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AI is becoming a marketing word and it’s a pity -II

C. elegans is a worm whose simple brain consists of 302 neurons. These neurons and theirs interconnections have been simulated through a basic neural network that shows the same types of reactions and learning capabilities of the natural one. Credit: TU Wien

The dream of creating an artificial brain, artificial in the sense that we are “manufacturing” it rather than mother Nature, is still there, intact. In these 60 years thousands and thousands of researchers and scientists have explored many avenues to fulfil the dream. They have teamed up with neurologists, biologists, mathematicians trying to convert a brain into a machine, into algorithms. The failure, so far, has been blamed on the insufficient understanding of the brain clockwork, although we do not know if there is such a clockwork in the brain.

Using simulation, huge processing power scientists (believe to) have been able to replicate the brain of a worm, Caenorhabditis elegans – c. elegans for friends, a nematode, to be precise, having 302 neurons. Nothing if you compare it to the hundred billion neurons (and trillions of synapses) making up a human brain. The simulation has shown that indeed the artificial nervous system reacts like the natural one, and like the natural one can learn (which implies it can remember).

However, as a few observers pointed out, the question if that simulated nervous system is also “feeling” like a worm remains unanswered.

Yet, answering this question would be the only way to know if what has been created is an artificial brain (although an extremely simple one) or just an automaton.

Someone, on the other hand, is claiming (notice that this is pure speculation) that C.elegans is not feeling to be a worm, that feeling is something that we, having a bigger brain, can have and we can be tempted to attribute our capability of “feeling” and of “self” to it. This is interesting (as an assumption) because it would imply that if we can simulate a C.elegans, then it will be just a matter of scaling up and eventually we will get an artificial brain –au pair with ours- that because of the size and complexity will “feel” like a human.

One might consider irrelevant this achievement, given the orders of magnitude (9 orders of magnitude to be precise) separating it from our brain “clockwork”. Yet, 9 orders of magnitude is roughly what separates today’s top of the line supercomputer from the first microprocessor chip. It took over 50 years to fill that gap but it was filled. Could we assume that in 50 years time technology will have progressed to the point that an artificial brain (simulation of a real brain structure) will be possible?

Opinions differ widely: from those saying that it will never be possible to the ones saying that we are on an accelerated evolution path so that it will indeed become possible sooner than 50 years. Also, it is pointed out that the parallel evolution in our understanding of the brain will fuel the “implementation” of an artificial brain in the next 20 years.

Leaving aside these opinions, most scientists and researchers have chosen a different tack to chase artificial intelligence, the one of creating intelligence without duplicating the clockwork of a natural brain.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.