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The Code of the Mind


The problem of creating an artificial body keeps busy not only doctors, biochemical engineers and physiologists. Physicists, too, are contributing a great deal to this project. Their job concerns creating algorithms the nervous system work and the efforts of decoding the “code of the mind”. This became the subject of our conversation with Professor Vitaliy Lvovich Dunin-Barkovsky, PhD (Physics and Mathematics), honorary member of the Laboratory for Neuroinformatics of Sensory and Motor Systems, and Head of the Neuroinformatics Department of the Center for Optical and Neuronal Technologies at the Scientific Research Institute for System Analysis (Russian Academy of Sciences).

2045: We are currently surveying leading scientists regarding the perspectives for the creation of an artificial (or bio-artificial) body, as well as that of an artificial intelligence. Some say this might be possible to achieve as early as the year 2045. Vitaly, would you mind telling us your point of view regarding such a prognosis and what kind of contribution can mathematicians make to the creation of an artificial body?

Vitaliy Lvovich Dunin-Barkovsky: The idea of an artificial body came to me quite a long time ago, I even have a commercial project dedicated to that. I first published my thoughts on the subject in a compilation entitled “Problems of Neurocybernetics” (Materials of the 11th International Neurocybernetics Conference, Rostov on Don, pp. 8-13) in 1995. The paper started as follows, “At age five, I encountered death, and my Mum told me that if I behave I can live until I’m a million years old”. It looks like my childhood dream is not too far from reality today. The paper was called “A Project of Creating a System of Authentic Personality Modeling”. I even took this idea to the local bishop, hoping to come to a household agreement to research material psychic carriers. I recall starting with the words, “Actually, I’m an atheist…”. He replied, “Who cares, this is business”. We didn’t come to an agreement there and then, and decided to meet again later. But then he left, I left and our paths never crossed again.

When people speak of immortality, I usually quote Pushkin. He knew he would be immortal. And so he is. When I read “The Captain’s Daughter”, I feel him come alive within me. But there’s no need to become a genius to become immortal. We are already immortal. We have left deep traces in life, and these traces will stay forever, we simply don’t understand yet what it feels like. We need, like Lermontov, to fall asleep “but not that grave’s cold sleep” but so that “your life force dozing in my breast” can wake up now and again.

2045: And “gently with my breath to rise and fall…”

V.L.D-B.: I’ve been studying biophysics for all my life. My only task is to understand how the brain works, and to use this knowledge. With time, world interest in this problem is only growing. At the same time, I can see niches that are still unoccupied as well as promising. If minimal resources are invested in our field, the output may be enormous. We, our entire country, have fallen behind in a number of ways, but insofar as understanding the brain is concerned, we are not only on par with other countries but can even leave them behind. Theoretical thinking is Russia’s primary strength. However, scientists need help, and science needs investments.

2045: What exactly do you mean by “understanding” the brain?

V.L.D-B.: The science of neuroinformatics (computational neuroscience), the science that tries to understand the brain and theorize the way it functions. I recently went to the States and paid a visit to the main ‘guru’ of our profession – John Joseph Hopfield, the author of the celebrated neuromagnetics theory. We’ve known each other for many years, but this was the first time we got to talk thoroughly and without interruption for a couple of hours. One of the first things he said was, “I really can’t understand what young theorists are up to nowadays. It’s as if they were competing who could overcomplicate a problem the most. They keep proving some theorems or other, and nobody does anything worth doing. And what’s worth doing is to take specific functions of the brain and to try to understand them.”

It wasn’t until after our conversation, and after I’d perused Hopfield’s latest publications, that it dawned on me that in my own work from 1984 to 1995, I put a finger on an important element of the “construction of the brain” – namely, the format of representation of continuous variation in multineuronal systems. Currently, the same format (the so-called “bump attractors”) have been discovered experimentally in the hippocampus and in other brain structures. It is crucial that this format is highly efficient. Which is to say that it allows the computational power of neuronal systems to grow exponentially (and that’s fantastically fast) with the growth of the number of neurons. In other words, an increase in the number of neurons can bring about qualitative changes in the capacities of the brain. We can see now that bump attractors constitute one of “the brain’s secrets”. And it is pleasant to know, of course, that I was involved, however tangentially, in the discovery in this secret.

In general, it’s becoming more and more clear that there is a sort of a “code of the mind”, or a limited number of working principles that govern the nervous system and enable us to think. Some of these principles or mechanisms have already been identified. When all are identified, we will find out how the brain works.

2045: Would you mind telling us a little more about the “code of the mind”?

V.L.D-B.: There is a field called reverse engineering. Let’s say we captured a piece of equipment in a battle and now we’re trying to demount it to figure out how it works and how to reproduce it. This is precisely what several labs are currently trying to do with the brain. Most people understand this idea literally and try to take apart different neuron connections. This seems like an impossible task, but people still pursue it, and invest vast resources in it. They get some results, publish papers…

Now, I suggest a different path: forget about figuring out the contents of the entire nervous network, but rather look for the “code of the mind”, that is to say for the underlying principles behind neuronal systems (one of which, the bump attractors, has already been found). The number of such principles cannot be too high. The next step in reverse engineering would be to create a model, and following the model – a functioning example of a thinking “object” of the next (after human beings) generation.

2045: Ie, an artificial brain?

