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Archive for July, 2009

Dr. Fenwick weighs in on the “artificial brain”

Friday, July 31st, 2009
The recent media announcement that an artificial brain is 10 years away from being constructed is an exciting possibility. The neuroscience community has been waiting some time for a realistic brain to be designed and made. The importance of this brain project is that it uses software modules to mimic each brain cell. They also note that the software is extremely complex as:  for  each cell a laptop is required to do the processing, and hence the need for a supercomputer with the power of 10,000 laptops.
Does this mean that they are any closer to finding out how the brain may actually work and to building a realistic model?. To answer this question it should be split into two, , firstly are they trying to simulate consciousness, that is the subjective awareness that we all have in our everyday life, or are they trying to simulate some of the brain’s mechanical processes. As far as the first question goes there is as yet no understanding in the neuroscience community as to what consciousness actually is. One can say a lot about the correlates of consciousness for example what brain cells come into action during a certain experience or during a certain function but you cannot get from those brain correlates to consciousness itself. I thus feel that it’s highly unlikely even with an artificial brain of this complexity that we will get any closer to an understanding of consciousness.
Secondly will this new computer be able to mimic some of the functions of the brain? The answer to that must be yes as neuroscience already has a good understanding how many of the circuits work and how they can work together. It is thus highly likely that the new computer will throw up more answers in the domain of trying to understand brain mechanism.
The philosophical question what is consciousness is bound to remain. There  are essentially two main sets of theories, the first are the  materialistic ones which suggest that brain is in some way related only to matter, the second set of theories suggests that matter is not primary that consciousness is primary and the matter is dependent upon consciousness. There is a third possibility and that is that matter and consciousness together make up the brain as we understand it. Unfortunately without  a better understanding of what consciousness is. as we have very little empirical data, it is impossible  to choose between any of these philosophical theories.
Dr. Peter Fenwick

Human, Mammal, Frankenstein?

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

Prof. Markram et al discuss how an “artificial brain” might be less than 10 years away.  The Blue Brain project states that it could advance neuroscience and philosophy; I see how it would challenge humankind as to what would we do with a brain created from “scratch?” I mean, where are we going to put this thing? I cannot but think of this endeavor as a new version of Frankenstein! But wait, what happens if they put a human brain into a mammal? Will the mammal suddenly have moral instincts and the ability to rationalize? What I’d like to know is: will the creation of the artificial brain include research and insights that are coming from other sections of scientific communities? The “new brain” (the neocortex) of animals includes complex cognitive functions but does it include the parts of the brain that account for the emotional life of animals? On July 8, an article ran in the NY Times, “Watching Whales Watching Us,” by Charles Siebert.  Besides a pretty convincing story that lays the groundwork for whales having an intellectual and emotional life, doesn’t this give pause to what sort of complete artificial brain is being created? I will refer to the emotional and intellectual aspect of “being” as “consciousness” for simplicity sake; however, I understand that even “consciousness” needs to be better defined as more information is revealed on its nature (AWARE Study). Is the artificial brain going to include what I call “consciousness”? I must admit to being a long time follower of Penny Patterson and Koko the lowland gorilla. She taught Koko how to communicate using American Sign Language.  Koko often is able to communicate feelings – remember her sadness and grief when her kitten died? I remember the 1996 book and documentary, “When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals.”  In it, I watched elephants mourn their dead. Besides the whales, elephants and gorillas, what about our own human consciousness?  Are artificial brains going to incorporate consciousness? How can we create an artificial brain when we don’t yet know what consciousness is? If “consciousness” continues past the period of death (past brain or heart activity), what is The Blue Brain project creating? Hugh Fisher

An Artificial Brain – Science Fact or Science Fiction?

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

I was really surprised and intrigued to read the news on the BBC the other day – Professor Henry Markram, director of the Blue Brain Project, based in Lausanne, Switzerland believes that a detailed, functional artificial human brain can be built within the next 10 years! That is an incredible proposition!

