Several recent advances demonstrate that we are entering the era of the direct Brain – Machine Interfaces (BMI). Elon Musk and Facebook recently announced their efforts to become the first to deliver micro-devices capable to connect human brains with computers. Scientists and entrepreneurs believe that the direct linkages between brains and computers will advance our efforts to create higher levels of artificial intelligence. Roger Penrose, the famous mathematician and author of the ground-breaking book The Emperor’s New Mind, says that we are still far away from creating real human intelligence – not because the advances of artificial intelligence are negligible, but because our intelligence involves consciousness that can’t be algorithmically simulated by computers.
Facebook, whose goal is to connect everyone in the world to its network, now is exploring how to navigate the ultimate last mile problem: the gap between your brain and the keyboard. Using non-invasive optical light sensors, Facebook could analyze the neuro-signature of words that a user consciously directs to the “pre-speech” brain region — basically a launch pad for what someone wants to say or write — and then produce it on a computer screen or file, at a rate of 100 words a minute.
If humanity fails to reconcile with artificial intelligence, we ‘ll risk becoming “house cats” for robots, warned Elon Musk, founder of Tesla Motors, at the World Government Summit in Dubai. Musk seems convinced that a “merger of biological intelligence and machine intelligence” is essential to the future if humans want to continue adding value to the economy since there will be fewer jobs a robot won’t be able to do better. For this purpose, he is now launching a new company called Neuralink, in order to explore the possibilities of “neural lace” technology – the implanting of tiny electrodes into the brain that could be used to give direct computing capabilities. According to The Guardian‘s report, Musk announced he is working on an injectable mesh-like “neural lace” that fits on your brain to give it digital computing capabilities, such as additional cognitive (extra memory) or sensory (night vision) abilities. Musk believes symbiosis with machines is essential if humans want to stay relevant in the near future, and he is not mistaking when he points out the mass unemployment expected when digital automation dominates the economy.
So far, brain-computer interfaces have been used for relatively simple tasks, mainly to restore motor control for paralyzed patients and enable communication for locked-in patients with brain injuries that prevent them from communicating verbally or gesturally. These interfaces involve decoding brain signals from the surface of the skull via implanted electrodes and then translating those signals into a motion command for a robot or cursor.
Some believe that in theory, acquiring sufficient knowledge of the brain’s neural activity would make it possible to create neuroprosthetics, allowing humans to communicate complex ideas telepathically, upload their memories in clouds, or even typing and talking in favor of direct, lag-free interactions between our brains and external devices. From this point of view, the problem seems to be that we lack that knowledge, but gradually we will discover it. After all, scientists have been able to decode basic brain functions, like moving a hand, so it’s a matter of time to decode more complex behaviors. But Roger Penrose has a completely different view.
Roger Penrose is challenging the conventional wisdom that human brains can be simulated by computers. According to Penrose, the replication of the human brain is almost impossible for a machine, since human brains do not work in an algorithmic way and so, they are not computable. A person’s consciousness is the result of unpredictable, nonlinear interactions among billions of cells. Penrose has proposed that a deeper understanding of physical laws would be needed to explain consciousness. Even more, he believes that there is a need for a new advanced quantum theory to describe the brain’s complex interactions.
Penrose believes that the human brain displays creative abilities that are beyond brute force computation. His thought is that mathematical and artistic creativity rely on the faculty of human understanding and that understanding is a non-algorithmic phenomenon – meaning that computers and AIs will never be able to duplicate the human brain. Roughly speaking, an algorithm is a clearly defined set of steps for carrying out some procedure; once an algorithm for carrying out a procedure has been found, no more independent thought is required. All that is necessary is to follow the steps. Anything a computer can do must be algorithmic, since computers can only do what they are programmed to do, and programs are algorithmic in nature. This non-algorithmic element to human thought is, Penrose claims, due to quantum effects in the brain, which are the source of our feelings of self-awareness, our consciousness, and our capacity for leaps of inspiration. These ideas are set out very fully in Penrose’s two bestselling works of popular science, The Emperor’s New Mind and Shadows of the Mind.
The Penrose Institute recently invited usual chess players to pit their wits against a chess problem to test his theory. Roger Penrose created the puzzle to prove the human mind can never be matched by a computer because it exhibits quantum effects. This means the brain doesn’t follow the rules for the classical properties of matter, like a computer.
Although the puzzle is not too difficult for players with some experiences in chess, it has beaten Fritz, an advanced chess computer used by grandmasters (for more details regarding the chess positions see here). If asked to analyze which player will win, Fritz assumes Black will win, as it has more pieces. The computer gets confused because the three black bishops open up so many possible moves and positions that it would take more than all of the computational power on Earth to calculate. Humans taking the test are advised to find a quiet spot and pay attention to how their solution arises in their mind – did they feel a flash of insight, or leave the puzzle and come back to it?
Since Gary Kasparov was beaten by Deep Blue, human intelligence has been gradually in retreat. James Tagg, a collaborator with Sir Roger Penrose said to Daily Mail : ‘We are pushing back on that argument. We are saying that’s not the way it is.’ Mr. Tagg concedes that the computer program could be programmed with a rule that allows it to see that the position is, in fact, a draw, but the interesting thing is that it cannot work it out through number crunching alone.
Surely, enhancing human memory and computing abilities using AI is an attractive field for further research and cyborgs are an attractive theme for film making. Fortunately for us, if Penrose is right, being a cyborg has nothing to do with the real human intelligence. Consciousness remains the last human frontier…