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Simulator of a Living System


Can a human being live to be 300 years old? What is a “simulator of a living system”? And how does one model the brain? We posed these and other questions to Ph.D. physicist and mathematician Vladimir Yakhno, head of the Auto Vibration Laboratory at the Institute of Applied Physics, within the Russian Academy of Sciences.


2045: Mr. Yakhno, tell us: Has the foundation been laid to be able to create an artificial human body by 2045?

Mr. Vladimir Yakhno: It is certainly a worthy ambition and research goal to acquire knowledge of the mechanisms, not to mention to create the conditions, for extending human life span to several hundred years. There is already a wide array of prostheses being created for a range of vital human organs. The technology in this area will continue to develop.

As regards the creation of a completely artificial human body, I think that it’s a realistic possibility. Just don’t forget that the incredibly broad scope of that project will require a major intensification of scientific research and development in that area of study. When certain neurophysiologists propose connecting the brain to a cyborg, I want to believe that that is possible. But, in addition to the array of technical problems, it’s more important that we be ready to resolve the social and ethical issues.

The goal of work in my group is somewhat different: We are developing the architecture for and creating parts of a possible simulator of a living system. We are not copying the body but rather attempting to model the functional qualities of a living system that are linked to the transmission of information signals, to recognition, and to the comprehension of these signals’ role in the processes involved in controlling a living system. I believe that, in particular, understanding the rules in the hierarchy of control mechanisms for living systems will make it possible to build a foundation for the creation of artificial organs and imitation human bodies that work effectively.

2045: How complex a task is it to create a simulator of a living system?

V.Y.: A simulator of a living system is a formalized description, a programmed or technical manifestation of the known information-processing mechanisms that exist in the brain when perceiving and comprehending sensory signals and when activating the mechanisms of cognition, including emotions and complex forms of behavior. In simulators of living systems, you can reproduce various types of mechanisms of knowledge that existed or was acquired at an earlier time in formalized functional models. You can use them to model different possible functional states of the living systems being researched and to predict possible modes of behavior and the dynamics of reactions in various situations.

In taking on the real work of creating such simulators, you of course encounter some very complex problems. Despite there being many worthy ideas, you need task-oriented design solutions to implement them. This is challenging work. It is said that the Creator made the Earth in six days, but each day was likely regarded as a kind of stage. And each stage like this could consist of many hundreds, thousands or millions of our Earth years—I read about such an interpretation somewhere. And we now “brashly” make it our duty to assert that the current level of technological advancement in human society makes it possible to create an artificial human body.

In May 2011, we are planning a second conference by the name “Nonlinear Dynamics in Cognitive Research” at the Institute of Applied Physics in Nizhny Novgorod. The conference will focus on mapping out ways to develop simulators of living systems. Conference organizers include Konstantin Anokhin, who does research on memory mechanisms present on various organizational levels within living systems; Tatyana Chernigovskaya, a leading specialist in the field of neuroscience and psycholinguistics; Lev Stankevich, who is developing different types of humanoid robots as well as what is basically simulation of robot reasoning, of their collective behavior. . . . And there will also be many other leading specialists from various scientific centers in Russia. I am confident that there will be interesting presentations and fruitful discussions.

2045: We are launching a project to create a scientific center that will bring together scientists and specialists to work on the creation of an artificial human body by 2045. And the next step is to select concrete projects to work on and to find financing.

V.Y.: If you approach the people who run the government, you of course need to give them more than just ideas—you need to talk about specific programs with concrete goals aimed at improving specific areas of people’s lives. It’s very important to see and to demonstrate the practical applications of the work you’re proposing to do. For instance, you can propose to create methods and corresponding hardware that make it possible for people to learn better, to more quickly comprehend new things; or to develop devices that register the attributes and particularities of a concrete person’s functional state. You can use such devices to test how a person reacts to various therapies. This could be something that finds a use in the pharmaceutical industry or in medicine, as a way of testing, for instance, the effectiveness of a certain treatment. It’s important that there be a practical use, because otherwise potential investors will not see the point.

2045: Alexander Kaplan says that the brain practically does not age, and that if you provide brain tissue with the ideal environment, then it, unlike the rest of the body, is capable of living for 200-300 years. From that follows an incredible idea: A person controls his body, lives for a long time, but sooner or later his time comes to an end, at which point he becomes faced with a choice: into the grave, or, accordingly, into an artificial body that at that time will already be rather well made. What do you think about such a prospect?

