English Language and Science: a lecture and discussion

I was honoured to be a participant in a public discussion about Science and the English Language, held at the English Speaking Union in London on 13the November 2014. My co-panelists are astrophysicist Roberto Trotta and geneticist Aarathi Prasad. The discussion follows a lecture by Trotta around his book entitled “The Edge of he Sky”. The event was co-organised by the British Council.

Hybrid thinking: an idea from Ray Kurzweil

In his March 20, 2014 TED talk Ray Kurzweil suggested that in a couple of decades from now we will be able to increase our neocortex’s power many-fold at an instant by accessing the processing power of the cloud. He suggested that this will be possible thanks to nanorobots injected in our brain which will act as interfaces between neocortex brain cells and digital “brain cells” with the ability to scale like a cloud application would. It is a very intriguing idea. So let us examine its premises, and its consequences.

Kurzweil’s principal assumption is that the medium is not important when it comes to thinking: biological brain cells are equivalent to digital brain cells or brain cells made of water pipes, as long as the function is the same. This functional perspective of intelligence is one that I agree with. Like Kurzweil I too see no reason why one cannot have an artificial brain cell. Indeed McCulloch and Pitts have shown the equivalence of a neuron and a Turing machine.

Nevertheless, having a digital equivalent of the basic unit of information processing in the brain does not in any way solve the problem of global information processing of the brain as a whole, let alone the problem of a brain becoming aware of itself. Global information processing in the brain is the result of highly complex structures with multi-level positive feedback loops. Our brains are not a collection of brain cells, but complex cybernetic systems whose fundamental circuitry although evolved over millennia, changes with every second of our lives. This plasticity of the brain, coupled with its self-corrective mechanisms, posits a fundamental technological problem when it comes to devising smart algorithms for intelligence, like the text-recognition algorithm that Kurzweil alluded in his TED talk.

Accessing a “cloud of neocortex” and endow oneself with “hybrid thinking” requires that we solve two major problems. First that we crack how developmental human biology encodes the complexity of the brain, and that we can then decode this in order to produce artificial intelligence. I believe that this is possible, but that it will take a much longer time than Kurzweil predicts. It will also be a matter of biology to understand, rather than computer science. Perhaps in a few years we will see a new discipline called “biocomputer science”, that will decode brain structures in alternative non-biological mediums.

The second problem that we need to crack for hybrid thinking is the ability to scale artificial intelligence at will. I believe that this problem is unsolvable because it involves a contradiction. The key word here is “will”; whose will exactly? Assuming that we discover how to interface our brain with an artificial brain wouldn’t this mean the interfacing of two different personalities? Hybrid thinking therefore seems very problematic for the reason that you sharing someone else’s consciousness (in this case a machine’s) would lead to psychosis.

Hybrid thinking appears like a synonym for digital schizophrenia.

Famelab International for the best “stand-up scientist”

This is the final of Famelab International 2014, held at the Cheltenham Science Festival on June 5, 2014. I was one of the three judges, together with Jim Al-Khalili and Alice Roberts. I have been involved with Famelab International since its conception in 2007, have trained contestants, co-organized national competitions, and have judged most of the international finals. It is a great celebration of science communication, always renewed and enriched by the enthusiasm and creativity of the young contestants.