Thread: An Atheists Heaven?
#1 An Atheists Heaven?06-03-2012, 01:54 AM
2050 - and immortality is within our grasp
Britain's leading thinker on the future offers an extraordinary vision of life in the next 45 years
David Smith, technology correspondent
The Observer, Saturday 21 May 2005
Aeroplanes will be too afraid to crash, yoghurts will wish you good morning before being eaten and human consciousness will be stored on supercomputers, promising immortality for all - though it will help to be rich.
These fantastic claims are not made by a science fiction writer or a crystal ball-gazing lunatic. They are the deadly earnest predictions of Ian Pearson, head of the futurology unit at BT.
'If you draw the timelines, realistically by 2050 we would expect to be able to download your mind into a machine, so when you die it's not a major career problem,' Pearson told The Observer. 'If you're rich enough then by 2050 it's feasible. If you're poor you'll probably have to wait until 2075 or 2080 when it's routine. We are very serious about it. That's how fast this technology is moving: 45 years is a hell of a long time in IT.'
Pearson, 44, has formed his mind-boggling vision of the future after graduating in applied mathematics and theoretical physics, spending four years working in missile design and the past 20 years working in optical networks, broadband network evolution and cybernetics in BT's laboratories. He admits his prophecies are both 'very exciting' and 'very scary'.
He believes that today's youngsters may never have to die, and points to the rapid advances in computing power demonstrated last week, when Sony released the first details of its PlayStation 3. It is 35 times more powerful than previous games consoles. 'The new PlayStation is 1 per cent as powerful as a human brain,' he said. 'It is into supercomputer status compared to 10 years ago. PlayStation 5 will probably be as powerful as the human brain.'
The world's fastest computer, IBM's BlueGene, can perform 70.72 trillion calculations per second (teraflops) and is accelerating all the time. But anyone who believes in the uniqueness of consciousness or the soul will find Pearson's next suggestion hard to swallow. 'We're already looking at how you might structure a computer that could possibly become conscious. There are quite a lot of us now who believe it's entirely feasible.
'We don't know how to do it yet but we've begun looking in the same directions, for example at the techniques we think that consciousness is based on: information comes in from the outside world but also from other parts of your brain and each part processes it on an internal sensing basis. Consciousness is just another sense, effectively, and that's what we're trying to design in a computer. Not everyone agrees, but it's my conclusion that it is possible to make a conscious computer with superhuman levels of intelligence before 2020.'
He continued: 'It would definitely have emotions - that's one of the primary reasons for doing it. If I'm on an aeroplane I want the computer to be more terrified of crashing than I am so it does everything to stay in the air until it's supposed to be on the ground.
'You can also start automating an awful lots of jobs. Instead of phoning up a call centre and getting a machine that says, "Type 1 for this and 2 for that and 3 for the other," if you had machine personalities you could have any number of call staff, so you can be dealt with without ever waiting in a queue at a call centre again.'
Pearson, from Whitehaven in Cumbria, collaborates on technology with some developers and keeps a watching brief on advances around the world. He concedes the need to debate the implications of progress. 'You need a completely global debate. Whether we should be building machines as smart as people is a really big one. Whether we should be allowed to modify bacteria to assemble electronic circuitry and make themselves smart is already being researched.
'We can already use DNA, for example, to make electronic circuits so it's possible to think of a smart yoghurt some time after 2020 or 2025, where the yoghurt has got a whole stack of electronics in every single bacterium. You could have a conversation with your strawberry yogurt before you eat it.'
In the shorter term, Pearson identifies the next phase of progress as 'ambient intelligence': chips with everything. He explained: 'For example, if you have a pollen count sensor in your car you take some antihistamine before you get out. Chips will come small enough that you can start impregnating them into the skin. We're talking about video tattoos as very, very thin sheets of polymer that you just literally stick on to the skin and they stay there for several days. You could even build in cellphones and connect it to the network, use it as a video phone and download videos or receive emails.'
Philips, the electronics giant, is developing the world's first rollable display which is just a millimetre thick and has a 12.5cm screen which can be wrapped around the arm. It expects to start production within two years.
