Sunday, 13 July 2014

Some very interesting developments about my brain model

A few days ago I posted a comment on Pharyngula and duplicated it on this blog under the title

Filling the Black Hole in Brain Research

Burkhard Neidecker-Lutz commented in considerable detail and my reply is given below. It will be interesting to see how this develops.

Commenting on my comments #88 and #90 Burkhard Neidecker-Lutz #93 says
You may be surprised by what I can be interested in :-). And yes, curiosity is a very useful emotion to keep oneself motivated. But it is not even half what you need for doing science. So onto your approach.
I think we would both agree that there is no satisfactory published model of how electrical activity at the neuron level is converted to human intelligence.
Short summary: no, I would disagree (with lots of caveats).
Long version. Seriously long.
There is an awful amount of stuff packed into that sentence of yours. First the part where we agree.
There is electrical activity at the neuron level, plenty of wiring and connections and at the highest level we agree that the whole system exhibits a stunning number of behaviours we call “intelligent”.
If you mean by your statement that we do not have a concise, simple unifying theory on how you get from the former to the (ill-defined, let’s do that below) latter, then, yes, I agree.
I was talking very specifically about your last meaning – and your reference to the book by Jeff Hawkins On Intelligence is very helpful. I had not read it before, although I had picked up quite a few of the ideas from other sources. The following is my reaction, after a quick scan, and I will be re-reading his book in more detail over the next week or so. {See Comments on Jeff Hawkins' book "On Intelligence" for some highly critical comments.}

You and Jeff are looking at the same problem that I am looking at, but from a completely different viewpoint. Jeff is starting from the physical brain and asking how its components are constructed and how they work. I fully appreciate that some very detailed and sophisticated work has been done in this area.

My primary interest for more than 50 years is in communicating and processing information and I am asking the top down question – “How must neurons function in order that we think in the way we do?” What is important to me is the meaning of the information being processed and not the finer detail of the biological system that does the processing.

 Other researchers who has tried a top down approach have started by looking at natural language and there have been major disputes, for instance around the work of Chomsky, and they don’t seem to have reached anything like an agreed conclusion. Other researchers (at least in the 1970/80s) studied sophisticated logical puzzles of the type that amuse mathematics undergraduates and called it Artificial Intelligence. This period of research is now considered by many to have not been very fruitful.

My research started accidentally in 1967 after having worked with very complex manual and computer information processing systems. The first steps were made when I was examining the human interfacing problems of a working commercial system which priced orders for about 250,000 customers buying any of about 5,000 products. This lead to the idea of a “white box” computer which could work symbiotically with humans on large and open ended non-mathematical problems. In effect the system is a pattern recognition system rather than the rule based approach of the conventional “black box” computer.

What is clear to me is that Jeff’s model of what neurons can actually do, and my model of what they need to be able to do to handle complex real world information problems is very similar. If it is agreed that we are both modelling the same thing it means that in 1970 I actually had a crude working model of how humans process concepts (but not down to the neuron interface level). However that was the year I was declared redundant because the work was not compatible with the way my employer thought computers should be going.

I moved to a university and by 1988 I had a very much more powerful model, but was reluctant to start shouting “Eureka” because I knew I still had many issues to solve – and I am naturally a quiet backroom boy type of scientist who was not interested in being in the limelight. At that time I appeared to be close to a break-through with a working package being trial marketed and attracting rave  reviews, and a paper accepted in the top UK computing journal, However I was getting exhausted from banging my head against the computer establishment brick wall for years. At the same time a new head of department made it repeatedly very clear he thought I was grossly incompetent because I had not got any research money into the department in recent years.  (This was because for some years my research had been seriously disrupted by my daughter’s illness and eventual death.) Basically I folded and allowed myself to be declared redundant again (but this time with a pension) and I decided to abandoned academic life to do voluntary work helping the mentally ill.

Many years later and now very much an old age pensioner my son sensibly asked what he should do about the piles of papers (which include everything from the research project) should he find himself having to clear the house. Reviewing the options he mentioned the word “skip.” As a result I decided that I should look online to see what had happened since 1988 and realised that my research might still be of interest. I set up a blog and uploaded some of the key publications online. I also started to blog my ideas out loud and quickly realised that what I had been doing could be relevant to brain research. Comparatively recently I have worked out how CODIL (the symbolic assembly language of the “white box” computer I was working on) could be re-interpreted in a form that could work on a neural network, and I have also looked at the evolutionary implications of the model.

Clearly this string of comments is not the ideal place to discuss the matter, but if you are interested have a look at the above links and contact me through my blog.

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