Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Brain: The Story of You by David Eagleman - A book review

From Incognito to Singularity!

In his earlier illuminating book ‘Incognito’, David Eagleman showed us our hidden selves and challenged us to think about ourselves differently. He continues in that direction in his new book ‘The Brain: The Story of you’ and visualizes the possibilities of the future of the brain  and in fact the future of our species.  The Singularity is a concept popularized by the well known futurist scientist Ray Kurzweil (refer his book ‘The Singularity is Near’ in 2005) where he envisioned a future where we will be able to leave our bodies and live in a digital world by uploading our brains into a computer system. Kurzweil was pretty much vague on the details  but Eagleman in this book shows us how challenging that can be.

With over 100 billion neurons and many trillions of connections among them, the complexity of the brain is unquestionable but understandable. However the fact that  ‘consciousness’ emerges from this is the amazing outcome that leaves us in awe. Kurzweil had argued that ‘consciousness’ is a rather natural outcome of a complex interconnected system, and in books like the ‘The Age of Spiritual machines’ it was assumed that soon computers and robots (and may be the Internet) would develop a consciousness.

But as we understand more about the biological nature of the brain and its learning system, we will start doubting whether an artificial system will ever develop  consciousness on its own. I don’t doubt that when technology is advanced enough we would be able to create a human like (or a human better) intelligence but I don’t  think a machine or AI system can naturally develop  consciousness if its creator (that is us) did not train it to. 

The best parts of David Eagleman’s book are where he explains (a) how the plasticity of the brain and its self learning ability to understand patterns can be leveraged in the future to provide different inputs to the brain (than the normal sensory inputs that we are born with) (b) how many other inputs that we don’t normally recognize influence our brain – a beautiful example is on how our emotions are influenced by the input  to our brain from our facial muscles when we witness an event (c) what will be our future – I leave this for you to read and find out!