The next age, he predicts, will be that of 'simplicity' in around 2013-2015. 'This is where the IT has actually become mature enough that people will be able to drive it without having to go on a training course.
'Forget this notion that you have to have one single chip in the computer which does everything. Why not just get a stack of little self-organising chips in a box and they'll hook up and do it themselves. It won't be able to get any viruses because most of the operating system will be stored in hardware which the hackers can't write to. If your machine starts going wrong, you just push a button and it's reset to the factory setting.'
Pearson's third age is 'virtual worlds' in around 2020. 'We will spend a lot of time in virtual space, using high quality, 3D, immersive, computer generated environments to socialise and do business in. When technology gives you a life-size 3D image and the links to your nervous system allow you to shake hands, it's like being in the other person's office. It's impossible to believe that won't be the normal way of communicating.
An old story but worth bringing up again.The difference between pigs and people is that when they tell you you're cured it isn't a good thing.
06-03-2012, 02:02 AM
Swiss scientists aim to build a synthetic brain within a decade
The brain would provide insights into how our perceptions of the world are interpreted and stored, and how consciousness arises
Ian Sample, science correspondent
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 23 July 2009 10.16 EDT
The world's first synthetic brain could be built within 10 years, giving us an unprecedented insight into the nature of consciousness and our perception of reality.
Scientists working on the Blue Brain Project in Switzerland are the first to attempt to "reverse-engineer" the mammalian brain by recreating the behaviour of billions of neurons in a computer.
Professor Henry Markham, director of the project at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, has already simulated parts of the neocortex, the most 'modern' region of the brain, which evolved rapidly in mammals to cope with the demands of parenthood and social situations.
Markham's team created a 3D simulation of around 10,000 brain cells to mimic the behaviour of the rat neocortex. The way all the cells connect and send signals to each other is just as important as how many there are.
"You need one laptop to do all the calculations for one neuron, so you need ten thousand laptops," Markham told the TEDGlobal conference in Oxford yesterday. Instead, he uses an IBM Blue Gene supercomputer.
The artificial brain is already revealing some of the inner workings of the most impressive 1.5kg of biological tissue ever to evolve. Show the brain a virtual image and its neurons flicker with electrical activity as the image is processed.
Ultimately, scientists want to use synthetic brains to understand how sensory information from the real world is interpreted and stored, and how consciousness arises. They may also give scientists a new way to study brain disorders and neurodegenerative diseases without having to experiment on animals.
Hmm, we could take an ape, pop the top and spoon out the grey matter onto crackers, we could then install one of these brains and test it!The difference between pigs and people is that when they tell you you're cured it isn't a good thing.
#3 Lab comes one step closer to building artificial human brain06-03-2012, 02:06 AM
An ambitious project in Switzerland was scoffed at - but researchers have just succeeded in simulating a rat's brain in silicon
The Guardian, Wednesday 19 December 2007
In a laboratory in Switzerland, a group of neuroscientists is developing a mammalian brain - in silicon. The researchers at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), in collaboration with IBM, have just completed the first phase of an ambitious project to reproduce a fully functioning brain on a supercomputer. By strange coincidence, their lab happens to lie on the same shores of Lake Geneva where Mary Shelley dreamt up her creation, Dr Frankenstein.
In June 2005, Henry Markram, director of the Blue Brain project, announced his intention to build a human brain using one of the most powerful supercomputers in the world. "The critics were unbelievable," recalls Markram. "Everybody thought we were crazy. Even the most eminent computational neuroscientists and theoreticians said the project would fail."
Some of Markram's peers said there simply wasn't enough data available to simulate a human brain. "There is no neuroscientist on the planet that has the authority to say we don't understand enough," says Markram. "We all know a tiny slice. Nobody even knows how much we know."
Markram was not dissuaded by the negative reaction to his announcement. Two years on, he has already developed a computer simulation of the neocortical column - the basic building block of the neocortex, the higher functioning part of our brains - of a two-week-old rat, and it behaves exactly like its biological counterpart. It's something quite beautiful when you watch it pulse on the giant 3D screens the researchers have constructed.
