Tech Talk iconTech Talk

Brain Vs. Computer, Round 979013

Ray Kurzweil's Singularity movement is predicated on the eventual ability (hence all the vitamins) to build empty simulacra of human brains into which our consciousness can be poured when our bodies fail, letting us live on forever. (Never mind the population nightmare that would result.) Many Singularitarians assume that with Moore's Law, technological advances will allow us to build a brain within 50 years.

Although no one really knows how much information the human brain stores, New York Times bloggers Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang give it a guess in a must-read discussion of the electrical engineering and neuroscience of the Singularity. It's not often that you find both, so go read the piece.

The consensus among neuroscientists is that a chunk of brain the size of a thimble contains 50 million neurons.

The memory capacity in this small volume is potentially immense. Electrical impulses that arrive at a synapse give the recipient neuron a small chemical kick that can vary in size. Variation in synaptic strength is thought to be a means of memory formation. Samâ''s lab has shown that synaptic strength flips between extreme high and low states, a flip that is reminiscent of a computer storing a â''oneâ'' or a â''zeroâ'' â'' a single bit of information.

But unlike a computer, connections between neurons can form and break too, a process that continues throughout life and can store even more information because of the potential for creating new paths for activity. Although weâ''re forced to guess because the neural basis of memory isnâ''t understood at this level, letâ''s say that one movable synapse could store one byte (8 bits) of memory. That thimble would then contain 1,000 gigabytes (1 terabyte) of information. A thousand thimblefuls make up a whole brain, giving us a million gigabytes â'' a petabyte â'' of information. To put this in perspective, the entire archived contents of the Internet fill just three petabytes.

The upshot of this is that the brain manages to store that much information on 12 Watts (a computer that could do the same would require the power supply that drives Washington DC). It does so, however, by taking some notorious shortcuts: it encodes emotion to strengthen an event in memory, it is prone to prejudice and poor planning, it approximates shamelessly (hence a physicist's ability to "imagine a spherical cow"-- not exactly floating point operations, is it?).

So all this fetishizing the ability to build a human brain may be misguided. Because in order to get the amazing parts to work, we have to throw in the less amazing parts.

What Aamodt and Wang touch on is the idea that maybe replicating an exact human brain would be impossible-- and if it were possible, the result would not be a HAL-like Rainman-meets-Aspberger's superbrain, but a financially irresponsible, mildly racist, xenophobic jerk. What a depressing use of research money.

They liken our brains to 100-year old jalopies:

Because the brain arose through natural selection, it contains layers of systems that arose for one function and then were adopted for another, even though they donâ''t work perfectly. An engineer with time to get it right would have started over, but itâ''s easier for evolution to adapt an old system to a new purpose than to come up with an entirely new structure. Our colleague David Linden has compared the evolutionary history of the brain to the task of building a modern car by adding parts to a 1925 Model T that never stops running.

So lots of people are working on creating accurate simulations of the human brain. Is anyone working to "start over?"

And what does starting over look like? What would the human brain look like if it had been designed from scratch?

Nanotechnology's Solution to Energy Crisis: A Hamster on a Treadmill

The idea is that a piezoelectric nanowire will produce energy when you bend it. So if you attach that nanowire to the muscles of a hamster and send them onto a treadmill the wire will continually be bending and thus producing energy.

But you simply canâ''t escape the comedy of it all.

Corporate Fidelity May Not Extend Very Far in Nanotech

About a year-and-a-half ago I suggested that all those regional economic development groups that were attempting to attract a so-called, and largely yet-to-materialize, nanotechnology industry to their region were sadly misguided.

Government officials are learning the hard way just how far their financial support will inspire corporate loyalty: not very far.

New York figured that they had the perfect foundation for investing state funds to make its region even more attractive to nanotechnology companies. It had IBM and other big technology firms, strong technology-oriented universities, and an economy that had been on a decline. Just throw some money at the situation and upstate New York would become the new Silicon Valley for nanotech.

