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The Relativistic Brain: How it works and why it cannot be simulated by a Turing machine Paperback – 9 April 2015
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If the thesis was that a simulated brain would immediately begin to diverge from the actual brain it is simulating, well and good, but the claim that therefore brains can't be simulated is a logical leap. Billiard balls can be simulated. Not predicted, simulated.
The second major strand of the argument is that electromagnetic fields are generated by neuronal activity, and these give rise to what are, to all intents and purposes, non-local effects. Therefore neural networks simulated on Turing machines can't replicate these effect. If the claim is that the current architecture of artificial neural networks fails to take this into account - well yes. But this is not a point of principle, rather a matter of implementation.
I can't tell you whether or not brains can actually be simulated in any useful way, but this book fails to convince me that they can't.
Finally, two scientists and authors provide a theoretical concept for stern resistance. Ronald Cicurel and Miguel Nicolelis provide in this small booklet a first comprehensive attempt to provide a theory of how the brain is structured but also why a digital computer is not equipped to replace functions of the brain. It is overall lucidly written without lacking scientific proof. A real gem of a book and a desperately needed attempt recapturing the uniqueness of our human brain and our human dignity.
Top international reviews
This is a highly thought provoking book (short, as typical for books, which are the result of intensive thinking/discussions), that I highly recommend specifically also to clinical neuroscientists/neurologists, who use analysis of cerebral electromagnetic signals (like EEG) in their daily professional life, because it is demonstrated that such signals may well be more than just epiphenomena.
Kaspar Schindler, MD, PhD, Prof. of Epileptology, Bern, CH
I found the book to be pretty heavy going at times and don't claim to understand all the details of why the authors believe that the unique intelligence and self awareness of the human mind will never be emulated by a Turing machine. I do believe however that AI enthusiasts need to get to grips with the arguments that the authors present here instead of merely taking it as a given that AI will inevitably emerge as soon as we have enough computing power. If the authors are correct and minds are not computible then no matter how much computing power and speed is available the mind will never be emulated by a Turing machine because it is not possible in principle, just as an infinite number of super fast automated abacuses could never appreciate beethoven.
If this sounds a bit vague as to how things might work in detail, it is, and it doesn’t get too much better in this respect. The role of the digital component (via the frequency spikes) in either thought, language, perception, whatever, is little explained for example, as well as other critical things I will note below. However the authors’ justification for the existence of these fields via emerging neural evidence (albeit still speculative) and the glimpse of a real alternative model of the brain emerging, is itself worth the read, as well as the several principles of brain function for which they argue (e.g., extreme context sensitivity). Also of great interest are the several chapters in the second part of the book, based on the neural view given, which are devoted to the question of whether the brain can be simulated by a digital computer, to comparisons to a Turing Machine, to implications of Gödel, and very important, to Turing’s “Oracle” machine concept as essential in a broader form of computation, the form that very possibly characterizes the brain, the entire brain being perhaps an O-machine. In the authors’ example, a protein (as a tiny O-machine) finds its optimal 3-D configuration – an intractable computational problem – in an instant by following the laws of physics in the analog domain. This entire discussion, juxtaposed, say, with something like Bostrom’s (Superintelligence, 2014) which blithely extols the future of Whole Brain Emulation via digital computer, makes the latter look very naïve. This is a must read discussion for those who have not encountered the O-machine concept of Turing and its deep significance for the nature of computation; it can be a shocking revelation re the actual power (or not) of standard Turing computation.
