The Sciences

Another Step Toward Skynet

Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollMay 22, 2009 8:35 PM


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There should be some government program that forces scientists to watch dystopian science-fiction movies, so they can have some idea of the havoc their research is obviously going to cause. I just stumbled across an interview with Nobel Laureate Gerald Edelman, that has been on the site for a couple of months. (Apparently the Discover website is affiliated with some sort of magazine, to which you can subscribe.) Edelman won the Nobel for his work on antibodies, but for a long time his primary interest has been in consciousness. He believes (as all right-thinking people do) that consciousness is ultimately biological, and is interested in building computer models of the phenomenon. So we get things like this:

Eugene Izhikevitch [a mathematician at the Neurosciences Institute] and I have made a model with a million simulated neurons and almost half a billion synapses, all connected through neuronal anatomy equivalent to that of a cat brain. What we find, to our delight, is that it has intrinsic activity. Up until now our BBDs had activity only when they confronted the world, when they saw input signals. In between signals, they went dark. But this damn thing now fires on its own continually. The second thing is, it has beta waves and gamma waves just like the regular cortex—what you would see if you did an electroencephalogram. Third of all, it has a rest state. That is, when you don’t stimulate it, the whole population of neurons stray back and forth, as has been described by scientists in human beings who aren’t thinking of anything. In other words, our device has some lovely properties that are necessary to the idea of a conscious artifact. It has that property of indwelling activity. So the brain is already speaking to itself. That’s a very important concept for consciousness.

Oh, great. We build giant robots, equip them with lasers, and now we teach them how to gaze at their navels, and presumably how to dream. What can possibly go wrong?

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