Is the dawn of science fiction becoming science fact? If these claims are true, this could mean the end of misery for so many sufferers of devastating neurological diseases like MS, stroke and dementia. As he said during the TED Global conference held in Oxford last week a synthetic human brain would be of particular use in finding treatments for mental illnesses. Yes, of course this could help medical science whether it be to help those suffering with mental illnesses, neurological disorders, or both. But this “science fiction” turning to “science fact” really made me think of something else – What will this all really mean for people who may benefit from it?

A few years ago my mother passed away after years of suffering from a combination of Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia and Parkinson’s disease. I saw how these diseases ravaged her brain, turning an extremely intelligent, self-sufficient person into someone who could barely communicate (unable to speak to and understand others), overcome by socially inappropriate behaviors and irrational rages, unable to do basic things like eat, dress and go to the bathroom on her own.

Of course I wish she could have had an artificial brain and who knows maybe this potential miracle treatment would have saved her. But then again what would have happened to my sweet and kind mother’s personality? If her brain, barely functioning and destroyed by disease, had been replaced with this “artificial brain” would my mother, Sarah have come back the same person once this apparatus was working properly, or would she have become a completely new person who happened to be called Sarah or just a type of robot called “Sarah”? A sort of “iSarah” maybe?

This of course brings us back to the age old “mind-body problem” or the “problem of consciousness” that has baffled philosophers, scholars and now scientists for millennia. Scientists (at least those who care to think about it), these days are divided regarding this issue.  This “problem” concentrates on understanding how brain processes may also generate the complicated notion of the “self” — our thoughts and feelings, everything that makes each one of us into who we are. Many scientists seem to believe that the “self” cannot exist independently of the brain, while others believe that it is possible to think of the “self” as existing independently of the body. Conventional neuroscience though teaches us that all aspects of the “self” are simply products of the brain and the activity of its cells.

Getting back to my question, if the self arises from the electrochemical processes of the brain itself then we have a problem that I sincerely hope Professor Markam and his team have thought of. Lets think hypothetically that someone like my mother receives this artificial brain with a hope of cure, and in fact is miraculously cured of all neurological disorders. But then who would emerge from this miracle new brain? If conventional neuroscientific views are correct, then I would have to assume that it is unlikely the old Sarah would return, but maybe instead some computer-like being would take her place. If, however, the self actually exists independently of the physical body as some philosophers have claimed and hence the brain, the old Sarah would actually have to return once she received this artificial brain. At this point we don’t know of course!

How will we cope with the huge ethical dilemmas this sort of research poses? Well, I for one don’t have an answer, but I think the notion of an artificial brain has huge implications not only for medical treatment but also for the problem of consciousness, and I am fascinated to see what happens over the decades to come.  Good luck Professor Markram!

Katherine Lang

Consciousness

Sunday, July 26th, 2009

Like others I am interested in the possibility that consciousness remains after the death of the body.  But, if that should be the case then that same consciousness resides with me (or I reside in it) while in this body on earth.  How can I become more in tune with this part of myself while I’m alive?  Just wondering.

Funding Consciousness Research

Sunday, July 26th, 2009

In the video clip from the the 2008 Mind-Body conference at the U.N., Dr. Mario Beauregard comments on the problem of research funding for the field of Mind-Body questions.  Perhaps small donations from the many people who are interested in this area of research could make a significant contribution.  I challenge  others who are interested in the work of the Horizon Research Foundation to join me in making a modest donation.