As to the “standard problem” in this review title: The authors argue for an “internal model” - say, of my kitchen, the table, my coffee cup and spoon stirring away – created/supported in the neural-generated space-time continuum. This is but a very weak attempt to solve Chalmers’ “hard problem” of consciousness, wherein we must explain how any neural or computer architecture explains the “qualia” of the perceived world – the silveriness of the spoon, the whiteness of the cup. This problem has been misleading, stated as it is only in terms of qualia. Even form is qualia – the stirring spoon, the squares on the tile floor. It is better understood as that of accounting, in general, for the image of the external world. There is nothing in the neural-chemical flows that looks like the kitchen with its table and coffee cup. Nor does it help to say that populations of these flows, creating EM fields, accounts for this. There is nothing about an EM field that can be made to look like a coffee cup. The authors appeal to “emergence” – the kitchen/cup “emerge” over these flows/fields - but this concept is at best a vague hope, heavily critiqued in the philosophical literature (even Yudkowsky [Rationality: From AI to Zombies, section 36], ridicules it). What is interesting though is that this EM field view sees the brain, effectively, as a very concrete device, as concrete, say, as an AC motor generating an EM field of force. It entails the brain as creating a constantly changing, constantly modulated, very concrete wave form, and this is now approaching the conception of the brain that Bergson (Matter and Memory, 1896) required to explain the problematic origin of our image the external world. Bergson had presciently envisioned the essence of holography fifty years before Gabor's discovery (unfortunately leaving his contemporaries puzzled as to his model), attributing a holographic property to the universe 85 years before Bohm (The Implicate Order, 1980). As opposed to Pribram, who later saw the brain simply as a "hologram," Bergson viewed the brain as creating, in effect, a constantly modulated, very concrete, reconstructive wave passing though this holographic field, a wave specific to a subset of the vast information in the field, the specified subset by this very process being now an image of the field – the table, cup and stirring spoon.
There is obviously more to this, but this gives an idea of what a concrete mechanism for the origin of the image of the external world might look like, as opposed to appeals to emergence and to unexplainable internal models (the latter also with myriad logical problems). To add another point of relation to the book, one will ponder exactly why the authors call their model the “Relativistic Brain,” other than on the fact that a space-time continuum is supposedly built (with internal model) and that there is global constraint (like the light velocity constraint in relativity?), via the brain’s total available energy, on the neural firing rates (or flow velocities). Yet, as Bergson noted, the image is specified at a scale of time (another, ungrasped aspect of “qualia”). A fly moving by the coffee cup is seen with his wings a-blur at normal scale. But the fly (and the cup) could have been seen as a cloud of whirling atoms, or, with a lesser change, as a stock still, motionless fly. That is, the subset of the holographic field, which has no particular scale, is specified at a scale of time. This must be a function of the brain’s very concrete dynamics, e.g., the chemical velocities underlying these neural flows (thus the EM waves). The “relativistic” aspect comes through then if one now considers introducing a catalyst into the brain, or a set of catalysts, which increase the energy available to the chemical reactions (changing the value of the global constraint), increasing the chemical velocities (and increasing the EM modulation frequencies): At sufficiently higher than normal velocities, we could expect the fly to now be specified as though heron-like, barely flapping his wings, i.e., we have a new “space-time partition.” Correlatively, as in relativity, we would now require invariance laws which hold across space-time partitions (just as d=vt or d’=vt’) to specify events, e.g., as per laws advocated by J. J. Gibson (The Perception of the Visual World, 1950).
All in all, the book, imo. is very interesting preview as to where we are perhaps going in our views of the brain, with essential, definitely to be considered critiques of the unrealistic views of AI and brain emulation.
Being as inexpensive (I paid somewhere around $2 - $3 for the Kindle edition) and short (I believe it's only 100 - 150 pages) as it is, I believe it is worth picking up and reading—especially if you are studying neuroscience in any capacity.
Especially the Gödelian information part, I am still amazed by this.
For me, it's not important that all the details of all your predictions are 100% faithfully god-correct, but the innovative vibe of reconciling the AI progress with the fundamental arguments of the nature and information theory!
Don't mind the critics, there will always be critics for big ideas.
Cheers, Miguel and Ronald! Excellent job.
Less humorous is the offensively stupid claims found in the appendix that "neurological and psychiatric disorders are manifestations of particular types of folding of the neuronal space-time continuum" and that these (all) disorders can be treated by fixing such folding patterns. Autism, too, they specifically mention, could be treated by "noninvasive transcranial electromagnetotherapy." Again, they've been working on this for 10 years. Why, then, have they been sitting on a potential treatment for Autism for 10 years without even trying it?
First of all, if the human mind is an emergent property of the brain that influences neural activity, it must use one of the four known physical forces: the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, the electromagnetic force, or gravity. The first two are confined to the atomic nucleus and gravity is just too weak to be relevant. So, as the authors propose, a mental space based on electromagnetic fields is the only logically possible choice. I am sure they are right about that.
Secondly, as I have argued in "Why We Feel", if natural selection favors any functional emergent mental property, it will, over generations, shape the neural structure responsible for that property. That is, selection for mental attributes will change the brains neural organization. If their theory is correct, the white matter pathways should reflect this organization.