Thursday, November 19, 2009

Deep Thought, shallow mind

IBM announces a computer that simulates a cat's brain.

Well, not quite. What it says it's actually built is a neural network with as many neurons as a cat's cerebral cortex. That's quite a long way short of a cat's whole brain. And it works at least a hundred times slower than the real thing. And it takes truly ridiculous amounts of computing power and memory to do it - if you could somehow chain together every computer I've ever seen in my life, including various super-computers in my journalistic career, they wouldn't even be fit to read its keyboard.

The thing must play a mean game of chess.

Why a cat? Because neurologists have been playing with cats' brains for a very long time. I still remember reading an account in Scientific American of dream research on cats, over 30 years ago, and they've remained a popular experimental subject ever since. Maybe because they're so like humans - egotistical, arrogant and lazy. Anyway, the feline brain is extremely well mapped territory.

And of course it lends itself to all the obvious jokes about lasagne and mice and sleeping and walking on keyboards...

Which brings me to my point. (Yes, I've got one.)

If you build a brain without a body to put it in - what is it going to think about?

I don't know about you, but when I wake up in the morning the very first thing I think about is generally "does it feel like I've had enough hours asleep?" - if not, I'll start looking for clues (like light and noise levels) that might indicate that it's not, in fact, morning. If it's still night, I'll try to eliminate whatever discomfort caused me to wake up and then get back to sleep. If it is morning, then I'll try to make myself as comfortable as possible while I open curtains, drink tea, dress, breakfast, etc., etc...

Basically, the driving motivation of my thoughts at this point is my bodily comfort.

And that remains true for a lot of the day. My body needs things to eat, clothes to wear, a roof over its head and a chair under its bum, all of which it will go to considerable trouble to optimise. It contains, within it, the desires for chocolate, alcohol, sex, coffee, toilet paper and other good things. Take all those desires away, and what exactly would be left?

"This intellectual being/These thoughts that wander through eternity", as Milton puts it. But would those even exist, if it weren't for the deeper physical needs that give rise to them? Even the sense of boredom is caused by physical constraints - the physical inability to do what you want to, when you want to do it. In science fiction, the archetypal Brain In A Jar is usually obsessed with the simple goal of acquiring a body for itself. (Or - which is the same thing - the delusion that it already has one.)

But if it had no concept of what a body was, then what exactly would it think about?

If anyone from IBM is reading this, maybe they can answer me.


bahumbug said...

Do we have an alternative candidate for a useless use of cat award?

vet said...

bahumbug, I am so not getting into a punning war with you. Our last conversation had quite enough after-effects, even without that.