But after millions of dollars of state funds to help IBM, New York State officials are concerned that IBM may be planning to move jobs overseas.

In the Computer World article referenced above, New York State Assemblyman Greg Ball is reportedly calling for a legislative hearing to look into recent IBM's layoffs.

How does nanotechnology fit in? Well the quid pro quo that was struck last July had the State of New York providing $140 million in grants to IBM in return for investing $1.5 billion to create 1,000 new jobs in nanotechnology.

Let me help out here. Businesses are established to produce profits, not create public good. That is their charter. In fact, if they pursue the public good to the detriment of profit they can be prosecuted; itâ''s against the law.

Letâ''s just hope the New York State legislators had a good contract for their deal.

Cosmonaut: Nations Bicker Over Space Station Essentials

Ever wonder what really goes on inside the International Space Station (ISS)? Are the professionals who spend months orbiting the planet one big happy family, or is the real story something more along the lines of a reality TV show? According to an interview published today, the conditions aboard the ISS can sometimes seem more like an episode of "Big Brother."

The new commander of the ISS, Col. Gennady Padalka, told Russia's Novaya Gazeta recently that decisions made by bureaucrats were harming the morale of the cosmonauts and astronauts inhabiting the science platform.

Padalka and his crewmates, Flight Engineer Michael Barratt and Participant Charles Simonyi, blasted off for the ISS last Thursday from the Baikonur Cosmodrome and boarded the space station on Saturday from their Soyuz capsule to begin ISS Expedition 19, whose six-month mission will be to prepare the facility for future six-member crews. Simonyi, a civilian who became wealthy for developing office-productivity software for Microsoft Corp., will enjoy a weeklong stay as a "space tourist" (his second visit) before returning with the two remaining members of Expedition 18.

With a crew of six now living in the ISS temporarily, Padalka's remarks about the morale of the station's inhabitants takes on greater significance. Padalka, 50, who is now serving his third stint aboard the ISS, told the Russian newspaper that officials from Russia, the United States, and partner countries have been insisting that their cosmonauts and astronauts keep separate personal routines divided by nationality during their months-long stays, including such minor inconveniences as prohibiting the sharing of food and even toilet facilities. He said the prohibitions date back to 2003, after the loss of NASA's space shuttle Columbia, when the Russian space agency began charging its international partners for the resources used by their astronauts, and the other nations responded in kind.

"What is going on has an adverse effect on our work," Padalka noted, as reported in an article today from the Associated Press.

"Cosmonauts are above the ongoing squabble, no matter what officials decide," said Padalka. "We are grown-up, well-educated, and good-mannered people and can use our own brains to create [a] normal relationship. It's politicians and bureaucrats who can't reach agreement, not us, cosmonauts and astronauts."

Padalka cited a conflict over whether he could use the American exercise equipment during the current mission as an example.

"They told me: 'Yes, you can.' Then they said no," Padalka was quoted as saying. "Then they hold consultations, and they approve it again. And now, right before the flight, it turns out again that the answer is negative."

"They also recommend us to only use national toilets," he added.

Padalka also had a few choice words to say about Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, noting that the equipment the former Soviet Union contributed to the ISS was technologically inferior to that designed by the other national partners. He said that the Russian portion of the space station is "built on technologies dating back to the mid-1980s."

A spokesperson for Roscosmos declined to comment to the AP on the Padalka interview.

While the Russians have scrambled for funding for their space program in recent years, by offering visits to the ISS for cash to space tourists like Simonyi, for example, the U.S. space agency has not. So this could not explain why NASA was so stingy in refusing to let cosmonauts use its gym gear.

If countries like the United States are so picky about letting other space travelers touch their stuff, then Padalka has a legitimate gripe. And maybe it's time to mount a few more cameras inside the space station and turn what they record into a new TV series, which could generate tons of money for all concerned.