V.Y.: It’s a prospect with many angles to it. Your question is closely linked to the issue of what every given person’s life goals are. Many volumes of essays are being written on this subject. It’s my sense that life is designed in such a way that those who live it properly will approach this transformation with a feeling of satisfaction at what they accomplished over the course of their lives. Their spiritual balance likely provides them with an understanding of how fully realized their plans were. It seems that if you live a balanced life you come to a level-headed understanding of the inevitability of its end in this particular body. Those who lived in the “wrong” way, not in accord with the laws of life; who were not able to find balance spiritually and see their plans through—they most likely will cling to their earthly lives. And how will the lives of those who live alongside or are dependent upon the “unbalanced” people turn out? Will this bring joy to society? There are many social and ethical issues here. Solutions must be found to these issues, because the course of development of science and technology will, as can be seen now, lead to the creation of artificial bodies of living beings.

2045: One hundred years ago, the average life span was 32-34 years. Now it’s around 70. But most people, for one reason or another, only acquire wisdom in old age. We are proposing to increase average human age by two to three times. You will have time to do what you once did not have time to do. That seems to me to sound rather humane. Do you think it will be technically feasible to achieve that by 2045?

V.Y.: I think that it is already technically feasible now to create simulators of living systems. There are technologies that have been developed in that area. Only in Russia is work in that area being sustained mostly by enthusiasm. For instance, in the U.S., sponsors of the “Virtual Human” program included many governmental organizations, such as military agencies, the FBI crisis center, DARPA, and so on (see Optical Engineering Reports, No. 169/January 1998). I suppose that no one particularly needs such technologies in Russia.

2045: What must be added to this body, whether artificial or biological? Some kind of special tool?

V.Y.: Typically, what a person wants is to feel comfortable doing his work. So, for those who want to perceive the world more realistically, installing additional sensory channels may help (for instance, sensing electromagnetic fields that fall outside the bounds of the visible spectrum) to evaluate what’s going on in the environment in which a person is living or working. It’s important also to have a sense of one’s own state, of one’s proximity to various critical limits.


2045: So you mean not just a technical diagnostic mechanism, like in a car, but a kind of psychological diagnostic function?

V.Y.: Indeed. The ability to understand and to be aware of one’s psychological state is very important for functioning effectively. In order to make that possible, simulators must be developed that are able to objectively evaluate any given person’s psychological state. However, in discussions of this topic at seminars, participants bring up the point that utterly unbalanced, power-hungry people always turn up who will use such a capability and the powers of such a technology for their own goals of manipulating other people.

In other words, at a center researching these topics, there simply must be a department that will produce predictions and evaluations of the negative possibilities for the manipulation of individuals or groups of people. And countermeasures must be developed accordingly that will be able to respond to such manipulative powers.

2045: Now a question regarding the structure and organization of the center that will bring together scientists to work on creating an artificial body.

There is the idea to divide up tasks according to interests. For example, we identify a topic, and then someone says, “I’m interested in working on this.” We then mark down that we have such and such a partner who has declared this to be his or her area of responsibility. Because of course one specialist will say to us, “Neurointerfaces are nonsense. I want to model the brain. That’s interesting to me; neurointerfaces sound boring.” And another will respond, “The brain?! How are you going to model it? It’s so complex!”

V.Y.: I would find it very interesting to model brain-like mechanisms that convert and process information signals. We have very promising results that will assist in creating a formal description of the states of living systems as hierarchies of recognizing systems, though we did demonstrate the efficacy of such approaches on the basis of various kinds of biometric recognition systems.

At conferences and discussions I describe the main ideas behind our approach to interested colleagues, specialists from various fields. It’s interesting to observe examples of the phenomenon of “cognitive blindness” occurring when talking with people. Apparently it’s a defense mechanism that allows you to conserve energy and not to take responsibility when faced with new data. Depending on their motives, people preserve the life impressions they hold most dear.


2045: It’s clearly easier to work out an agreement than to argue with each other—to say, “I’ll work on this, and you work on that.”

V.Y.: Of course. Excellent! Get people together so that they don’t come into conflict with each other, and use all the most advanced organizational technologies for the project, including web-based design tools. That is, really use all the tools necessary to increase the effectiveness of the process.

2045: It’s not our goal to make a complete artificial copy of the human body. For instance, scholar Sergei Varfolomeyev told us that he does work developing electrical power supply systems for cells. It’s clear that an artificial body does not need a pancreas, does not need blood in its current form, etc. We spoke about the fact that the brain is capable of living an additional 200 years in such a vessel. What do you think, is that possible?

