Tuesday, November 1, 2016

A Brain Surgeon, IBM's Watson, and Buzz Lightyear Walk into a Bar…

"I gotta tell you… The life of the mind. There's no roadmap for that territory... and exploring it can be painful.”
John Turturro. Barton Fink.

“Here's how my brain works: It's stupidity followed by self-hatred and then further analysis. It's not a very efficient system of thought.”
             Louis C.K. Hilarious.

“To see something stationary, our brains have to scribble our eyes very subtly over its surface. Experiments have even proved that if you artificially stabilize an image on the retina with a combination of special contact lenses and microelectronics, the image will vanish.”
Sam Kean. The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery.

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of books on neuroscience, mental disorders, and how the brain works. I’m fascinated not just by the complexity of the human brain and its impressive reasoning capabilities but also man’s attempts to decipher how this powerful supercomputer actually functions, how it deals with trauma, how it heals and reprograms itself with no external manipulation.

There are many studies out there that have shown the amazing plasticity of the human brain - stories of people who lost large chunks of their brains due to birth defects or as a result of accidents or a lobotomy, yet somehow managed to live an almost normal life. The results are sometimes hard to believe but are meticulously researched and documented by scientists. The brain, in these cases, automatically rewires and reprograms itself and recovers even from catastrophic failures.

Neuroscientists have been carefully studying the brain and have identified specific regions that are responsible for many functions - say, language skills or vision or motor skills. I'm sure you've all seen those colored pictures of brains: This part over here controls your hearing, this part does logical reasoning, etc. They have even drilled holes in people's heads and poked and prodded those regions to show that they can manipulate specific functions: If I send an electric shock to this spot, you will taste liver and onions.

The results are, as expected, consistent in all people with a normal brain. The only problem is the last two words in that sentence: “normal brain”. Change the brain in any way, say through a birth defect, by performing a frontal lobotomy, or by removing a cancerous tumor, and the brain automatically repurposes other regions of itself to stand in and perform the particular function that used to be handled by the missing part. It's as if your laptop were to wake up one morning and say to itself: “Dammit, I see the software for the disk controller is missing. Let me just rewrite the graphics driver and repurpose this chunk of silicon from the network controller over there to perform storage operations instead!” Meanwhile, the rest of the system, including graphics and networking, continues to work with little or no degradation in functionality. Note that this is very different from a cluster of computers making forward progress in the case of node failure or network partitioning. It’s the equivalent of a single computer continuing to work properly even after you attack the CPU with a blunt instrument.

The literature is replete with incredible case studies and many books have been written on the topic. One of the most startling examples, in my opinion, is the recent publication of a scientific paper: Perfectly normal 24 year old Chinese woman complains of dizziness, X-Ray reveals her entire cerebellum (home to half the neurons in her brain and responsible for much of our motor activities as well as parts of language) is missing - apparently a genetic defect. Yet, for all practical purposes, she is a healthy adult woman and no one really noticed any problems over the past two and a half decades of her life. Her mother remembers that she started walking and talking a couple of years later than normal - which means her brain was busy reprogramming itself in those two years so other regions could pick up the responsibilities usually assigned to the cerebellum. The end result? Almost no externally visible degradation in performance, just a little dizziness and occasional vomiting. Unbelievable, yet true.

As you read about brain plasticity, you realize that any comparisons to the "artificial intelligence" of computers and new advances in “deep learning” algorithms is laughable. We can't even keep our simplistic computers and apps working with a dozen specialists (support people, operations people, etc) on-call round the clock; we have to throw away the hardware and the software every few years and start over again.

Computers becoming smarter than us soon? Don't make me laugh. Computers may be better (read: faster) than us in some respects but that is a superficial advantage at best. We have been reprogramming our brains for millions of years. Evolutionarily speaking, the computing industry is not even at the mammalian stage of development yet. It would be more apt to compare today's most powerful supercomputers to Darwin’s favorite barnacles than to a human brain. If I could talk to my computer, I’d remind it of Woody’s immortal words to Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story: “YOU ARE A TOY! … You are a child's play thing!”

The next time we get all proud of ourselves for the quality of our software, its robust error handling capabilities, or its (snicker) self-healing capabilities, we should remember the story of the software that runs us - non-stop for a hundred years, 99.9% defect free, with no need for reboots, no need for an “OS upgrade” or even “hardware” changes. And - oh yeah, it heals itself and reprograms itself around massive partial system failures, too.

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