August 21, 2010

Myers still thinks Kurzweil does not understand the brain

The blog war between PZ Myers and Ray Kurzweil continues. Myers has now retorted to Kurzweil's retort: can't measure the number of transistors in an Intel CPU and then announce, "A-ha! We now understand what a small amount of information is actually required to create all those operating systems and computer games and Microsoft Word, and it is much, much smaller than everyone is assuming." Put it in those terms, and the Kurzweil fanboys would laugh at him; put it in terms of something they don't understand at all, like the development and function of the brain, and they're willing to go along with the pretense that the genome tells us that the whole organism is simpler than they thought.

I presume they understand that if you program a perfect Intel emulator, you don't suddenly get Halo: Reach for free, as an emergent property of the system. You can buy the code and add it to the system, sure, but in this case, we can't run down to GameStop and buy a DVD with the human OS in it and install it on our artificial brain. You're going to have to do the hard work of figuring out how that works and reverse engineering it, as well. And understanding how the processor works is necessary to do that, but not sufficient.
Myers concludes,
In short, here's Kurzweil's claim: the brain is simpler than we think, and thanks to the accelerating rate of technological change, we will understand it's basic principles of operation completely within a few decades. My counterargument, which he hasn't addressed at all, is that 1) his argument for that simplicity is deeply flawed and irrelevant, 2) he has made no quantifiable argument about how much we know about the brain right now, and I argue that we've only scratched the surface in the last several decades of research, 3) "exponential" is not a magic word that solves all problems (if I put a penny in the bank today, it does not mean I will have a million dollars in my retirement fund in 20 years), and 4) Kurzweil has provided no explanation for how we'll be 'reverse engineering' the human brain. He's now at least clearly stating that decoding the genome does not generate the necessary information — it's just an argument that the brain isn't as complex as we thought, which I've already said is bogus — but left dangling is the question of methodology. I suggest that we need to have a combined strategy of digging into the brain from the perspectives of physiology, molecular biology, genetics, and development, and in all of those fields I see a long hard slog ahead. I also don't see that noisemakers like Kurzweil, who know nothing of those fields, will be making any contribution at all.

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