The brain is not a computer! Or is it?

In a recent article, reputed psychologist Robert Epstein, the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, argues that the brain is not a computer and it is not an information processing device. His main point is that there is no place in the brain where “copies of words, pictures, grammatical rules or any other kinds of environmental stimuli” are stored. He argues that we are not born with “information, data, rules, software, knowledge, lexicons, representations, algorithms, programs, models, memories, images, processors, subroutines, encoders, decoders, symbols, or buffers” in our brains.


His point is well taken. We now know that the brain does not store its memories in any form comparable to that of a digital computer. Early symbolic approaches to Artificial Intelligence (GOFAI: good old-fashioned artificial intelligence) failed soundly at obtaining anything similar to intelligent behavior.

In a digital computer, memories are stored linearly, in sequential places in the digital memory of the computer. In brains, memories are stored in ways that are still mostly unknown, mostly encoded in the vast network of interconnections between the billions of neurons that constitute a human brain. Memories are not stored in individual neurons, nor in individual synapses. That, he says, and I agree, is a preposterous idea.

Robert Epstein, however, goes further, as he argues that the human brain is not an information processing device. Here, I must disagree. Although they do it in a very different ways from computers, brains are nothing more than information processing devices. He argues against the conclusion that “all entities that are capable of behaving intelligently are information processors”, which he says permeates all of current research in brain and behavior. Needless to say, I disagree. Any entity capable of behaving intelligently needs to be able to process information.

Epstein concludes by arguing that we will never, ever, be able to reproduce the behavior of a human mind in a computer. Not only the challenge of reverse engineering is just too big, he argues, but the behavior of a brain, even if simulated in a computer, would not create a mind.

The jury is still out on the first argument. I agree that reverse engineering a brain may remain, forever, impossible, due to physical and technological limitations. However, if that were to be possible, one day, I do not see any reason why the behavior of a human mind could not emanate from an emulation running in a computer.


Image from the cover of the book “Eye, Brain, and Vision”, by David Hubel, available online at



Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies

A very interesting new book by Nick BostromSuperintelligence, addresses the questions that will be raised by the appearance of Artificial Intelligence (AI) Systems that are vastly smarter than humans.

So far, researchers have concentrated their efforts on the development of artificial intelligence systems that are as intelligent as humans, the so called strong AI. This is a tall order and it may yet take many years until we reach that point.

However, as Nick Bostrom points out in this book, there is no reason to believe that, once developed, strong AI systems would remain approximately as intelligent as humans. Once an AI system with human-level intelligence comes into existence, it will certainly be able to improve itself rapidly past that level.


As Irving John Good, a statistician that worked with Alan Turing at Bletchley Park, pointed out, a smarter than human machine is probably the last invention man will ever need to create. After that, such a machine can invent all sorts of new technologies, including the ones related with AI.

Nick Bostrom describes in a very clear and convincing way how a superintelligence may develop out of research in AI and neurosciences, using a number of different paths that may include whole brain emulation, strong artificial intelligence or highly connected communities of human brains.

Becoming immortal: pipe dream or reachable goal?

Woody Allen’s famous quote on immortality “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.” has a different meaning for Dmitry Itskov. He aims to achieve immortality both through his work and through not dying.

Dmitry Itskov is a Russian entrepreneur and billionaire, best known for creating the 2045 initiative, which aims to achieve cybernetic immortality by the year 2045.



Cited in a recent BBC article, Dmitry Itskov promises that “Within the next 30 years, I am going to make sure that we can all live forever.”

The idea sounds preposterous, but there is no doubt he is not deranged and is serious about it. It is indeed a breathtaking ambition, to achieve mind uploading by the year 2045, but could it actually be done?

The scientific director of the 2045 initiative, Randal Koene, a neuroscientist, who has done work on diverse aspects of brain modeling, believes the task is extremely difficult but not impossible, at least in theory. In a number of videos and presentations available in YouTube, he explains how existing technologies could be used, in principle, to reach this goal.

The question remains: will it ever become possible and, if so, when?

Image by Nevit Dilmen, via Wikimedia Commons

The first complete computer simulation of an entire animal, in your browser

Recent news about OpenWorm, a project that aims at recreating in a computer the behaviour of a complete animal, the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans. The OpenWorm project aims at constructing a complete model of this worm, not only of the 302 neurons and the 95 muscle cells, but also of the remaining thousand cells in each worm (more exactly, 959 somatic cell plus about 2000 germ cells in the hermaphrodite sex and 1031 cells in the males).


The one millimeter long worm C. elegans has a long history in science, as one of the animals more extensively used as a model for the study of simple multicellular organisms. It was the first animal to have its genome sequenced, in 1998.

But well before that, in 1963, Sydney Brenner proposed it as a model organism for the investigation of neural development in animals. In an effort that lasted for more than twelve years, the complete structure of the brain of C. elegans was reverse engineered, leading to a diagram of the wiring of each neuron in this simple brain. The effort of reverse engineering the worm brain included slicing, very thinly, several worm brains, obtaining roughly 8000 photos of the slices using an electron microscope and connecting, mostly by hand, each neuron section of each slice to the corresponding neuron section in the neighbor slices. The complete wiring diagram of the 302 neurons and the roughly 7000 synapses, which constitute the brain of this simple creature, was described in minute detail in a 340 pages article, published in 1986, entitled The Structure of the Nervous System of the Nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, with a running head The Mind of a Worm.

IEEE Spectrum special report on the singularity

In 2008, IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication of the Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers, the major professional association of this area, dedicated a full issue to the question of the singularity. This issue received an award for the best single oopic magazine issue of that year.

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In this special report, which is as actual today as it was in 2008, a number of scientists, visionaries and engineers give their opinion on whether a singularity will or will not exist. The issue covers topics related with the singularity, such as robotics, consciousness and quantum phenomena and artificial intelligence. A must read for anyone interested in the topic, one of the best unbiased assessments of whether the singularity will or will exist.

Brain uploading in the NY Times

An article in the NY Times, by Kenneth Miller, addresses the question of whether or not we will one day be able to upload a brain, that is, to simulate in a computer the complete behaviour of a human brain.

The author, a neuroscientist from Columbia University, addresses carefully the challenges involved in mind uploading and whole brain emulation.


The author’s (wild) guess is that it will take centuries to determine a connectome that is detailed enough to enable us to try brain uploading.

However, he also recognises that we may not need to reconstruct all the fine details of a brain, with its billions of neurons and trillions of synapses, whose structure varies in time and space. Still, a level of detail incommensurable with existing technology would be required to even have a shot of creating a model that would reproduce actual brain behaviour.

It seems the singularity may not be over the corner, after all…

(Image by Thomas Schultz, avaliable at Wikimedia commons).