V.L.D-B.: An artificial mind. If the job is to be taken seriously, we can get a detailed model of a brain prototype within five years or so. And since many research areas concerned with the subject develop in parallel, it may well be that we can achieve these results even faster.

It’s a great stimulus to know that the chances are that nothing extra special has to be invented for us to understand the brain. Let me give you an example from an adjacent field. In the book devoted to the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the DNA spiral, James Watson writes, “On the 28th of February 1953, I was in a hurry to get to work, because the previous day I had cut out cardboard models of adenine, guanine, cytosine and tyrosine.” He was cutting out cardboard models of DNA fragments to “play with”, to try out different combinations. And then, when he aligned the A-T and G-C on the table they turned out to be of the same length and formed the neat steps of the spiral staircase that forms the DNA.

To find a mathematical proof of the equality of these steps would have been impossible! This fundamental biological principle did not give in to a complex mathematical explanation but to a childlike construction game. The bump attractors are the same way. It is clear now that they are an element of the “code of the mind”. Yet, in 1984 my first prototype of a bump attractor came out of a model made of paper and wires, without a computer. Now we can see some “candidates” for the missing principles, the missing elements of the “code of the mind”. There’s no question that in order to proceed any further, mathematical analysis is important, useful and necessary, and so is computational modeling. However, oftentimes the point of how real systems work is extremely simple and can be seized without mathematics. Pure mathematics can often carry more aesthetic beauty than actual meaning.

And it’s true, unfortunately, that even the great mathematicians and physicists are not always right. In October 1960, the academician Lev Davydovich Landau gave a talk at our department. He was at the apogee of his career and we looked up to him like to a god, and asked questions. I sent him a note, “Can a machine think?” And Landau replied, “I’ve never met a human being who could think, and here you’re talking “machines”! This is blatant folly and superstition so characteristic of our intelligentsia. What spiritism…” Even after that I heard physicists tell me time and again that artificial intelligence is a job for people who have no natural intelligence to boast of. This, to my mind, was and still is nothing but unfounded snobbery.

2045: Yan Korchmaryuk, a mathematician from Volgograd, came up with a theory entitled “settlerism”. It postulates “spy bugs” that enter the brain to read information.

V.L.D-B.: As Korchmaryuk writes on his website, “In 1996-98, I wrote a scientific-futurological paper…” It’s a matter of a “technological immortality”.

As I mentioned above, my paper on the exact same problem was published in 1995. An updated English version of the same paper came out in 2007 in the journal “Optical Memory and Neural Networks”.

A couple of months ago, I had the idea of using microelectronic markers to read information and transmit it to the neurons. This idea is very similar to Korchmaryuk’s “spy bugs”. The problem, of course, is not writing sci-fi fiction but to actually develop this technology.

2045: So, you think that it is possible to make a working model of an artificial mind within the next ten years?

V.L.D-B.: Precisely! I used to say this out of optimism, but now I say it out of informed optimism, proven and confirmed by facts.

2045: We are now discussing the most remote and the most fascinating part of the project of creating an artificial body. First of all, all artificial organs and tissues have to be created, and the research in this area is very intense right now. It is only when this is achieved, that we may, perhaps, be able to inscribe out consciousness on an artificial carrier and transfer it into this body…

V.L.D-B.: When future is concerned, the sequence of different sub-projects is a very dynamic thing. It can change. As they said in the Soviet Union, the priority is not creating things to consume, but creating the means of production. In the same way, what we need to create an artificial body is a good brain, an intellect. It may or may not be artificial. Reproducing organs is a very complex and expensive task, whereas work on artificial intelligence requires minimal resources and yields massive results.

2045: How do you envision the organization of this kind of work?

V.L.D-B.: Twenty positions would be enough. Five people could be found at once, looking for the others might take six months to a year.

After that, it’s simple enough: looking for information on the workings of the brain and trying to analyze it. It would be crucial to work together, as a team. Nowadays, the entire world tries to do things in isolation, to follow what I would call the Anglo-Saxon paradigm of competition. However, in this competitive way, people could never have made the atomic bomb (whether it is good or not). At that time, scientists worked together, despite the fact that there were two or three completely different methods of enriching uranium (centrifuge, diffusion etc.) – yet, all these methods were being developed in parallel, through the collaboration of the different teams. These were all so many branches of a single project.

Why do we need high tech at all? Because thanks to high tech, things that used to only be affordable to a handful of individuals become available to everybody. Take one example: only a handful of people could achieve immortality – Pushkin, Shakespeare, Alexander the Great… Now, with artificial intelligence, millions of Ivanovs, Johnsons, Lis, Singhs and so on will “live on forever”. More generally, we’ll be able to help all people, to find ways of improving the lives of every human being on Earth. Artificial intelligence is a supremely important problem of our time, it concerns everybody. As soon as we understand, how we work, we’ll understand also what we need. And this is a task of unparalleled importance for the society at large. 

Witali L.
Doctor of physics and mathematics, Head of the Department of Neuroinformatics at the Center for Optical Neural Technologies of the Scientific Research Institute for System Analysis of the Russian Academy of Sciences

' If the job is to be taken seriously, we can get a detailed model of a brain prototype within five years or so. And since many research areas concerned with the subject develop in parallel, it may well be that we can achieve these results even faster...'

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