Saturday, 25 April 2009

The Ultimate Emulator

Techno-futurist poster boys like Ray Kurzweil and Hans Moravec have long predicted that increasing processor capacity will inevitably lead to "strong AI", and soon. But they overlooked the truth of computer science that making software do what you want is much more difficult than building the necessary hardware. Of course, one way around this is to emulate existing software on new hardware, and it looks like there is interesting progress in that direction.

What will it mean if we are able to effectively simulate a human brain in a computer, so that the mind actually works? The practical implications are huge: immortality for the simulated minds, cloning minds, potentially much faster cognition, easy long-distance space travel, some scary consequences for the simulatee if the machine is compromised. But it's unclear if we'd be able to make fundamental improvements to the capabilities of human cognition. We are dealing with an exceptionally large and strange piece of legacy code.

Philosophically, it would be a blow against some forms of dualism. That doesn't bother me because personally I'm not much of a dualist. I grew up with the assumption that the mind is what the brain does, and becoming a Christian did not require me to change that. God knows everyone's mental state at all times, so resurrection only requires that state to be copied into a new body. Any consciousness in the interregnum can be achieved by God doing the necessary processing himself. (Better thinkers than I have speculated along these lines.) The idea of a soul independent of the body that carries on on its own is not required in the Bible, as far as I can see, although the Gnostics probably would held it.

I doubt we're anywhere close to actually achieving the simulated brain, however. We should expect many iterations of discovering that there's some subtle but important phenomenon not being simulated. And who knows, maybe Penrose will turn out to be right and some quantum phenomena turn out to be important...


  1. > I'm not much of a dualist [...] resurrection only requires that state to be copied into a new body
    So funny to see christian religion evolve with modern science.
    Now, it seems I am in one of hyperion cantos novels. :-)
    Are the hashes you publish time to time actually MD5 of your mind, in case God has problems with the copy ?
    (btw, use SHA instead. 'cause there are collisions with MD5. imagine being resurected into Marylin Manson's mind ? pretty unfortunate collision don't you think)
    > God doing the necessary processing
    ... now I'm in the matrix.
    Does God use Linux or Solaris ?
    Interesting post !

  2. The Hyperion Cantos that's one of my favorite series of novels. If you like those you should also read Dan Simmons' Ilium/Olympos stories.

  3. Actually, this "computational" metaphor of body and soul as hardware and software, with "state" being the essence of personal identity, is dualism in its purest possible form, rather than the opposite of dualism.

  4. I find it interesting, in my own faith journey, that many efforts in neuron-synaptic research have pointed out that the number of states in the human mind could very well enumerate to a number far greater than the number of atoms in the observed universe. As some look to conventional computing paradigms as someday being biologically competitive the required multiple magnitude improvements in software and hardware required would, in the end, lead us to a system that looks (and programs) a lot like what is currently between our ears.
    God, I feel, is much like an engineer with a lot of simulation time on his hands, he might chose to define the problem as simply as possible and let the hard stuff evolve. And like any good system admin he check points his simulations so that later he can re-instantiate the "better" designs.