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Intellectual property, new idea, psychology or brainstorm concept. Creativity, innovation and inspiration. Energy consumption. Light bulb on blackboard with thought bubble.

The Brain: Junkyard, Watch, or Antenna?

A warped genius reviews the options, as he seeks ultimate power - a tale

(TruMind serial, part # 2)

Flim Flam sought the secret to ultimate power. Equally an expert in ancient apocrypha and modern science, Flim left no stone unturned in his search. He had the resources. He was an early self -made millionaire in the stock market, having bought up the market in bottled water before anyone realized there was money to be made in selling water, Thus he was confident in his ability to crack any problem with science and logic.

Flim’s success in the stock market had convinced him that money could provide him with ultimate power. But, money itself is a fickle instrument because the government can change its value on a whim. The cryptocurrencies were not much better, what with wildly oscillating worth and the strong possibility that a few entities could control the entire currency. Throughout history, the one constant store of value has been gold. So Flim took up alchemy, in order to create his own personal supply of gold.

Although alchemy was widely held to be a pseudoscience, long discredited, Flim thought the critics had perhaps been too hasty. True, the ancient alchemists were unsuccessful but they did not have access to modern technology. Nor did they have a deep understanding of molecular chemistry. In fact, the table of chemical elements points to the fact that, with enough energy, it should be possible to change any sort of molecule into gold. Armed with that information, Flim dove deep into the study of science.

After many dead ends, through a process of deduction Flim realized that all forms of human power are ultimately controlled by the human mind. And if, trivially, the most powerful thing is the one that is in control, the human mind must be the most powerful thing. Thus, if Flim could harness the power of the mind, he would finally be able to create anything his heart could desire. Now he understood why the ancient alchemists ultimately sought to create a homunculus, a tiny human intelligence with great powers. The quest was very similar to the modern search for artificial intelligence.

Goethe’s Faust and the homunculus, 19th-century engraving

But, what is the mind? It seemed unlike anything else he had discovered in his many years of research. All other physical phenomena could be broken apart into their components, and their intricate workings unraveled and understood. So, what then is the mind made of? Flim’s best guess was that the mind is the brain.

At first, he envisioned the brain as a junkyard. As he learned in his biology class, the brain has been cobbled together through many millions of years of random trial and error, by mutating DNA sequences. If he created a mind by just sticking together whatever lay around, even if he succeeded quickly, he knew he’d end up with a haphazard piece of work with many mismatched parts that would not hang together well. As a result, the junkyard brain would occasionally work for some specific tasks but its output would not generally be reliable.

But, on reflection, his conclusion seemed a bit suspect. How could a very unreliable machine generate the vast complexity of the modern technological world? How could it derive the math and science that made his own endeavors so successful? Flim began to consider instead that perhaps the brain is not a junkyard, but an exquisitely assembled watch that can generate highly reliable information.

At this point, Flim hit another roadblock. Yes, a well-made watch does produce very reliable information, as the human mind does. Yet, a watch only generates one specific form of information. And the nature of the information it produces can easily be deduced from the watch’s components.

On the other hand, after centuries of researching the brain, it was still very unclear how to make the same sort of deduction about the information of the mind by examining the parts of the brain. The mind can imagine many marvelous ideas, like giant pink elephants orbiting Mars. But no matter how much a neuroscientist examines the brain, there are no elephants or planets within. The brain is not even pink.

Computational neuroscientists claimed that these elephants and planets are present in the brain as if they were stored in a computer. Examining all the bits in a computer will not tell us much about what the bits represent so we should not be surprised that examining all the bits of a brain does not tell us what the bits represent to the conscious mind. While on the face of it, their argument seemed persuasive to Flim, after a bit of thought he felt less convinced.

The fundamental problem with the explanation is that it does not explain where the elephants and planets are actually stored. The only reason the bits in the computer represent these concepts is that the mind interprets the images in a certain way. Without the mind’s interpretation, the computer’s representation of elephants and planets is equivalent to fancy photographs that, without the mind’s interpretation, signify nothing. So the concepts used for interpretation are still in the mind and not in the bits.

Flim recalled that removing parts of the brain can make people forget things. But even if particular bits of the brain represent elephants and planets, it is still the mind that is interpreting the bits as elephants and planets. So, the brain bits represent the concepts, but they are not the concepts themselves. In other words, the brain bits are like memos or notes to oneself to remember something but they are not the memories themselves.

So Flim realized that if the brain bits are just representations of concepts in the mind, reverse engineering the brain would not give him the power he sought. Just collecting all of Einstein’s notes would not allow him to capture and control Einstein’s mind. In the same way, if the brain is just a notebook, then reverse-engineering the brain is merely collecting someone’s notes.

If the brain didn’t contain the mind, then what else could the brain be? Flim thought of an analogy: the TV antenna. The brain seemed more like an antenna than a watch. While one could perfectly reproduce the output of a watch by analyzing the parts, that is not possible with an antenna. No matter how much one analyzes an antenna, the analysis will tell us nothing about the contents of the TV signal that it receives.

The antenna analogy seemed to match up with the state of neuroscience. Despite very intricate investigation of the brain, scientists were still no closer to reproducing the mind and its products than they were centuries ago. And given what Flim had learned about the ancient alchemists’ quest for the homunculus, it seemed as if the search for a way to create and control the mind had been going on for, perhaps, millennia or even longer.

Was there hope? Many technologies that have only been invented recently were preceded by millennia of research, for example, flight, modern medicine, and instantaneous global communication. But other technologies, such as reversing net entropy, generating free energy, and creating life from non-life have been ruled or considered impossible. So, it seemed to Flim that not every problem can be solved with enough effort and resources. Some problems are inherently unsolvable.

If the brain is an antenna instead of a watch, then it is impossible to recreate a human mind by reproducing a brain. At best, Flim could create an antenna, but he had no idea how to attach the antenna to a mind. And even if he could, there would be no way Flim could directly control the mind, the way he could control a watch. As with a TV antenna, Flim would only be able to turn the signal on and off and perhaps communicate back to the mind. In which case, there were already crowds of mind antennas walking around every day, which would be much easier to communicate with. Thus he would be putting a lot of effort into reinventing the wheel with no benefit.

Unless, Flim suddenly cackled to himself (!), he could enslave a mind! With this thought, his cackle broke into a booming, maniacal laugh. He began to dance around the living room until his neighbor banged on the wall and yelled for him to be quiet.

“Just you wait, you’ll be the first mind I trap!”, Flim thought gleefully to himself, “and why am I living in this apartment anyway? I’m a millionaire!” With such happy thoughts bouncing around his mind, Flim went to bed.

Editor’s notes:

The author wishes to thank Sergey Fukanchik for the ideas that inspired this story.

The first story in this series is Ghost in the Nuke—a tale. Watch for the next one, the third in the series of seven, coming this Saturday.

You may also enjoy: Always wear your safety glasses: A tale for our times by Russ White


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Note: There really is an asteroid out that may well contain a great deal of gold. What would happen if it were towed to Earth? See Cold huge chunks of asteroid gold wreck our economy? 16 Psyche’s gold illustrates how AI affects jobs. Not the way many people think…

Eric Holloway

Senior Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Eric Holloway is a Senior Fellow with the Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence, and holds a PhD in Electrical & Computer Engineering from Baylor University. A Captain in the United States Air Force, he served in the US and Afghanistan. He is the co-editor of Naturalism and Its Alternatives in Scientific Methodologies.

The Brain: Junkyard, Watch, or Antenna?