies. Being religious, in the traditional sense, is viewed as a personal choice, a choice that must exist because of the essential humanist value of freedom of choice.

Harari’s description of the humanism schism, into the three flavors of liberal humanism, socialist humanism, and evolutionary humanism (Nazism and other similar systems), is interesting and entertaining. Liberal humanism, based on the ideals of free choice, capitalism, and democracy, has been gaining the upper hand in the twentieth century, with occasional relapses, over socialism or enlightened dictatorships.

The last part of the book, where one expects Harari to give us a hint of what may come after humanism, once technology creates systems and machines that make humanist creeds obsolete, is rather disappointing. Instead of presenting us with the promises and threats of transhumanism, he clings to common clichés and rather mundane worries.

Harari firmly believes that there are two types of intelligent systems: biological ones, which are conscious and have, possibly, some other special properties, and the artificial ones, created by technology, which are not conscious, even though they may come to outperform humans in almost every task. According to him, artificial systems may supersede humans in many jobs and activities, and possibly even replace humans as the intelligent species on Earth, but they will never have that unique spark of consciousness that we, humans, have.

This belief leads to two rather short-sighted final chapters, which are little more than a rant against the likes of Facebook, Google, and Amazon. Harari is (and justifiably so) particularly aghast with the new fad, so common these days, of believing that every single human experience should go online, to make shareable and give it meaning. The downsize is that this fad provides data to the all-powerful algorithms that are learning all there is to know about us. I agree with him that this is a worrying trend, but viewing it as the major threat of future technologies is a mistake. There are much much more important issues to deal with.

It is not that these chapters are pessimistic, even though they are. It is that, unlike in the rest of Homo Deus (and in Sapiens), in these last chapters Harari’s views seem to be locked inside a narrow and traditionalist view of intelligence, society, and, ultimately, humanity.

Other books, like SuperintelligenceWhat Technology Wants or The Digital Mind provide, in my opinion, much more interesting views on what a transhumanist society may come to be.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Historian Yuval Noah Harari‘s best seller book, Sapiens is a hard-to-put-down analysis of the reasons Homo sapiens became not only the dominant species of planet Earth, but also the only one that can control its destiny.

It is difficult to summarize a book that covers the whole of human history, and also a bit of the future. However, Harari’s main point is that the most unique characteristic of our species is not the intelligence of individual human beings, nor some unique quality (a soul, maybe) that only humans possess, much less the ability to stand erect and to create tools. Instead, it is our unique ability to believe and act on collective fictions, created and passed on, over time and space, by language, culture and behavior.

One hundred thousand years ago, humans were already as smart as they are today, were able to make tools, and lived in small groups that could be a threat to the survival of large animals. However, they did not have the ability to change the planet, an ability that only appeared recently, in evolutionary terms.

According to Harari, what makes the human species so different from other species is the ability of humans to create collective fictions that are used to coordinate the actions of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of human beings. These fictions, the result of what could be called “collective hallucinations”, have created first the agricultural revolution and then the technological revolutions that led to today’s world. It is the ability to create these collective fictions that made Homo sapiens unique, in its ability to transform and also to destroy the world.

Almost anything that is important in today’s society fits into this wide category of a collective fictions or, as he also calls them, religions. Money is, of course, a collective fiction, not valuable by itself, but only because everyone believes in it. But the concept also encompasses religions, political systems, philosophical beliefs, and even several concepts in ethics. Harari’s convincing arguments put at the same level (and calls them nothing else than collective fictions, or religions) systems as diverse as Christianism, Islamism, Capitalism, Marxism, Socialism, Nazism, Humanism, Liberalism, and Democracy. Harari argues that even ideas so commonly accepted as nations, corporations, afterlife, human rights or the sanctity of human life are nothing more than a shared belief, held by almost everyone today, but relatively recent in historical terms.

The argument is powerful, and the book very engaging, a real page turner. As a side benefit, Sapiens is also a grandiose lesson in history, from the prehistoric times to the rise and fall of modern empires, full of surprising facts and wonderful tales.