We could call it "The Biggest Losers in Outer Space."

Science Journalism Ethics: It takes a scientist

Andrew Maynard over at his 20/20 blog has been giving some pretty good lessons on science journalism lately. See here and here.

In the latter, Maynard relates how sometimes giving an expert perspective for an article can go bad and what comes out in printed form is just plain misleading. Maynard bravely takes responsibility for things going wrong in the piece he references.

But I think he is being too hard on himself, and at the same time a bit off the mark in his first piece, â''Blogging the demise of science journalismâ''. In this piece, in which he references Geoff Brumfielâ''s article in Nature, he seems to be arguing that we need journalists as opposed to scientists writing science news because they can provide a broader context.

I think it can be fairly argued that someone who had a passing familiarity with the subject they were writing onâ''say a scientistâ''would not have twisted the quote he references so that it contained a heap of misleading statements. Personally I would prefer to apply my own broader context just as long as I knew the information in the article was accurate.

In any case, Maynard offers a unique perspective on the subject being a scientist, a blogger and someone who regularly works with journalists. With all those balls in the air he hardly needs more to handle, but I think he should be teaching some classes at some of the science journalism schools that seem to have popped up everywhere over the last 20 years.

New York Renames Skyscraper 1 World Trade Center

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has decided to rename the future skyscraper being built on the site of the September 11 terrorist attack on New York City as 1 World Trade Center.

According to a report in the New York Daily News, the name Freedom Tower is out for the 1776-foot tall building that is expected to be completed in early 2011. The name 1 World Trade Center would more fully match the goal of the project, according to the Port Authority.

"As we market the building, we will insure that it is presented in the best possible way, and 1 World Trade Center is the address that we're using," said Port Authority (PA) Chairman Anthony Coscia. "It's the one that is easiest for people to identify with. And frankly, we've gotten a very interested and warm reception to it."

The new name should also send a strong message to those who are still alive who had any part in the despicable acts that leveled the original World Trade Center complex. And it could send an equally important message to Americans and their allies that the United States does not fear any possible attempts at retribution from its enemies.

New York City planners point out that, officially, the actual parcel of land the growing skyscraper sits on is 1 World Trade Center, according to its own maps, which record the property as a crime scene.

"This is a piece of real estate," said PA Executive Director Chris Ward. "It has an address. Legally, it is 1 World Trade Center."

That should go a long way to rebuilding the resolve of the American public.

The terrorists didn't hate us just for our freedom, they hated us for our trade with the world.

U.S. Government Rolls Out Plan to Invest in Energy Efficiency

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) today announced a strategy to invest US $3.2 billion in energy efficiency and conservation projects.

Vice President Joe Biden and Energy Secretary Steven Chu presided over a press conference in which they said the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant Program will provide funding for initiatives that focus on improving energy efficiency and reducing fossil fuel emissions at the local level. The plan will be financed by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Obama administration's new economic stimulus package.

The DOE said the grants will support energy audits and energy efficiency retrofits in residential and commercial buildings, the development and implementation of advanced building codes and inspections, and the creation of financial incentive programs for energy efficiency improvements.

The initiative will also direct funds to transportation programs that conserve energy, projects to reduce and capture methane and other greenhouse gas emissions from landfills, renewable energy installations on government buildings, energy efficient traffic signals and street lights, deployment of district heating and cooling systems, and other similar schemes.

"These investments will save taxpayer dollars and create jobs in communities around the country," said Biden. "Local leaders will have the flexibility in how they put these resources to work; but we will hold them accountable for making the investments quickly and wisely to spur the local economy and cut energy use."

To make sure the funding is used responsibly, the DOE intends to require grant recipients to report on the number of jobs maintained, energy saved, renewable energy capacity installed, greenhouse gas emissions reduced, and finances leveraged.