Dealing with the loss of a loved one

Thursday, July 2nd, 2009

Today I read in the news that US actor Karl Malden, best known for his roles in films such as A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, has died at the age of 97.  Above all else, I personally remember him fondly for his role as Lt Mike Stone in the long-running TV series, The Streets of San Francisco. The news of Karl Malden’s passing away after a long illness, coupled with the news last week that two other famous Hollywood icons Michael Jackson and Farah Fawcett also passed away, struck a chord in me and reminded me of the strong and powerful emotions that my wife and I went through a few weeks ago after we lost Jack, my father in law to a long illness. When someone whom we have loved and admired leaves us for good, we are left with no choice other than to stop and think about our own mortality, fallibility and hopefully, humility in the face of life’s events. I experienced these feelings for the first time when I lost my father almost 10 years ago and again a few weeks ago, as I stood in front of a crowd of over one hundred people and described what Jack’s life had taught me. I explained: “His life reminded me of a story I had read in a book recently of a man who lived in a very dry arid part of the world and who had nothing at all. Everyday this man used to dig a stick into the ground looking for water until eventually he found some moisture at the end of his stick. He persevered and dug deeper and deeper until eventually he found some water. He took the little water he had found and used it to cultivate a little bit of the land. He persevered further and further until eventually he cultivated the whole region in which he lived and ensured a fulfilled life for himself, but also benefited all others who passed through, such that even after he had died people continued to benefit from the goodness of his work.” Jack was born in a very small village in Eastern Europe in 1929, but unfortunately, by the age of 12, the political upheavals that had affected Europe also affected his life – he was driven from his home with his family before eventually losing his mother, father and siblings in a concentration camp.  As the only survivor of the camp, he often described the brutal conditions that existed there. Interestingly though, he also described how even within those incredibly harsh conditions, in which their lives were infused with cruelty, there were also elements of goodness.  He recalled how some of the young German soldiers, who had also been forced into fighting the war and guarding the camps, used to try their best to leave extra rations of food for inmates like him. These were all done in secret as the soldiers were taking an enormous personal risk. Had they been caught aiding the inmates, the SS would have punished them severely. After the war, he arrived as an immigrant in the United States, where unlike today, he faced a backdrop of severe prejudice. He and people like him were not welcomed. At the age of 16, without any schooling or even any knowledge of English, he realized that he had to persevere and work hard in order to make something of his life.  He went on to work many difficult day jobs while studying at night and eventually, he went to college and became an accountant.  After much hard work, he climbed the corporate ladder and towards the later part of his working life, he became a chief financial officer of a large company. Looking back on his life, I realized that he had successfully climbed a mountain that surely was hundreds of times steeper than Mount Everest.  How many of us would have given up at the age of 16, arriving into a new land, scarred by the memories of war, without the support and love of our parents, without any money and without any education or even the ability to speak the language of the land.  He never gave up and he persevered, but what was wonderful about Jack was that whatever he worked for, he saved in order to provide for his family. He worked not just for himself, but also to provide for others. He wasn’t driven by the excesses that would have been available to anyone working in the corporate world. In fact, quite the opposite, he lived a very modest life. My wife told me that when she was growing up, there were times when her father had lost his job for many months at a time, but even under those conditions, the family never felt the effects, as he had saved sufficiently to provide for them. Looking back, the hardships he had endured early in his life had taught and prepared him how to survive in the hardest and harshest of environments – not only did it help him climb out of what seemed at one time to be an impossible situation, but also it taught him how to prepare for any difficult time in one’s life. His life also reminded me of what I had read in a book of maxims: “Only that which is durable and permanent deserves to be the object of our attention, for things of this world are perishable, and this is certain; riches, youth, honour, and all the pleasures of this life are ephemeral” That day as I stood talking to people about Jack’s life, I realized that life is indeed transient as are all the hardships and pleasures that go with it. When we look back on our lives, we see that what eventually remains are our good deeds – those things we have done to help others, as well as the lessons we have learnt through life’s hardships, which although hard to endure at the time, can eventually turn an ordinary stone into a beautiful gem of a human being. Until later, Dr. Sam Parnia Dr Sam Parnia MD, PhD – One of the world’s leading experts on the scientific study of death, the state of the human mind- brain, and near-death experiences, Dr. Parnia currently divides his time between hospitals in the United Kingdom and Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York, where he is a Fellow in Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine. He is the founder and director of the Human Consciousness ProjectSM at the University of Southampton through which he leads the AWARE study. Dr Parnia is also the author of numerous scientific articles as well as the popular science book What Happens When We Die. Links:

http://www.mindbodysymposium.com 

http://www.nourfoundation.com

http://www.umontreal.ca/english/

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