I start by asking whether or when it will be possible to map out... all the connections between [the brain's] 100 billion or so neurons. We’ll probably be able to achieve this mapping in the coming decades, but only for a dead and sectioned brain; the challenges for mapping out a living brain at sub-micron scales look very hard. Then we’ll ask some fundamental questions about what it means to simulate a brain. Simulating brains at the levels of neurons and synapses requires the input of phenomenological equations, whose parameters vary across the components of the brain and change with time, and are inaccessible to in-vivo experiment. Unlike artificial computers, there is no clean digital abstraction layer in the brain; given the biological history of nervous systems as evolved, rather than designed, systems, there’s no reason to expect one. The fundamental unit of biological information processing is the molecule, rather than any higher level structure like a neuron or a synapse; molecular level information processing evolved very early in the history of life. Living organisms sense their environment, they react to what they are sensing by changing the way they behave, and if they are able to, by changing the environment too. This kind of information processing, unsurprisingly, remains central to all organisms, humans included, and this means that a true simulation of the brain would need to be carried out at the molecular scale, rather than the cellular scale. The scale of the necessary simulation is out of reach of any currently foreseeable advance in computing power.As I said, Jones is offering up a mostly "technical" debunking of the kind that enthusiasts for techno-transcendental conceits decry the lack of in my own critiques. But Jones is far from denying that these technical discussions are embedded in rhetorical frames, narratives, metaphorizations, conceptual problematics from which they derive much of their apparent intelligibility and force even if such discursive operations are not his focus.
You will notice, for example, that even in his brief summary above the notion of "simulating brains" is figuring prominently. About this he declares earlier on:
I want to consider two questions about mind uploading, from my perspective as a scientist. I’m going to use as an operational definition of “uploading a mind” the requirement that we can carry out a computer simulation of the activity of the brain in question that is indistinguishable in its outputs from the brain itself. For this, we would need to be able to determine the state of an individual’s brain to sufficient accuracy that it would be possible to run a simulation that accurately predicted the future behaviour of that individual and would convince an external observer that it faithfully captured the individual’s identity. I’m entirely aware that this operational definition already glosses over some deep conceptual questions, but it’s a good concrete starting point. My first question is whether it will be possible to upload the mind of anyone reading this now. My answer to this is no, with a high degree of probability, given what we know now about how the brain works, what we can do now technologically, and what technological advances are likely in our lifetimes. My second question is whether it will ever be possible to upload a mind, or whether there is some point of principle that will always make this impossible. I’m obviously much less certain about this, but I remain sceptical.It's truly important that Jones insists such a discussion "glosses over some deep conceptual questions" but I wonder why this admission does not lead to a qualification of the predicate assertion, "it’s a good concrete starting point." To the extent that "uploading" is proffered by futurologists as a techno-immortalization scheme it isn't at all clear that even a successful "simulation" would satisfy the demands that invest their scheme. I flog the talking point that "you are not a picture of you" endlessly to make this point, but one might just as easily point out that nobody seriously entertains the substitution of one person by a longer-lived imposter as a viable life-extension method. And while I would agree that selfhood is substantiated in an ongoing way by observers, I think it is important to grasp that these observations have objective, but also subjective and inter-subjective dimensions none of which are adequate on their own and all of which supplement one another -- and also that these observations are not merely of "already existing" characteristics but of sociocultural scripts and norms through which selves are constructed/enacted in time. Uploading discussions tend to deploy radically impoverished understandings not only of selfhoods themselves but the terms of their substantiation. Again, Jones does not deny any of this, and he tends to be enthusiastically open to such considerations, but I wonder whether technical debunkings that circumvent such considerations at their point of departure don't end up smuggling in more of the reductionist nonsense he critiques as much as I do than he would like to do.
Another case in point, in Jones' truly welcome intervention into the work of metaphors in such discussions:
[T]o get anywhere in this discussion, we’re going to need to immunise ourselves against the way in which almost all popular discussion of neuroscience is carried out in metaphorical language. Metaphors used clearly and well are powerful aids to understanding, but when we take them too literally they can be badly misleading. It’s an interesting historical reflection that when computers were new and unfamiliar, the metaphorical traffic led from biological brains to electronic computers. Since computers were popularly described as “electronic brains”, it’s not surprising that biological metaphors like “memory” were quickly naturalised in the way computers were described. But now the metaphors go the other way, and we think about the brain as if it were a computer (I think the brain is a computer, by the way, but it’s a computer that’s so different to man-made ones, so plastic and mutable, so much immersed in and responsive to its environment, that comparisons with the computers we know about are bound to be misleading). So if what we are discussing is how easy or possible it will be to emulate the brain with a man-made computer, the fact that we are so accustomed to metaphorical descriptions of brains in terms of man-made computers will naturally bias us to positive answers.This is music to my ears, but I have to wonder if these considerations really go far enough. (I'm a rhetorician for whom figurative language is the end-all be-all, so a working scientist like Jones might fairly question whether I would ever be satisfied on this score.) A scholar like Katherine Hayles has done extensive historical research into the ways in which the metaphors Jones is talking about here actually formed information science and computer science disciplines from their beginnings, so creating the conceptual terrain on which computers would seem plausibly describable later as "electronic brains" in the first place, an abiding conceptual terrain eventuating later still in the more recent reductions of discursive and cultural dynamics to "memes" and "viralities" -- or critical interventions into them nonetheless as efforts at a kind of "immunization," for example. Jones' talk about how we have been trained to treat glib biological and informational identifications as neutrally descriptive reaches deeper even than he reveals: how else do we account for the paradoxical proposal of his parenthesis that the brain is properly identified as a computer, while at once the brain is disanalogous with any actual computer? These associations are, as Jones says, so deeply ingrained as to be "naturalized." For me, it is enormously interesting that minds have so often been metaphorized as prostheses -- before its figuration as computer the mind has been mirror, blank slate, distributed steam pipes -- and that new figures do not displace old ones even when they are at odds. Freud's steampunk mind of repressions, displacements, projections, outlets lives on in the discourse of many who have made the digital turn to the computational mind. Who knows how or why exactly?