V.Y.: There is a far-reaching problem in the understanding of information-processing mechanisms in the brain. A resolution to that problem, including by creating simulators of living systems, will make it possible to better understand who we, natural beings, really are. The creation of artificial emulators (prostheses) of individual human organs, when putting them together into a single organism, will require coordinating the physical nature of intercommunication signals and the working rhythms of all supposedly separate parts of the unified human simulator. In that case, the issue of the physical vessel in which brain processes can be simulated will hinge on the compatibility of technical implementation for individual organs. The ways in which originally independent technologies can function together is a whole separate topic for research.

But even when the technical issues are resolved, solutions to the ethical and social problems will need to be sought as well.


2045: Do you think that consciousness can be copied? Experience, memory and personality? And what about consciousness as the seat of identity? And, from a different angle, is it possible to create something adequate, similar, and capable of functioning in the same way—in such a way that you can recognize yourself just as we do now—but that is completely artificial?

V.Y.: I think it’s possible. In this area, it’s very important that there be means of removing various reactions and functional human states—through an encephalogram, of course, through a person’s actions, his stories. In other words, basically an electronic structure of your personality must take form. And a real person can interact and correct it. We have a basic idea of how to model basic notions about a concrete person’s experience.

He sees the structure of his personality, and on the basis of other people’s experience, it will be easier for him to understand in what way psychologists believe him to be unbalanced. And when we’re able to do that, as I see it, we will be able to enrich the learning process, the process of acquiring individual experience. Then there is my experience and there’s your experience, and specialists will be able to unite them. The procedure for creating a larger intellect should make it so that that intellect possesses great wisdom and spiritual balance.

There are already attempts being made to begin developing an “electronic copy” of a human.

2045: How is that possible? What are the possible trajectories for achieving such a thing? As far as I understand, this involves neuroinformatics?

V.Y.: I use models of functional systems in order to describe it. What’s the difference between a computer and a living system? Only that living systems have special subsystems for imitating incoming signals. In computers, all sensory signals are pictures. They’re coded in an attribute space. In technical language, all sensory signals are pictures, and there is a procedure for coding them—an algorithm that determines how to act more precisely in that attribute space in order to recognize a pattern. This is a manifestation of the subjective reality of a recognition system. Describing the variety of joint processes of coding and imitation of the outside signal makes it possible to introduce strict definitions and to interpret a large set, it would seem, of difficult-to-characterize “psychological modes” of behavior that that kind of system has.

2045: In 20 years’ time, how complex of behavior will you be able to model if, say, you were given the opportunity (some kind of large team, financing)? In other words, that of a snail, a beetle, a mouse, a 15-year-old kid? What prerequisites for this have already been achieved and which technologies and devices already exist?

V.Y.: We have already made significant progress in the development of recognition systems—for example, in the area of biometric identification of people. I envision the possibility of modeling the behavior of an adult person, of a specialist in a given field.

It’s like a video surveillance system with a description of the specific attributes of objects or of the possible risk situations in the area being watched. You can, of course, develop a “scientist”—a machine that specializes, for instance, in “finding and classifying structures of collective activity in models of distributed unbalanced environments”. That is an important field of research—all biological systems are described using those models. The field of activity of such a device can be set differently depending on the needs of any given customer.

We’ve also done work developing simulators of living systems designed for medical purposes.


2045: Do you think it will possible to do this within 20 years? Self-teaching systems will probably have to be made first, right?

V.Y.: Yes, the experience our group has researching and developing technologies makes me confident that it’s a realistic possibility to create such things. As regards models of mouse and snail behavior, that is somewhat outside my realm of expertise. However, when we model a range of rules for sensory signal processing, we rely on data pulled from experiments on mice and rats. At the same time, studying the behavior of an adult person, as a dynamic architecture of “recognition blocks”, seems to me to be more informative. I have my personal experience, and I can turn to the experience of others similar to me, ask about their subjective experience. That seems to me to be a more practical area of research. It’s difficult to model the behavior of a child, because that is in fact a significantly more complex process, with the unfolding of the transformations set up in him by the Creator. You said that an artificial intellect will grow on its own. For that, we must figure out how the “factory” that produces rational intellectual systems works. To start, we should still understand the architecture of and the elements necessary to control that end product—a rational system.

Other author's articles:


Professor Vladimir G.
Ph.D., Head of the Auto-wave Processes Group, Laboratory Chief at the Institute of Applied Physics (Russian Academy of Sciences)

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