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Neuroquotes of the Month…Maybe the Year

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Christof Koch

Christof Koch, a columnist for Scientific American MIND, a professor at the California Institute of Technology and the chief scientific officer for the Allen Institute for Brain Science, has the best characterization that I’ve ever seen of futurist Ray Kurzweil’s speculations about the imminent merger of mind with machine and the domination of cyborgs.

This is the kind of thing that should normally be confined to Tweetland, but Koch’s prose, from his review of  Kurzweil’s new book “How to Create a Mind” for the Feb. 15 Science, simply bursts out of the alphanumeric constraints of 140 characters.

Koch begins respectfully, noting that Kurzweil developed and commercialized optical character recognition, advanced music synthesizers  and speech recognition. But then the review gets to the book’s description of neuroscience. Here goes:

According to Kurzweil, the new brain is clever, learns flexibly and controls the primitive impulses of the old brain related to food, sex and aggression. His understanding of neuroanatomy is about as sophisticated as U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s understanding of international politics when he articulated his belief of a division of Europe into an Old and a New one during the run-up to the second Gulf War in 2003.

The richness continues:

Kurzweil’s knowledge of neuroscience is simply inadequate to the task…He mistakes the striatum for cortex and apical dendrites for axons, belies the cognitive contributions of the basal ganglia…

The exponential increase in both computing power and data about the brain—the enabler for the putative mind-machine meld postulated by Kurzweil—is an accurate characterization that belies a deep-seated misunderstanding of where neuroscience stands in its goal of eliciting a fundamental understanding of brain functioning. nbsp;

Indeed, the torrent of data begets the illusion of progress. While the data about the brain accumulate exponentially, our understanding increases sublinearly. Basic questions about cortical circuitry posed by future Nobel laureates David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel in a celebrated publication in 1962 remain unanswered 50 years later. Functional human brain imaging has yet to affect standard medical practice (the upcoming fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders does not even mention any functional magnetic resonance imaging diagnostic criteria).

And to end:

Brains are not assembled out of billions of identical LEGO blocks but out of hundreds of distinct nerve cell types. Each cell type has its own idiosyncratic morphology, signaling and active genes. And they are interconnected with elaborate wiring rules we only discern darkly. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, neuroscience is (perhaps) at the end of the beginning of the quest to understand our brain and mind.

A hundred forty letters and numbers are sometimes just not enough.

Image Source: Romanpoet

Gary Stix About the Author: Gary Stix, a senior editor, commissions, writes, and edits features, news articles and Web blogs for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. His area of coverage is neuroscience. He also has frequently been the issue or section editor for special issues or reports on topics ranging from nanotechnology to obesity. He has worked for more than 20 years at SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, following three years as a science journalist at IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism from New York University. With his wife, Miriam Lacob, he wrote a general primer on technology called Who Gives a Gigabyte? Follow on Twitter @@gstix1.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. zstansfi 5:32 pm 02/25/2013

    It’s rare to read a book review in Science where the target author is so completed lambasted. I remember thinking that the key piece in Koch’s critique is that bit about the torrent of data creating an illusion of progress. Nothing seems more true about our knowledge of the brain today than this. Take for example the massive growth of functional imaging data, and yet the validity of this data is still critically dependent upon often decades-old studies of brain damage or increasingly infrequent studies of primate cortex.

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  2. 2. Sare1380 4:24 pm 03/14/2013

    Ray Kurzweil posted the following on the Science website in response to the Koch review of his book:

    A major theme of my book is a criticism of Paul Allen’s thesis (as he articulated in an essay titled “The Singularity Isn’t Near” published in Technology Review magazine) that, essentially, the brain is too complicated to understand. For example, Allen writes that “every structure [in the brain] has been precisely shaped by millions of years of evolution to do a particular thing…. In the brain every individual structure and neural circuit has been individually refined by evolution and environmental factors.” I respond extensively to this and related points that Allen makes and devote an entire chapter to my response to Allen. I point out, for example, that Allen is ignoring the enormous redundancy in neural structures.

    In my view, it is thereby inappropriate for Science to assign a review of my book to someone who works directly for Allen and gets all of his funding from him. Of the many reviews of the eight books I have written, I cannot recall a comparable situation.

    Not surprisingly, Koch essentially repeats the arguments made by Allen. He doesn’t even acknowledge my response in the book to those arguments, which makes me wonder if he read these sections of the book. I’m not claiming that he would necessarily be convinced by what I wrote, but at least he would make reference to what I actually wrote.What Koch did read he did not appear to do so carefully, as he makes mistakes in characterizing what I wrote. For example, he writes that I am predicting that the “Singularity” (a point in time when computers are smarter than humans) is “a mere decade or two away,” whereas I have estimated that date as 2045.

    Koch writes that “Biology knows nothing of simplicity.” I don’t claim that the brain is simple, but merely that it represents a level of complexity that we are capable of understanding. After all, there are only about 50.
    million bytes of (compressed) information in the genome (a figure I derive in the book) and that describe the design of both the body and the brain. The assumptions and plans of the Brain Activity Map Project, recently announced by the White House, support my premise that we are capable of understanding the brain and that there is very rapid progress being made in the capabilities of brain scanning.

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