"The funding will be used for the cheapest, cleanest, and most reliable energy technologies we have â''- energy efficiency and conservation â''- which can be deployed immediately," said Chu. "The grants also empower local communities to make strategic investments to meet the nation's long-term clean energy and climate goals."

Nanotechnology in the UK

Once I gathered myself up off the floor from my fit of hysterical laughter, I thought I should comment on the source of my laughing, a press release for a new report on the status of nanotechnology in the UK.

The bit that had me doing belly laughs was the juxtaposition of the phrases â''in-depth analysisâ'' on the status of nanotechnology in the UK and â''99 pagesâ''. Okay, I suppose if you wrote a pretty dense piece just on the research and commercialized products, 99 pages would go a long way. But one look at the table of contents finally sent my giggling into uncontrollable laughter:

1 INTRODUCTION

1.1 NANOTECHNOLOGY IN EUROPE

1.2 NANOTECHNOLOGY IN ASIA-PACIFIC

1.3 NANOTECHNOLOGY IN NORTH AMERICA

1.4 NANOTECHNOLOGY IN CENTRAL AND SOUTH AMERICA

1.5 NANOTECHNOLOGY IN THE MIDDLE EAST AND AFRICA

I suppose sooner or later they will actually get around to giving an in-depth analysis of nanotech in the UK, but that may not be before page 79, leaving a scant 20 pages to sort it all out. I donâ''t know maybe itâ''s me, but I thought it was funny.

I also donâ''t know who wrote this report, but I have a theory that it may come from some UK-based outfit due to its insistence on the following argument: the â''UK has the world's first nanotechnology initiativeâ''. This thought reminds me of whenever I complain about the London Underground being cramped, without air conditioning and generally an unpleasant experience, I always hear back â''Yes, but it was the first in the world.â''

I would prefer the last in the world just as long as the mere thought of it doesnâ''t send shivers up my spine.

Different Messenger, Same Message for Nanotechnology Safety

It was reported today that the National Research Council has released a new book, Review of Federal Strategy for Nanotechnology-Related Environmental, Health, and Safety Research.

Apparently the NRC has discovered â''serious weaknesses in the government's plan for research on the potential health and environmental risks posed by nanomaterialsâ''. I guess Iâ''ll have to spend $32.75 to find out what those weaknesses might be. But one can safely assume that one of them may be that working out the toxicity of a particle based solely on its size is tough to do.

These reports come out every now and then (maybe more like a steady stream) from ever more substantial organizations behind each of them. But they all seem to arrive at the same conclusions that become with each repetition slightly more empty.

As TNTLog pointed out earlier this year, after reading a similar report from the Geneva-based International Risk Governance Council, "The report says the same as all the other â''riskâ'' reports since the first royal society one. Seems like there is nothing else to say!â''

I guess we know at this point not enough is known, we need to know more, more research needs to be done, more funding is needed to conduct the research. So could we now move on to the next part already?

Model Robot Takes to the Catwalk in Japan

The fashion world has a new face to envy. At five-foot-two, she may not measure up to her competition on the runway, but then she works for free and never complains about her diet, because she doesn't have one. She's a robot.

Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) demonstrated the new humanoid recently at a show during Tokyo's Fashion Week. The HRP-4C robot strutted her stuff alongside the world's most famous models, wearing a skintight silver and black outfit designed by her creators (which she actually wears all the time) that carries a price tag of US $2 million, according to a report from Reuters.

Her human counterparts have nothing to fear, though, from the upstart in their midst, as HRP-4C just doesn't have the elegant moves that they have down pat just yet. In fact, she's downright clumsy by comparison (see video).

"Our robot can't move elegantly like the real models that are here today," Shuji Kajita, director of humanoid robot engineering at AIST, told Reuters. "It'll take another 20 to 30 years of research to make that happen."

Even so, she's got a nice smile and an outgoing personality, enough so to charm an audience of cynical fashionistas. And that's real progress.

Advertisement

Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.

Advertisement
Load More