Of the myriad conceptions of robots in the future who are able to experience emotions, many of them share one trait in common: robots and synthetic people are smart, but not quite human. Professor Henry Markram of Oxford University is setting out to set that myth to rest forever by creating the first fully functional human synthetic brain by the year 2018.
The announcement comes shortly after the SyNAPSE project had been announced to have created a computer as intelligent as a cat’s brain. The SyNAPSE computer project first developed a computer with the mental capacity of an insect, then a rat, and finally a cat. Thus far it is considered to be the most “intelligent” computer in existence. Of course it is still only a fraction of what Professor Markram is proposing to build.
The project of course has created quite a stir, and no small amount of contention between SyNAPSE and Markram’s own endeavor as Markram says the claims made by SyNAPSE are entirely too ambitious and unrealistic. He says that to create a brain will require a massive amount of work in every aspect of the computer creation process, and that the SyNAPSE computer is merely a computer simulation of a brain rather than an actual thinking electronic collection of grey matter. What Markram proposes is far more extreme, from the looks of it, than any computer creation process we have ever seen before.
His lab is one of the most dazzlingly advanced places anyone has ever seen. There are machines that one could only imagine do complex calculations and intricate manipulations unbelievably complex. There is also a sort of “wet-works” where an elaborate machine is connected to a rat brain by a dozen or so microscopically thin glass spokes which peel away strands of the brain so they can be analyzed by the computer and replicated. The analyzed model is then translated into a computer simulation which can then be saved and turned into a computer simulation later. Of course Markram’s ultimate goal isn’t to create a rat brain, but rather a human brain which will prove to be far more complex and time consuming. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of logistical problems to make this project possible, but Markram is very confident that he will succeed.
If life is created artificially, it means many philosophical questions will arise in the future. What does it mean to be human? What rights do artificial brains have? What part of the artificial mind makes it simply a highly functional machine and not quite human? And they’re questions that are going to sneak up on us. The real question becomes, would a computer simulation of human consciousness that was perfect in every way truly be able to hold up to the most intense scrutiny? Or would a facsimile of a human brain in an almost human body prove to be an unnerving “not quite human” example of the uncanny valley? Will science perfect human computers eventually? Will they be small enough to fit into robotic bodies? If so, a world of humanoid cyborgs may await us in the near future. And it may begin around 2018.