The relationship between the digital computer and the human brain is a hot topic recently. Last week I reported on the perspective of an engineer—specifically, Karim Arabi, vice president of engineering at Qualcomm, who spoke about brain-inspired computing at the International Test Conference.
Sunday in the New York Times, Kenneth D. Miller, a professor of neuroscience at Columbia, takes a look at the subject from the perspective of theoretical neuroscientist. Whereas Arabi at Qualcomm wants to build a computer that offers the brain’s computational flexibility and power efficiency, Miller addresses the question of whether it’s possible to recreate a mind, either engineered in living tissue or instantiated in a computer with a robotic body.
Miller writes that he doesn’t in principle see any reason a frozen brain, for example, couldn’t be analyzed and reconstructed or emulated in the future. “But to accomplish this,” he writes, “these future scientists would need to know details of staggering complexity about the brain’s structure, details quite likely far beyond what any method today could preserve in a dead brain.”
He notes that current hopes of reconstructing a brain center on connectomics, which has been applied to analyze about 1,700 synapses—about one one-hundred billionth of the total in the brain. But even if the total connectome could be mapped over centuries, it would not provide details about electrical activity in each connection.
He writes, “It will almost certainly be a very long time before we can hope to preserve a brain in sufficient detail and for sufficient time that some civilization much farther in the future, perhaps thousands or even millions of years from now, might have the technological capacity to ‘upload’ and recreate that individual’s mind.”
He concludes, “We all find our own solutions to the problem death poses. For the foreseeable future, bringing your mind back to life will not be one of them.”
Arabi’s problem of analyzing the brain’s structure to build better computers is much more promising.