22 April 2011

Double Plus Overhype Ado About Artificial Synapse?

There's a news story replicating on the web right now about a "Functioning Synapse Created Using Carbon Nanotubes," for instance here and here.

....the circuit has not actually been constructed, so the "apparatus" photo there is kind of silly. It just gives the false impression that a synapse model was actually built physically with analog components.

...[ed: all that we have is] an electrical circuit schematic that in turn depends on certain SPICE models of carbon nanotube FETs (which have apparently been available since 2006). So in other words, this circuit is a particular model of a synapse being simulated with a simple circuit. _Science20

Samuel Kenyon points out at the Science20 article linked above, that the "artificial synapse" is only a simulated circuit using the SPICE electronic simulation program. But the overhype is doubly overdone, because even if the researchers had actually built a real, physical circuit that functioned as an "artificial synapse", it would still not put them any closer to actually building an "artificial brain."
PDF Source (via Science20)
This overhyped excitement is reminiscent of IBM scientist Dharmendra Modha's claim that he had built a computer that was the equivalent of "a cat's brain." Initially, most science blogs (except Al Fin) accepted Modha's claim at face value. Then when Henry Markram came out publicly to refute the claim, Modha backed off and clarified, and almost everyone agreed in the end, that it was all pretty much ado about nothing.

It is the same thing here, where science and tech blogs initially rush to accept exaggerated claims in press releases. Then, little by little, sceptics step up and insist upon clarifications and qualifications of claims, until the claims are downgraded to the point that eventually no one can remember what the fuss was about.

In the case of "the artificial synapse", it is important to understand why this real world device is not even a synapse, much less a possible ingredient for an artificial brain.

The USC and Stanford researchers have designed a computer model of "an artificial synapse," not an actual artificial synapse. But even if it were a real synapse, would engineers be able to use it to assemble an artificial brain? No. And the reason why one thing does not naturally lead to the next is crucial to an understanding of how real brains work -- real brains being the only working proof of concept of intelligence in the known universe.

Artificial intelligence enthusiasts will rush to say that working brains do not necessarily have to work just like the bio-brains we know now. But then, what is the point of emulating a tiny component of a bio-brain in the first place, if you cannot use it to build a functioning brain, as we understand it? In other words, if your objective is to build a new class of brain, why start with a poor imitation of a low level component of a bio-brain? Why not start with something "better" from the get-go? [By "better", I mean faster, more versatile, etc etc]

Here is the reason: Because artificial intelligence researchers do not have a clue as to how to build an intelligent brain. And so they are practising a subtle form of cargo cult science.

It's okay. We all understand that rents and utilities must be paid, the price of gasoline is high, everything costs money. Academics must publish or perish, and getting research grants to build "artificial synapses" does sound kind of sexy. Anything to keep the lights on, right?

But all the same, it is important to understand that brains are not the plural of "synapse." It is time to stop pretending that one has made progress toward AI, when nothing of the sort has happened.

More: It is important to understand that the bulk of the exaggeration comes from press releases and media coverage. Here is the actual conclusion from the research study referred to:
A carbon nanotube synapse typical of cortical synapses has been designed and simulated using SPICE. While the simulations were successful, the design of a single typical synapse is only a small step along the path to a synthetic cortex. The variations in synapses, including inhibitory synapses, will be the focus of future research. Predicting the interconnection capabilities of nanotube circuits is also important in understanding the future prospects for a synthetic cortex. _PDFeve.usc.eduPDF

Unfortunately, as computer modelers try to more realistically model the events in the brain at cellular and molecular levels, computing power and computing time demands explode out of control very rapidly. More, the researchers above do not seem to understand the key facts of brain function upon which conscious intelligence is balanced: time-dependent high level cross-brain synchronisation (via evolved white matter pathways) of evolved multiple modular (grey matter) brain centers from brain stem to neocortex, dancing alongside sensory input, jostled by memory, under the changing lights of emotion, and swept up in hormonal tides and chaotic flows of molecules...

More complex than one imagines? More complex than one can possibly imagine. The job is simply too hard for intelligent design. Only evolution will do. We need to get better at intelligently designing evolution. ;-)

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Blogger Bob said...

Well, that blog post title drew my attention, even if it baffled the snot out of me, Al Fin. *laughs*

Friday, 22 April, 2011  
Blogger al fin said...

It baffles the hell out of me as well, Bob, and I wrote the thing!

Seriously, if the brain weren't so darned incomprehensible, it might be boring.

Friday, 22 April, 2011  

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

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