The Futurist › 2013 Issues of The Futurist › March-April 2013 (Vol. 47, No. 2) ›

How to Make a Mind

Subject(s): Artificial Intelligence Brain/Mind Sci/Tech
By Ray Kurzweil

Can nonbiological brains have real minds of their own? In this article, drawn from his latest book, futurist/inventor Ray Kurzweil describes the future of intelligence—artificial and otherwise.

The mammalian brain has a distinct aptitude not found in any other class of animal. We are capable of hierarchical thinking, of understanding a structure composed of diverse elements arranged in a pattern, representing that arrangement with a symbol, and then using that symbol as an element in a yet more elaborate configuration.

This capability takes place in a brain structure called the neocortex, which in humans has achieved a threshold of sophistication and capacity such that we are able to call these patterns ideas. We are capable of building ideas that are ever more complex. We call this vast array of recursively linked ideas knowledge. Only Homo sapiens have a knowledge base that itself evolves, grows exponentially, and is passed down from one generation to another.

We are now in a position to speed up the learning process by a factor of thousands or millions once again by migrating from biological to nonbiological intelligence. Once a digital neocortex learns a skill, it can transfer that know-how in minutes or even seconds. Ultimately we will create an artificial neocortex that has the full range and flexibility of its human counterpart.

Consider the benefits. Electronic circuits are millions of times faster than our biological circuits. At first we will have to devote all of this speed increase to compensating for the relative lack of parallelism in our computers. Parallelism is what gives our brains the ability to do so many different types of operations—walking, talking, reasoning—all at once, and perform these tasks so seamlessly that we live our lives blissfully unaware that they are occurring at all. The digital neocortex will be much faster than the biological variety and will only continue to increase in speed.

When we augment our own neocortex with a synthetic version, we won’t have to worry about how much additional neocortex can physically fit into our bodies and brains, as most of it will be in the cloud, like most of the computing we use today. We have about 300 million pattern recognizers in our biological neocortex. That’s as much as could be squeezed into our skulls even with the evolutionary innovation of a large forehead and with the neocortex taking about 80% of the available space. As soon as we start thinking in the cloud, there will be no natural limits—we will be able to use billions or trillions of pattern recognizers, basically whatever we need, and whatever the law of accelerating returns can provide at each point in time.

In order for a digital neocortex to learn a new skill, it will still require many iterations of education, just as a biological neocortex does. Once a single digital neocortex somewhere and at some time learns something, however, it can share that knowledge with every other digital neocortex without delay. We can each have our own private neocortex extenders in the cloud, just as we have our own private stores of personal data today.

Last but not least, we will be able to back up the digital portion of our intelligence. It is frightening to contemplate that none of the information contained in our neocortex is backed up today. There is, of course, one way in which we do back up some of the information in our brains: by writing it down. The ability to transfer at least some of our thinking to a medium that can outlast our biological bodies was a huge step forward, but a great deal of data in our brains continues to remain vulnerable.

Read more: How to Make a Mind | World Future Society.

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