The Promise and Dangers of Thinking Machines

robbieHenry Markram, director of the Blue Brain Project, told attendees at the TED Global conference, that his team could build a detailed, functional artificial human brain, within the next 10 years. Researchers in the Blue Brain Project have already simulated elements of a rat brain in a supercomputer, and have been working on simulating the functioning of the neocortical column of the human brain. Their work involves reverse engineering the functions of tens of thousands of neurons in the human brain, each neuron requiring the computing power equal to one notebook computer. With simulated neurons interacting simultaneously within a supercomputer, the researchers are able to accurately simulate the physical functioning of the brain. Whether or not a simulated brain will eventually think like a human, or perhaps better than a human, is difficult to predict , however the research is extremely valuable for finding treatments for mental illness.

While Markram addressed the audience in Oxford, other computer scientists met in California to debate whether to place limits on research “that might lead to loss of human control over computer-based systems.” Leading computer scientists, artificial intelligence researchers and roboticists are concerned over autonomous systems that could pose a threat to humans. Such systems include experimental medical systems that interact with patients, computer worms and viruses that have reached an intelligence level of cockroaches, robotic predator drones that have the ability to kill autonomously, and personal robots that are able to find a wall socket and plug themselves in to recharge. The researchers are determining what threats may soon emerge from autonomous systems gone amok or falling into the wrong hands, and what steps can be taken to address those threats.

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