Sunday, August 22, 2010

Kurzweil, ignorant and apparently proud of it

A couple of days ago, PZ Myers wrote a piece called Ray Kurzweil does not understand the brain, in which he took on some claims that Ray Kurzweil had made about how close we were to reverse engineer the human brain. PZ's post was based upon the reporting of Kurzweil's speech at the Singularity Summit.

A few of the singularity groupies showed up in the comments to that post, and was throughout schooled by some of the commenters who actually understand biology and/or simulation and AIs.

This was all very interesting, and got some attention on the internet. Which is probably why Ray Kurzweil bothered to reply to PZs post. In the reply, Kurzweil complained about PZ basing his writing on reports from the summit, rather than being there himself (so what?), and claimed that PZ "completely mischaracterizes" his thesis.

Myers, who apparently based his second-hand comments on erroneous press reports (he wasn’t at my talk), goes on to claim that my thesis is that we will reverse-engineer the brain from the genome. This is not at all what I said in my presentation to the Singularity Summit. I explicitly said that our quest to understand the principles of operation of the brain is based on many types of studies — from detailed molecular studies of individual neurons, to scans of neural connection patterns, to studies of the function of neural clusters, and many other approaches. I did not present studying the genome as even part of the strategy for reverse-engineering the brain.

I mentioned the genome in a completely different context. I presented a number of arguments as to why the design of the brain is not as complex as some theorists have advocated. This is to respond to the notion that it would require trillions of lines of code to create a comparable system. The argument from the amount of information in the genome is one of several such arguments. It is not a proposed strategy for accomplishing reverse-engineering. It is an argument from information theory, which Myers obviously does not understand.

The amount of information in the genome (after lossless compression, which is feasible because of the massive redundancy in the genome) is about 50 million bytes (down from 800 million bytes in the uncompressed genome). It is true that the information in the genome goes through a complex route to create a brain, but the information in the genome constrains the amount of information in the brain prior to the brain’s interaction with its environment.

Two things.

1) PZ's post addressed Kurzweil's lack of understanding of the complexity of the brain. None of Kurzweil's objections addresses this. No matter whether Kurzweil believes that there are other paths to reverse engineer the brain, he still continues to claim that the genome contains all the necessary information to create the brain. PZ addresses this in a new post, Kurzweil still doesn't understand the brain.

2) I cannot begin to fathom the ignorance necessary to write "prior to the brain’s interaction with its environment."

Not only did Kurzweil write this, but he even underlined it.

Simply put, there is no brain prior to its interaction with its environment. The very development of the brain happens with continuous interaction with the environment - not only that, the development is highly dependent on the environment.

In other words, Kurzweil not only demonstrates a simplistic understanding of the brain (and indeed all biology), but he actually demonstrates an abyssal ignorance of these subjects.

And we are supposed to take him seriously? I don't think so.

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Blogger Gadfly said...

And what's this "lossless compression" nonsense? Does he think the human genome is like a digital photo, but one "fortunate" enough to have been "saved" as a TIF instead of as a JPG?

It's clear that, not only does Kurzweil not understand the brain, he doesn't understand developmental biology in general.

August 22, 2010 7:20 PM  

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