23 – The Amazing Digital Brain

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Male Computational Neuroscientist: “This is going to be a long flight, eh? Ah, I see you have a name tag on. Are you by any chance heading to the conference on human behavior? 

Female Psychologist: “Why, yes.” 

Male: “Well, it’s nice to meet you! That’s also my destination! So, what do you do for a living?” 

Female: “I’m a clinical psychologist. And you?” 

Male: “I’m a computational neuroscientist, specializing in brain disorders.” 

Female:: “Interesting. I specialize in behavioral disorders. Sometimes I wonder if our fields are working on the same thing. What do you think?” 

Male: “Indeed they are! My ultimate goal is to show that they’re exactly the same. All brain functions can be reduced to computation, after all. With the advent of large datasets and faster processing speeds, the secrets of the mind are soon to be revealed!” 

Female: “Oh? How so?” 

Male: “Simple. By building complex mathematical models of neural networks using the new science of artificial intelligence! With our modern tools, we’re now able to simulate brain function and emergent behavior!” 

Female: “Artificial intelligence and neural networks are new? Weren’t they around back in the fifties? And weren’t researchers working on the same thing back then that you’re doing now?” 

Male: “Well, not exactly. Our models are much more sophisticated. Thanks to modern technology, we can measure brain functions with amazing accuracy!” 

Female: “Wow. That’s great! I have this one particular patient with a romantic attraction to chickens. A nice plump hen is irresistible to him. Unfortunately, he has a bad habit of acting out his desires, much to the chagrin of the local farmers. What do you make of that?” 

Male: “Hmm. Not sure anyone has modeled that particular behavior before. Sounds like his brain wiring is mixed up.” 

Female: “I wouldn’t know about that. Maybe he’s just going through a phase of some sort. At any rate, he’s really motivated to seek help with his compulsion. But, so far, my efforts at counseling have been unsuccessful. I even caught him glancing longingly at my cat.” 

Male: “Well, he obviously has a brain disorder. Rest assured that with the proper modeling, we’ll soon be able to determine what needs to get rewired and where. Problem solved!” 

Female: “Wow. That’s amazing! So, how do these models work exactly?” 

Male: “Well, we set up a digital model of the brain and run simulations on our supercomputer.” 

Female: “But isn’t the brain a complex, chaotic network that, in addition to digital signals, also employs analog modulation based on neurotransmitter chemicals of various concentrations? Isn’t predicting brain function similar to predicting the weather? I mean, if you can’t even predict the weather two weeks from now, how can you possibly hope to predict human behavior? Not to mention the challenge of deciding which human behavior is problematic. Who will decide what’s normal?”

Male: “No worries! All of human behavior can be replicated quite effectively with digital signals. Look at music, for example, which is an analog signal that can be modeled digitally. In addition, since neurons either fire completely or not at all, they’re perfect for a digital representation.” 

Female: “Ah. I see. So, you take the analog music of the brain and turn it into digital music? But it seems to me that the signals in the brain are not so clear cut like music is. I mean, how do you figure out which neurons are going to fire and when? And how is everything all connected?” 

Male: “Well, it’s all very complicated. Hard to explain without a lot of mathematics.” 

Female: “I’m not much of a math whiz, but I am pretty good at helping people with behavioral problems, and I’ve never seen a computational model of the brain that could help me, particularly with romantic fantasies about chickens.” 

Male: “Haha, well rest assured that we’ll soon be getting to the point where your job will be obsolete! Artificial Intelligence will perform many jobs faster and more efficiently, including yours.”

Female: “Gee, thanks for letting me know. Maybe I should polish up my job resume! But before I do, can you at least explain how you can program 100 billion neurons, 85 billion glial cells, and 125 trillion brain synapses, all of which are modulated by numerous hormones and neurotransmitter chemicals? Chemicals that can be present in varying amounts, and interact in extremely complex ways? Can you even accurately predict what one neuron will be doing from one moment to the next?”

Male: “Well, not yet, but we’re making great progress!”

Female: “Uh huh.”

Male: “And what about you? How are things going on your end? Last time I checked, there were over 50 different psychotherapy techniques, all with impressive sounding names: psychodynamics therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, rational emotive therapy, humanistic therapy, existential therapy… How do you decide which one is appropriate?” 

Female: “Well, it’s all very complicated. Hard to explain exactly. But we’re making great progress!” 

Male: “How long has Chicken Man been coming to you for therapy?” 

Female: “Twelve years.”

Male: “Twelve years?” 

Female: “With no end in sight. And how about you? How long have you guys been promising robots that will clean my dishes?” 

Male: “Oh, for at least 70 years. With no end in sight.”

Female: “Well, frankly, I’m not too sure about your models. If they’re so useful, I’d already be out of a job. Yet, business has never been better! Personally, if I were in your field of work, I probably would have given up by now.” 

Male: “Huh. I was thinking the same thing about your field.” 

Female: “So, what are we to do?” 

Male: “Hmm.. Pretend that we know what we’re doing, and hope nobody notices?” 

Female: “That works for me! After all, we humans have an infinite capacity to believe in a brighter future, no matter how many dumb things we’ve done in the past. As they say, hope springs eternal.”

Male: “Amen to that!” 

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