The neocortical column is the most recently evolved part of our brain and is responsible for such things as reasoning and self-awareness. It was a quantum leap in evolution. The human brain contains a thousand times more neocortical columns than a rat's brain, but there is very little difference, biologically speaking, between a rat's brain and our own. Build one column, and you can effectively build the entire neocortex - if you have the computational power.
Although a neocortical column is only 2 millimetres long and half a millimetre in diameter, it contains 10,000 neurons and 30m synapses. The machine that simulates this column is an IBM Blue Gene/L supercomputer is capable of speeds of 18.7 trillion calculations per second. It has 8,000 processors and is one of the most powerful supercomputers in the world.
Markram believes that with the state of technology today, it is possible to build an entire rat's neocortex, which is the next phase of the Blue Brain project, due to begin next year. From there, it's cats, then monkeys and finally, a human brain.
Markram is banking on Moore's law holding steady, as a computer with the power of the human brain, using today's technology, would take up several football pitches and run up an electricity bill of $3bn a year. But by the time Markram gets around to mimicking a full human brain, computing will have moved on.
Modelling the future
Modelling seems to be the way forward for neuroscience. Each year, there are about 35,000 neuroscience papers published - and the number of papers being published is increasing at a rate of between 20% and 30% a year. Most neuroscientists only get to read about 100 of these papers a year, if they're lucky. Pouring all of this knowledge into Blue Brain seems an obvious way to use and preserve it.
Markram, a 44-year-old South African, first became interested in recording the electrophysiology of neurons when he was at the Max Planck Institute in Germany. He was recording two neurons and he saw them communicate. "I thought, my God, this is incredible, you can actually capture neurons communicating," he says. "Then I wanted to find out how they all communicated, so I started to map the whole circuit. It took 15 years." Markram describes the data he has collected over the past decade and a half as "too boring to be published".
The model is there to unify the data and test that it works. A neurobiologist who wants to test a certain theory of how a specific brain function, such as memory retention and retrieval, works can use Blue Brain to do so. The model will be open to the entire world's research community.
Simulation-based research becomes possible when you have a critical power of computation. Today, every commercial aircraft that is built started life as a simulation. Even cameras are simulated before they're built. In physics, we don't let off nuclear weapons any more, we just use simulations.
"We don't use simulation in life sciences because biology requires the most powerful computers," says Markram. "We do experiments on animals, but that is going to change in the near future and this project will drive that change."
One thing Markram is keen to stress is that this isn't another artificial intelligence (AI) system. "We're not looking for the brain of a robot," he says. "You can get an engineer to do that. They are much better at it and they can do it really quickly. But in the end, it [Blue Brain] will probably be much better. If we build it right, it should speak."
However, Markram is not holding his breath, waiting for some emergent consciousness to arise from the silicon brain. What he is after is something more prosaic, but also a lot more useful than a talking machine. By understanding the function of the brain, we can also begin to understand its dysfunction.
Disorders such as depression, schizophrenia and dementia are the price we pay for having complicated brains. "We don't understand what goes wrong inside those circuits," says Markram. "We're still in empirical medicine. If a drug compound works: good. If not, we try another one." Blue Brain could accelerate experimentation tremendously. It will be much more efficient than wet-lab experiments and it will reduce animal experimentation.
However, Steven Rose, emeritus professor of biology at the Open University, is sceptical that a biologically accurate model of the entire human brain can be built, given our current state of knowledge and technology. The integration between the different regions of the brain is just too complex to recreate on a computer simulation. "I'm not against people playing with models," says Rose, "but the idea that you can use it for anything very sophisticated as opposed to looking at real animals with real behaviour at the moment seems to me to be pie in the sky."
Rose warns against underestimating the difficulties that still remain. Then, rather grudgingly, he admits that the Blue Brain project is impressive. "Impressive but modest," he adds. Clearly, Markram still has some doubters to win over.
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