We’re going a bit Sci-Fi today. Author Ray Kruzweil joins The Cycle to discuss his book How To Create A Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed. The book focuses on reverse engineering the human brain. The futuristic idea starts by mapping out every spec of the human brain and ends with designing a machine to replicate, and ultimately replace it. Think of it as artificial intelligence on steroids.
Ray Kruzweil is a controversial futurist whose work examines emotional and moral intelligence as well as the radical possibilities of merging humans with the technology we create.
Be sure to tune in at 3:40 p.m. for the full conversation and check out an excerpt from his book below.
The story of evolution unfolds with increasing levels of abstraction.Atoms— especially carbon atoms, which can create rich information structuresby linking in four different directions— formed increasingly complexmolecules. As a result, physics gave rise to chemistry.A billion years later, a complex molecule called DNA evolved, whichcould precisely encode lengthy strings of information and generate organismsdescribed by these “programs.” As a result, chemistry gave rise tobiology.At an increasingly rapid rate, organisms evolved communication anddecision networks called nervous systems, which could coordinate theincreasingly complex parts of their bodies as well as the behaviors thatfacilitated their survival. The neurons making up nervous systems aggregatedinto brains capable of increasingly intelligent behaviors. In this way,biology gave rise to neurology, as brains were now the cutting edge of storingand manipulating information. Thus we went from atoms to moleculesto DNA to brains. The next step was uniquely human.The mammalian brain has a distinct aptitude not found in any otherclass of animal. We are capable of hierarchical thinking, of understandinga structure composed of diverse elements arranged in a pattern, representing that arrangement with a symbol, and then using that symbol as anelement in a yet more elaborate configuration. This capability takes placein a brain structure called the neocortex, which in humans has achieved athreshold of sophistication and capacity such that we are able to call thesepatterns ideas. Through an unending recursive process we are capable ofbuilding ideas that are ever more complex. We call this vast array of recursivelylinked ideas knowledge. Only Homo sapiens have a knowledge basethat itself evolves, grows exponentially, and is passed down from one generationto another.Our brains gave rise to yet another level of abstraction, in that we haveused the intelligence of our brains plus one other enabling factor, an opposableappendage— the thumb— to manipulate the environment to buildtools. These tools represented a new form of evolution, as neurology gaverise to technology. It is only because of our tools that our knowledge basehas been able to grow without limit.Our first invention was the story: spoken language that enabled us torepresent ideas with distinct utterances. With the subsequent invention ofwritten language we developed distinct shapes to symbolize our ideas.Libraries of written language vastly extended the ability of our unaidedbrains to retain and extend our knowledge base of recursively structuredideas.There is some debate as to whether other species, such as chimpanzees,have the ability to express hierarchical ideas in language. Chimps are capableof learning a limited set of sign language symbols, which they can useto communicate with human trainers. It is clear, however, that there aredistinct limits to the complexity of the knowledge structures with whichchimps are capable of dealing. The sentences that they can express are limitedto specific simple noun- verb sequences and are not capable of theindefinite expansion of complexity characteristic of humans. For an entertainingexample of the complexity of human- generated language, just readone of the spectacular multipage- length sentences in a Gabriel GarcíaMárquez story or novel— his six- page story “The Last Voyage of the Ghost”is a single sentence and works quite well in both Spanish and the Englishtranslation.The primary idea in my three previous books on technology (The Ageof Intelligent Machines, written in the 1980s and published in 1989; The Ageof Spiritual Machines, written in the mid- to late 1990s and published in1999; and The Singularity Is Near, written in the early 2000s and publishedin 2005) is that an evolutionary process inherently accelerates (as a resultof its increasing levels of abstraction) and that its products grow exponentiallyin complexity and capability. I call this phenomenon the law of acceleratingreturns (LOAR), and it pertains to both biological and technologicalevolution. The most dramatic example of the LOAR is the remarkably predictableexponential growth in the capacity and price/ performance of informationtechnologies. The evolutionary process of technology ledinvariably to the computer, which has in turn enabled a vast expansion ofour knowledge base, permitting extensive links from one area of knowledgeto another. The Web is itself a powerful and apt example of the abilityof a hierarchical system to encompass a vast array of knowledge while preservingits inherent structure. The world itself is inherently hierarchical—trees contain branches; branches contain leaves; leaves contain veins.Buildings contain floors; floors contain rooms; rooms contain doorways,windows, walls, and floors.We have also developed tools that are now enabling us to understandour own biology in precise information terms. We are rapidly reverse-engineeringthe information processes that underlie biology, includingthat of our brains. We now possess the object code of life in the form of thehuman genome, an achievement that was itself an outstanding example ofexponential growth, in that the amount of genetic data the world hassequenced has approximately doubled every year for the past twenty years. 2We now have the ability to simulate on computers how sequences of basepairs give rise to sequences of amino acids that fold up into three-dimensionalproteins, from which all of biology is constructed. The complexityof proteins for which we can simulate protein folding has beensteadily increasing as computational resources continue to grow exponentially.We can also simulate how proteins interact with one another in anintricate three- dimensional dance of atomic forces. Our growing understandingof biology is one important facet of discovering the intelligentsecrets that evolution has bestowed on us and then using these biologicallyinspired paradigms to create ever more intelligent technology.There is now a grand project under way involving many thousands ofscientists and engineers working to understand the best example we haveof an intelligent process: the human brain. It is arguably the most importanteffort in the history of the human- machine civilization. In The SingularityIs Near I made the case that one corollary of the law of acceleratingreturns is that other intelligent species are likely not to exist. To summarizethe argument, if they existed we would have noticed them, given therelatively brief time that elapses between a civilization’s possessing crudetechnology (consider that in 1850 the fastest way to send nationwide informationwas the Pony Express) to its possessing technology that can transcendits own planet. From this perspective, reverse-engineering thehuman brain may be regarded as the most important project in the universe.