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Brain Awareness Week: The Digital Mind

What do computers, cells, and brains have in common? Computers are electronic devices designed by humans; cells are biological entities crafted by evolution; brains are the containers and creators of our minds. But all are, in one way or another, information-processing devices. The power of the human brain is, so far, unequaled by any existing machine or known living being. In our final post celebrating Brain Awareness Week, Arlindo Oliveira discusses how advances in science and technology could enable us to create digital minds

The field of Artificial Intelligence was started more than six decades ago, with the work of Alan Turing about computers and intelligence, in 1950, and a famous conference, in 1956, in Dartmouth College, where many well-known researchers met, including John McCarthy, Marvin Minsky, Allen Newell, Arthur Samuel, and Herbert Simon. Before these events, the idea that computers could display intelligent behavior had been only addressed in very vague, abstract, and philosophical terms. During the ensuing decades, Artificial Intelligence has seen several Springs of hope and Winters of discontent, as positive results alternated with negative ones. At times, artificially intelligent systems looked just around the corner, while at other times the whole enterprise seemed doomed by its sheer complexity.

Overall, however, Artificial Intelligence managed to build an important body of knowledge that, six decades hence, led to many practical applications. Among the technologies created by Artificial Intelligence researchers, machine learning, the set of algorithms that enable computers to learn from experience, is probably the most significant and well-known.

Today, we live in another Spring of hope in what regards Artificial Intelligence. Machine learning became one of the most relevant technologies of today, as the amount of data available to train systems exploded and increased computer power made possible big data applications. Many systems and technologies, such as autonomous vehicles, speech recognition, natural language processing, automatic translation, and face recognition, have generated a lot of attention, for their impacts on the economy, employment, privacy, and quality of life.

During the same six decades, our understanding of biological systems has also leaped forward, starting with the momentous discovery of the structure of DNA, in 1953, by James Watson and Francis Crick, building up on the results obtained by Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins. Our knowledge of biology, including cell components, cells, and cell assemblies, has progressed enourmously, helped by our ability to observe, instrument, and model, complex biological systems, from cells and cell components to complex networks of biological neurons.

Today, advances in computing, coupled with imaging and instrumentation technologies, improved our knowledge of many biological systems, including the brain, to a point where it is possible to think of something that, until now, was just a dream: model and simulate, in a computer, the behavior of a complete brain. Such an effort is under development for the brain of the worm Caenorhabditis elegans, with its 302 neurons, first mapped by Sydney Brenner’s team, in 1986, and for several other species. Large research projects, such as the Human Brain Project, in Europe, and the Human Connectome Project, in the US, aim at mapping, modeling, and simulating significant structures of the brains of mammals, primates, and even humans.

So, on one hand, we have systems, developed by researchers in Artificial Intelligence, behaving more and more intelligently and performing jobs that, until now, were thought to require human intelligence, such as writing newspaper articles, driving cars, or answering phone calls. On the other hand, we are able to emulate, in a computer, the behavior of increasingly complex biological systems, from single cells to simple brains.

These two areas of research have the potential to influence each other, as our ever-increasing knowledge of brain structures improves our ability to design new machine learning methods, such as deep learning, one of the latest and most relevant technologies. It is therefore not too large a leap to believe that, in the near to midterm future, Digital Minds will exist on planet Earth. These minds will be the result of programs running in a computer, either emulating the behavior of brains or using totally different principles. They will force us to change the way we have viewed ourselves until now, as the only intelligent and mindful creatures on the planet.

As these technologies develop, in the coming decades, we will have to address tough questions, such as what should be the rights and responsibilities of these Digital Minds, creatures of our own creation, but comparable to us in many respects. We don’t know whether they will become conscious or not, but, to be fair, we only have a fairly vague notion of what consciousness really is. The distinction between artificial and natural minds may also become more and more blurred, as design principles from natural minds are applied to the design of artificial ones. Furthermore, augmented intelligence and brain prosthesis may become available and commonly used, to increase our senses, our memory, and even our abilities to reason.

The exponential development of technology, which has been the most significant hallmark of recent history, if not of the history of humanity, will make sure that these questions will need to be answered sooner than later. The European Parliament is already discussing the rights and responsibilities of robots and the impacts of artificial intelligence on jobs and on the economy of nations. Other countries, including the US, will certainly follow, unless they become mired in other, distracting and irrelevant, minor questions.

One of the many important questions that will need to be answered is whether this next revolution, called the fourth industrial revolution by many, will also create more jobs than it destroys, as has happened with the previous industrial revolutions. Many, including me, believe that this time it may be different, and that we may move towards a new phase in the economic structure of nations, with many citizens not being able to hold meaningful and rewarding jobs. Now is the time to discuss the steps that we, as a society, should take, to make sure our future, as a whole, is improved by these new and wondrous technologies, and not put in jeopardy but the appearance of Digital Minds. The Digital Mind aims to contribute to this discussion, and also to give some hints on what could be the future of humanity.

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Books, news, and ideas from MIT Press

The MIT PressLog is the official blog of MIT Press. Founded in 2005, the Log chronicles news about MIT Press authors and books. The MIT PressLog also serves as forum for our authors to discuss issues related to their books and scholarship. Views expressed by guest contributors to the blog do not necessarily represent those of MIT Press.