Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Brain Storms - 2 - The Black Hole In Brain Research

The whole issue of how the brain works, and the origins of human intelligence, are matters of considerable interest, and most universities will have several very different departments which have staff researching some aspect of the area. In hospitals and medical research departments people study the effects of injuries and illnesses that effect the brain. Modern equipment can identify electrical signals and locate their sources. Computer Science Schools may have departments of Artificial Intelligence, while there is interest among psychologists, educationalists, linguists, biologists, evolutionists and many others. In each speciality there will be a mountain of publications, many of excellent scientific quality. It is quite clearly impossible for anyone to be fluent with the current research right across the board and there is so much narrow specialisation that researchers in one area may find it very difficult to understand some of the other specialities,.

So lets all stand back as far as we can and take an overall, and hopefully non-partisan, look.

While the amount of knowledge we have of the brain has increased enormously in recent years there is a problem. If we were working towards some kind of unified theory of the brain the aim would be to link all these different disciplines together in a central model. What we find in the middle is more like a large black hole with people from different disciplines kibbling round the edge. For example there is no clear route which links the neurons to language learning or the ability to play chess well. Particularly when making comparisons with animals, one is even uncertain what how the term “intelligence “ should be defined.

An analogy might help to identify the problem. An alien life form with a very different technology visits this planet and takes away a number of working personal computers, each actively running a different application. The aim to investigate the nature of the intelligence inside the boxes. They make enormous progress. They “kill” one or two and find the circuit board and the various components and study these in great detail. They design monitors which tell them which components are electrically active and examine each application in great detail. For instance they discover that the chess is a game – and they use their own technology to play the game and win.

Despite all this research they still do not understand the key to these boxes apparent intelligence. What they are missing is an understanding of the instruction set of the central processor and the way it interacts with the memory, and the way this allows information for each application to be mapped onto the memory.

I am suggesting the the “black hole” in brain research is equivalent to the one described in the analogy. We know that the brain's central processors must be neurons, working singly or in groups, and that memory must be held somewhere in the network of nerves. The brain somehow uses this arrangement to support a wide variety of tasks (often different in different people) as varied as supporting one or more spoken languages, playing chess, flying an aeroplane, earning a living or arguing with 100% conviction for (or against) the existence of a god.

The target of these Brain Storms is to explore the options for such a “brain central processor” and one option that will be examined will be to look at of an unconventional computer language called CODIL, which was designed to be human friendly and which can demonstrably support a wide range of applications. This suggests some features suggesting one possible model, but there may be others and you suggests are very welcome.

The next few Brain Storms posts will look at the evolution of Mankind and what it tells us about the evolution of man's self- named “intelligence” and the possible relation between human and animal “intelligence”. I will then describes a provisional target model for the Storm – and start looking at how far the CODIL model succeeds, and fails in other ways, to meet the target. Hopefully by this stage other people with have joined in with other ideas – so that together we can define a possible predictive model for more detailed examination.

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