I grew up in India when Science was a ‘cool’ thing there. I moved to North America in the 80’s to pursue a career in Biology and I was shocked to find science was not so glamorous in my new country and mostly visa students / new immigrants were going into graduate research positions. From what I have seen recently, most of those immigrants do not encourage their own children to go into science. Now, in India too, most high school students aspire to go into computer technology or business programs and sadly science is their last resort. How do you make science ‘cool’ again? Science Fiction can certainly be one of the ways to do this but stories that are too fantastic or can only happen hundreds or thousands of years from now may not teach science to students of today. Can we tell stories that can happen in their own life time by use of technologies that exist today or will be available very soon? I think being more realistic and current in science fiction is the best way to use sci-fi as an educational tool.
Many of you may feel that sci-fi books and movies in general stretch unproven concepts in science to such an extent that it is hard to suspend your belief and enjoy them. This is particularly true in neuroscience based science fiction. I am not a voracious reader of sci-fi, but from what I have read, I can say sci-fi books or movies never bother to explain the science or technology – whether it is current or futuristic – behind the concepts they throw around. From a commercial point of view, what they do may make sense and I am not totally against it. I just published a science fiction (Slaves to Neurons) in which I try to explain the current advances in the fields of brain simulation and nano technology and a robotics programmer’s attempt to see if machines can go through an emotional experience. I give the details of the experimental design and the technology that I foresee, will be around in forty or fifty years from now. Will this approach be a turn off for the readers? Are the readers only interested in fantastic, but absolutely unrealistic/unbelievable scenarios in sci-fi? I am sure there are a lot of sci-fi fans who are really interested in the science behind a story.
I was extremely happy and thrilled by the media reports last week on the push by Obama administration to fund a major project to elucidate a complete map of neuronal activity in the brain. This Brain Activity Mapping (BAM) will certainly help us understand the details of many of the functions of this most mysterious organ in our body. As it has been pointed out by several scientists, a complete map may still not explain everything about the brain. For instance, it may not tell us what consciousness is, but it will certainly help us design experiments to find answers to questions that until recently many thought would never be answered. This reminds of the 70s, when many scientists thought sequencing the genome would be impossible until two great molecular biologists, Sanger and Gilbert came up with some clever tricks to sequence pieces of DNA.
I believe, there is nothing in the known universe that is more complex and difficult to study than this three pound tissue inside our head. BAM has special significance to me since my book ‘Slaves To Neurons’ – a science fiction – is all about mapping the electrical pathways in the brain as we go through our daily activities. I have mentioned in several of my blogs and tweets that the technology I envisioned in my book would be a reality within forty to fifty years. The initiative for BAM will go a long way to make this prediction come true.
IBM has just reported on a project called ‘compass’. (http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2012/11/ibm-brain-simulation-compass.html) . This project tries to simulate the brain of macaque monkey, which has almost ten times more neurons than the human. This simulation runs on ninety-six powerful computers. Let us say, this simulated brain model acts and thinks like a biological brain. Of course, it would not know that it is just a simulation. It would probably think of itself as a real living thing and not something virtual. Would this simulation have a mind, consciousness or even emotions? I think this simulation study may very well lead to an answer to the question ‘what are we?’ I think this is a better question than ‘Who are we?’
On a related topic, scientists think they can now test whether the universe is nothing but a computer simulation (http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/sideshow/whoa-physicists-testing-see-universe-computer-simulation-224525825.html), like in the movie Matrix. If the universe is a simulation, everything in it is just a computer code. Needless to say, we are no different from the machines we create.
University of Waterloo researcher Chris Eliasmith and his team have built a software model of human brain (http://www.tgdaily.com/general-sciences-features/67819-artificial-brain-spaun-passes-iq-tests). This model, called SPAUN, can imitate human brain with a 2.5 million virtual neurons. The important thing to note from these studies is that SPAUN makes mistakes just like human do. It can remember the first and last item in a list better than the items in the middle, just like us. Computers do not make such mistakes. This model will certainly help neuroscience research and this approach is certainly valid but my question to other researchers who simply want to put a human brain inside a machine is this. Why build a machine that is flawed just like us? I believe the future machines should all be based on computation methods that are used in present day computers. This technology will eventually create machines that will be more powerful than the human brain, but will still be under human control because it is created by human. This is like a 500 kg elephant that is much more powerful than a 75 kg man but obeying his orders!!
Will be posting reports on recent developments in the fields of Neuroscience, Artificial Intelligence and Consciousness. My interests in these areas resulted in my first book, a science fiction titled ‘Slaves To Neurons‘ published in November 2012. I am sure you will find this book more than worth your time. Even if you have only casual interests in these fields, I would still recommend this book as it also deals with our emotions. If you have already read my book, I welcome your comments and feedback.