I find nicely provocative Jones speculative proposal that "the origin of van der Waals forces, as a fluctuation force, in the quantum fluctuations of the vacuum electromagnetic field... could be connected to some fundamental unpredictability of the decisions made by a human mind" and I am pleased that he takes care to distinguish such a proposal from theories like that of Roger Penrose that "the brain is a quantum computer, in the sense that it exploits quantum coherence" (since, as he points out, it... [is] difficult to understand how sufficient coherence could be maintained in the warm and wet environment of the cell"). For me, it is not necessary to save an ontic indeterminism traditionally ascribed to human minds through such expedients, since I was convinced well over twenty years ago by Rorty's argument in "Non-Reductive Physicalism" (from Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth, Cambridge: 1991, pp. 114-115) that one can be quite "prepared to say that every event can be described in micro-structural terms" while at once conceding that "[f]or most interesting examples of X and Y (e.g., minds and bodies, tables and particles) there are lots of true sentences about X's in which 'Y' cannot be substituted for 'X' while preserving truth... This is because any tool which has been used for some time is likely to continue to have a use... a tool can be discarded... [but i]n such cases X-talk just fades away; not because someone has made a philosophical or scientific discovery that there are no X's... [nor] by 'linguistic analysis,' but, if at all, in everyday practice." I am cheerful about the prospect that the free will indispensable to my sense of selfhood may be a perspectival or discursive effect, but however poetically or scientifically potent its jettisoning might eventually become, dispensing with it would unquestionably be stupid and sociopathic for now rather than saying better the way the world is or speaking more in the language the universe prefers to be described in or any nonsense of the sort.
I doubt that saying so would go very far toward convincing Jones -- any more than most transhumanists, for that matter -- that my own preferred philosophical and rhetorical arguments are more clarifying than their preferred technical skirmishing over the state-of-the-art and projected technodevelopmental timelines. But, again, I do worry that accepting enough figurative (rhetorical) and conceptual (philosophical) assumptions to have mutually intelligible "technical" discussions with techno-transcendentalists, especially when there really is no need to do so, simply concedes too much ground to them for resulting debunkery at its best to do much good -- they can always respond, after all, with minute nonthreatening qualifications or terminological shifts that leave you debating angels on pinheads at the level of detail interminably.
I am quite sure Jones is alive to this very worry, as he concludes with a practical consideration that looms large in my critiques of the futurologists as well:
[I]deas like mind uploading are not part of the scientific mainstream, but there is a danger that they can still end up distorting scientific priorities. Popular science books, TED talks and the like flirt around such ideas and give them currency... that influences -- and distorts -- the way resources are allocated between different scientific fields. Scientists doing computational neuroscience don’t themselves have to claim that their work will lead to mind uploading to benefit from an environment in which such claims are entertained by people like Ray Kurzweil, with a wide readership... I think computational neuroscience will lead to some fascinating new science, but you could certainly question the proportionality of the resource it will receive compared to, say, more experimental work to understand the causes of neurodegenerative diseases.As I point out above, the effort critically to address techno-transcendental formulations on something like their own terms can smuggle prejudicial and reductive assumptions, frames, and metaphorizations into the discourse of even their critics in ways that circumscribe deliberation on these questions and so set the stage for the skewed public policy language and funding priorities and regulatory affordances that Jones points to here.
As a demonstration of how easily this can happen, notice that when Jones offhandedly declares that "[i]t’s unquestionably true, of course, that improvements in public health, typical lifestyles and medical techniques have led to year-on-year increases in life expectancy," the inevitable significance with which techno-transcendentalists freight such claims remains the furthest thing imaginable from an "unquestionable tru[th]" (Jones declares it "hollow" just a few sentences later) and yet the faith-based futurological frame itself remains in force even as he proceeds with his case: Needless to say (or it should be), improvements in prenatal care, childhood nutrition and disease treatment can yield year-on-year increases in life expectancy without year-on-year increases in life expectancy for people over the age of sixty-five, for example, and even if improvements in the treatment of heart disease and a few other chronic health conditions of older age yield some improvement for that cohort as well, this can and does remain compatible with absolute stasis of human longevity at its historical upper bound even if presently intractable neurodegenerative diseases are ameliorated, thus bedeviling altogether the happy talk of techno-immortalists pretending actuarial arrows on charts are rocketing irresistibly toward 150 year lifespans even in the absence of their handwaving about nanobotic repair swarms and angelic mindclone uploads. It is not an easy thing to address a critique to futurologists on terms they will not dismiss as hate speech or relativistic humanities mush and yet continue to speak sense at all. Richard Jones continues to make the effort to do so -- and succeeds far better than I do at that -- and for that I am full of admiration and gratitude, even if I devote my energies in response to his efforts to sounding warnings anyway.