The Deep End is the bit of ConservativeHome where we take a step back from the immediate political agenda and talk about things like artificial intelligence (see here and here) rather than, say, Europe.

Today, however, we’re going to talk about both topics in the shape of the EU-funded Human Brain Project – a ten year research effort to build a complete simulation of the human brain on a super-computer. This might sound like the plot of a sci-fi horror movie aimed at UKIP voters, but it’s actually happening.

The HBP is big science with big bucks behind it, but according to Gary Marcus in the New York Times not everyone in the scientific community is best pleased:

“…hundreds of neuroscientists from all over the world issued an indignant open letter to the European Commission, which is funding the Human Brain Project, an approximately $1.6 billion effort that aims to build a complete computer simulation of the human brain. The letter charges that the project is ‘overly narrow’ in approach and not ‘well conceived.’ While no neuroscientist doubts that a faithful-to-life brain simulation would ultimately be tremendously useful, some have called the project ‘radically premature.’”

What, then, is so premature about building an artificial brain?

“…we scientists are not only far from a comprehensive explanation of how the brain works; we’re also not even in agreement about the best way to study it, or what questions we should be asking.”

As Professor Marcus argues, biology is far too messy for the kind of overarching theories that physicists deal in. Nevertheless, before trying to simulate a brain we ought to have a better idea as to how brain structures relate to mental processes:

“What we are really looking for is a bridge, some way of connecting two separate scientific languages — those of neuroscience and psychology.

“Such bridges don’t come easily or often, maybe once in a generation, but when they do arrive, they can change everything. An example is the discovery of DNA, which allowed us to understand how genetic information could be represented and replicated in a physical structure. In one stroke, this bridge transformed biology from a mystery — in which the physical basis of life was almost entirely unknown — into a tractable if challenging set of problems…”

The sequencing of the human genome was a triumph for science, but it would have been a fool’s errand if we hadn’t had a theory of genetics first. Though the parallels aren’t exact, the Human Brain Project seems to be jumping the gun in an analogous way.

The HBP isn’t about artificial intelligence per se, but one has to ask whether it’s being influenced by the hype that surrounds the issue – in particular the assumption that as we make progress toward computers that more closely resemble the human brain, human-like intelligence is bound to emerge.

Even if one doesn’t believe in the metaphysical reality of the human soul, one can still recognise that, in respect to AI and related fields, there’s a massive amount of over-claiming going on.

Speaking from a non-religious perspective, Jaron Lanier describes this phenomenon as “premature mystery reduction.” In a transcribed talk for Edge, Lanier – one of the very brightest minds in computer science – fears that scientific priorities are being distorted as a result:

“You have to be able to accept what your ignorances are in order to do good science. To reject your own ignorance just casts you into a silly state where you’re a lesser scientist. I don’t see that so much in the neuroscience field, but it comes from the computer world so much, and the computer world is so influential because it has so much money and influence that it does start to bleed over into all kinds of other things. A great example is the Human Brain Project in Europe, which is a lot of public money going into science that’s very influenced by this point of view, and it has upset some in the neuroscience community for precisely the reason I described.” 

On the other hand, the European Union could do with some more intelligence, so maybe it’s worth a shot.

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