Talking back

Talking back

A science blog, sans blague

Neuroquotes of the Month...Maybe the Year


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

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

Share this Article:


You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

Starting Thanksgiving

Enter code: HOLIDAY 2015
at checkout

Get 20% off now! >


Email this Article