20 August 2010

Neither Ray Kurzweil nor PZ Myers Understand the Brain

Irrepressible bio-blogger PZ Myers has attacked futurist inventor and author Ray Kurzweil on his blog, accusing Mr. Kurzweil of failing to understand the human brain. But it seems that Mr. Myers was unwittingly attacking second-hand accounts of a talk given by Kurzweil, rather than responding to Mr. Kurzweil's actual claims. Kurzweil takes Myers to the woodshed for that mistake.

Other prominent tech- and mind-bloggers such as Brian Wang and George Dvorsky have reacted to this tiff, appropriately pointing readers to Mr. Kurzweil's actual words on the topic.

Lost in all the ballyhoo is the obvious fact that in reality, neither Kurzweil nor Myers understand very much about the brain. But is that clear fact of mutual brain ignorance relevant to the underlying issue -- Kurzweil's claim that science will be able to "reverse-engineer" the human brain within 20 years? In other words, Ray Kurzweil expects humans to build a brain-functional machine in the next 2 decades based largely upon concepts learned from studying how brains/minds think.

Clearly Kurzweil is not claiming that he will be able to understand human brains down to the most intricate detail, nor is he claiming that his new machine brain will emulate the brain down to its cell signaling proteins, receptors, gene expression, and organelles. Myers seems to become a bit bogged down in the details of his own objections to his misconceptions of what Kurzweil is claiming, and loses the thread of his argument -- which can be summed up by Myers' claim that Kurzweil is a "kook."

But Kurzweil's amazing body of thought and invention testifies to the fact that Kurzweil is probably no more a kook than any other genius inventor/visionary. Calling someone a "kook" is apparently considered clever in the intellectual circles which Mr. Myers' and the commenters on his blog travel, but in the thinking world such accusations provide too little information to be of much use.

Clearly if Mr. Kurzweil understood the brain, he could simply sit down and design an artificial brain based upon the principles which he already understands. The fact that Kurzweil places the development of such a human-level thinking machine 2 decades in the future, suggests that Kurzweil himself is not attempting to disguise his lack of comprehensive understanding of the brain.

I should point out that it is neuroscientist Henry Markram who is attempting to reverse-engineer a human brain to incredibly exquisite levels of biological detail -- in an attempt to study the function and potential pathologies of the brain. Kurzweil is not taking that path of reverse-engineering, but is rather attempting to extract principles of higher level mental functioning from the study of the brain. These "higher level mental functions" may appear to be quite low-level to a lay-person, but to a neurobiologist they will seem quite high-level indeed.

Life scientists do not understand life, really. Take this interesting Spiegel Online interview with Craig Venter on the genome. You would think that if anyone would understand the genome, it would be Craig Venter. But no, he admits that he does not -- not nearly to the extent that he intends to, at least. That is why he goes to work every day, because he understands just enough to want to understand more.

So while PZ Myers apparently fell off the wavelength upon which Ray Kurzweil was transmitting, that is no reason why the rest of us cannot follow Kurzweil's progress in his quest -- as food for thought.

Full Disclosure: Al Fin has in the past criticised Ray Kurzweil's approach to artificial intelligence as being insufficiently nuanced -- based upon Kurzweil's own writings. But a man with Mr. Kurzweil's track record of accomplishments is not one who should be written off. Such a person has been wrong innumerable times in his past, and has come back to correct his mistakes and move far beyond them. Every person of high achievement must go through such a process of being wrong and learning from it. It is one of the disgraces of modern education, culture, and child-raising that "being wrong" or "failing" at something, is considered to be an object of shame or disgrace. Far from being disgraceful, it is a necessary part of living and learning.

It is the dogmatist who is unwilling or unable to learn from his mistakes who should be avoided. The person who is unwilling to put in the necessary hard work to correct his own faulty assumptions and innate prejudices, is the person who will achieve little in the end. Except, perhaps, for calling everyone who disagrees with him a kook.

Labels: ,

Bookmark and Share


Blogger Alastair Sweeny said...

Kurzweil's company actively studies innovation, and his law of acceleration is holding up pretty well. See my:

Saturday, 21 August, 2010  
Blogger Keith Wiley said...

I've been reading the back and forth responses by Myers, Kurzweil and countless commenters on their blogs all day and I must say that this article is far and away the most level-headed and reflective of my own reactions of any I have read yet. Myers is trying to make a point, but his wretched attitude just ruins it. Furthermore, he and Kurzweil -- both of whom are partly right and partly wrong -- are talking in complete circles around one another. In their responses and re-responses, it seems clear that neither one is hearing a word the other is saying, and the same goes for the thousands of comments in the corresponding blogs.

Your article reflects my own reaction to the writings of both of them on this matter almost perfectly.

Thank you.

Monday, 23 August, 2010  

Post a Comment

“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

<< Home

Newer Posts Older Posts