Consciousness Blog 30th November 2016

Locked-In

Work carried out by a team of physicians and scientists at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, and reported in November at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, has demonstrated advances in the technology by which a 'locked-in' subject can communicate with the outside world. Electrodes placed onto the cortex beneath the skull and linked wirelessly to an external tablet computer allow the subject to select individual letters from an alphabetic array at the rate of more than one per minute. Previous devices using an infra-red camera to track eye movements were slower and less convenient, having to be operated in a specialized environment, while this new technique can be employed at home. Placement on the cortical matter rather than within it is said to be less intrusive and carry less risk of infection.

There have been numerous reports over the last few years of mental bio-electronic control of external devices, or bodily prostheses, employing a variety of different techniques to convert neural signals into motor commands, and the technology is advancing rapidly. Many crippled or paralyzed people are benefitting from such techniques. This new work is remarkable enough, but what it demonstrates most vividly is just how far away we are from being able to replicate the brain's neural mechanisms in a digital environment. Without impugning the expertise of researchers in this field, or the brilliant results they have unexpectedly been achieving, the fact of the matter is that we are at a most primitive level of attainment, whether in terms of implants that mirror and/or participate in mental functions, or in terms of the creation of neural digital assemblies outside the brain.

This may offer a degree of comfort to those who fear the imminent advent of artificially intelligent robots. When robots or AI 'brains' simulate human mental activity they are doing so by applying large amounts of computing power and highly intricate software to construct outcomes which parallel or even exceed the results of human thought processes only in certain highly circumscribed respects, as witness the inability of such 'personal digital assistants' as Siri, Cortana or Alexa to pass the Turing test in the estimation of their questioners, useful as they may be for booking restaurants. We are very far away from having the technical wherewithal to create a 'clone' of human intelligence. This not to say that a robotic super-intelligence will not or could not arise. It both can and will come to pass. It is just to say that such a moment is much farther away than many people seem to fear.

Read more in Chapter Eleven of Agent Human: Extending Consciousness Via Computers

 

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