“Neur” future

By Brendan Frick


Time travel, space colonies, and cyborg super-villains are all concepts that the sci-fi industry has thrived on for decades. From Blade Runner, to Zenon: The Zequel, futuristic technology has wowed audiences with its mind-blowing action scenes and innovation. While this column could be filled with Buzzfeed-esque snippets about the sci-fi industry’s coolest ideas, I will only discuss one concept. It isn’t as intriguing as black holes. It isn’t as exciting as time travel. It will always be associated with The Notebook instead of The Terminator. This concept is neurological sentimentality.

Neurological sentimentality describes how sentiment and emotion are a result of neural networks. It suggests that the complex emotions underlying art and romanticism can be reduced to a computational circuit, a notion that is decidedly unsentimental.

This concept has been demonstrated in many recent sci-fi movies. In Her, Joaquin Phoenix’s character falls in love with a manufactured consciousness that exists only on his phone. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Jim Carrey’s and Kate Winslet’s characters experimentally erase their memories of each other following a failed relationship. In Transcendence, Johnny Depp’s character’s wife uploads his consciousness into a supercomputer after he dies. Each of these movies highlights how the abstract feelings and emotions commonly explored in movies – love, heartbreak, and romance – can be reduced to a sum of scientific computations.

My personal favorite movie, however, is Bicentennial Man, where Robin Williams plays an android that becomes sentient. The movie oversimplifies the process of encoding consciousness (it is accredited to a manufactory defect), the plot is overemotionally slow, and the script is laughably cheesy. In short, it is far from an Oscar winner. Yet, Bicentennial Man remains my favorite example of neurological sentimentality because of how the characters react to this phenomenon. When Robin Williams’ character becomes aware of his human thoughts and feelings, the manufacturer dismisses it as a mistake, the owner tells the android to go live like a human, and (SPOILER ALERT!) the owner’s granddaughter falls in love with the android!

Breaking down the relationship between neurons and complex emotion would take up an entire thesis, but the layers of abstraction between the electrical signals in neurons and our complex logic and emotions can be simplified by treating our brain like a computer. In this analogy, each neuron acts as a logic gate that takes an input electrical signal from other neurons and outputs a corresponding signal. Clusters of neurons form neural networks that work together to process simple computations. Individual regions integrate these functional neural networks to perform specific tasks. Some regions have fundamental responsibilities (e.g. auditory processing cells, memory cells, motor-control cells), and other regions have more integrative responsibilities (e.g. understanding language, emotional processing, risk-reward decision making). It’s important to note that each of the high order brain functions – thought, critical thinking, consciousness, etc. – is the integrative sum of many parts.

So on a daily basis our brain processes a wide an array of sensory input, memories, emotion, stress, thoughts, and much more. All this while, we remain functional beings (excluding finals week of course). In comparison, my computer (which the Best Buy salesman insisted was ‘state of the art’) struggles with Netflix. This is why it is unbelievable that the Bicentennial Man’s scientists could capture and encode emotion and consciousness into an android (by accident, at that!). However, when we think of this happening in reality, it seems improbable that such an event could occur. What’s amazing is that it really is, and researchers are on their way decoding the brain to replicate a similar result.

In the past few years, many projects aimed toward decoding the human brain have taken root. One example is the White House’s BRAIN initiative, a neurological corollary to the Human Genome Project, which provided a more comprehensive dynamic understanding of the human genetic composition.

The Human Brain Project is a joint European commission that aims to “gain profound insights into what makes us human.” It will try to do so using novel computing technologies to encode specific brain functions into a supercomputer that is capable of modeling neurological systems. Doing so will give us a computational model that will allow researchers to better understand the brain.

There are immediate medical benefits to understanding our brain. Diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease become much more treatable if we understand mechanistically how neural networks deteriorate. Mental disorders such as Bipolar disorder and schizophrenia can be understood and treated at a more fundamental level.

There are also the technological outcomes to consider. Think of the iPhone 23, which may be more in touch with your emotions than you are. Or consider a virtual vacation, induced by manipulating perception, which may become more popular for the annual family jaunt than Honolulu’s tropical beaches. Bluetooth may be replaced by telepathy. Blu-ray may be replaced by virtual reality systems that beam audiovisuals straight into our sensory cortices. Best of all, instead of a formal education, students could just get a year’s worth of knowledge in a single download!

But, what interests me the most is still neurological sentimentality. What happens to consciousness and emotion, when ‘ that which makes us human’ can be replicated in (and maybe even independently by) a computer? Decoding the human mind brings up issues that are beyond the scope of neuroscientists and computer programmers. It brings up questions, and possibly answers, to concepts of self, religion, morality, purpose of life; the questions that mid-life crisis fathers and angst-filled teenagers alike ponder every day.

“I think therefore I am.” It was an easy statement for Descartes to make in a very different past, but does it still hold true if he’s speaking for a chain of chemical reactions that can be replicated in a computer? I wouldn’t know; I’ve never taken a philosophy course. But some day in the near future, the gap between the physiological brain and the philosophical mind, neuronal networks and self-consciousness, may be closed. And then, we will finally have a tangible example for these questions.

But for now, I’d like to take the Bicentennial Man’s approach to neurological sentimentality – while it is impressive that thoughts, feelings, and emotions are an integration of complex interactions, what I appreciate most is the fact that I have them. And for now, at least, computers do not.

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