Monday, December 8, 2008

Catch me if you can

Like the furies forever pursuing Orestes for matricide, the aggrieved family of Ron Goldman announces their quite justifiable intention to hound O.J. Simpson indefinitely to strip him of his assets, though the ability to rob him of hubris seems to elude any mortal agency. With prisons being overcrowded, perhaps a fitting sentence for Simpson would be to condemn him to roam the LA freeways forever in his white Bronco. Given the driving conditions on LA freeways, that might seem to be cruel and unusual punishment, but one can hope that the wandering Bronco will become an increasingly anachronistic sight, as more commuters turn to bicycles in the wake of climate change and high gas prices. Even Bogotá has 300 kilometers of biking trails (and if anyone can use them at that altitude, they are to be doubly congratulated!), while the State of Victoria, Australia plans to require new office buildings to require bike parking as well as showers and lockers. Also notable is

Paris’s low-cost Vélib rental scheme, launched in July [2007]. Now offering 20,600 bikes that can be obtained by credit card at 1,451 stations, the program logged 6 million rides in its first three months. Analysts expect the program to double or even triple bike trips in Paris. Similar programs exist in Oslo, Barcelona, and Brussels and are planned for Washington, D.C., and central London, among other cities.

Though it isn't nearly as healthy as bike riding, I'd also like to see the Segway Human Transporter® included in such a scheme, but with a top speed of about 17 miles per hour, it would need to be regulated for pedestrian safety. I really hoped that the Segway would be the premier invention reshaping our way of life in this decade, though the prize for that goes to the iPod® and to social networking web sites.

For the ultimate in reshaping, we have to consider the concept of computer-brain interface technology, examined in last month's Scientific American, which asked:

What, then, might realistically be achieved by interactions between brains and machines? Do the advances from the first EEG experiment to brain-controlled arms and cursors suggest an inevitable, deterministic progression, if not toward a Kurzweilian singularity, then perhaps toward the possibility of inputting at least some high-level cognitive information into the brain? Could we perhaps download War and Peace or, with a nod to The Matrix, a manual of how to fly a helicopter? How about inscribing the sentence “See Spot run” into the memory of someone who is unconscious of the transfer? How about just the word “see”?

In Simpson's case, or perhaps that of the Blackwater guards, they might have begun and ended simply with the word "Don't," but in any case, the idea is interesting. Brought to fruition, such technology might free a Phineas Gage from the lifelong personality-altering consequences of an accident. (Of course, it might also result in a Max Headroom.) The Scientific American article goes on to describe the ambitious Blue Brain Project, headed by Henry Markram, director of neuroscience and technology at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne:

The Blue Brain an attempt that began in 2005 to use supercomputer-based simulations to reverse-engineer the brain at the molecular and cellular levels—modeling first the simpler rat organ and then the human version to unravel the underlying function of neural processes. The latter task awaits a computer that boasts a more than 1,000-fold improvement over the processing power of current supercomputers. The actual code, when it does emerge, may be structured very differently from what appears in today’s textbooks. “I think there will be a conceptual breakthrough that will have significant implications for how we think of reality,” Markram says. “It will be quite a profound thing. That’s probably why it’s such an intractable problem.”

That and other reasons. I've certainly worked under and with folks whose brains were in dire need of reengineering, so Markram has my sympathies, but I doubt that the human brain can be usefully modeled at all; it simply is what it is, and no less complex system than the brain itself will be capable of representing it. I suspect the brain will be found to be qualitatively different from a puzzle that one can assemble if only he has all the right pieces; it seems more likely that, given sufficient computing power, scientists will have to set a problem for which the computer searches for answers in an evolutionary process, like Richard Dawkins's Weasel algorithm. If they find such answers, it's possible that enlightened controllers may one day press the Reset button on erring minds, like OnStar® correcting the oil life indicator in my car; imagine that happening to Dan Brown or James Frey.

© Michael Huggins, 2008. All rights reserved.

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