We will create conscious machines in the future

Interview with the Nobel Laureate Gerald Edelman.
Source: El Mundo Digital [1].

{mosimage} Gerald Edelman received the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1972, when he was 43. He discovered the structure of antibodies, a crucial finding for the study of multiple infectious diseases and the development of effective vaccines. Shortly after that, he lost interest in immunology and focused on one of the big questions: how the brain works?

In the last two decades Edelman has become one of the most respectable researchers in the field of neurology, and he has founded a research institute in San Diego where he leads a reduced team of young scientists whose goal is to solve the mystery of consciousness. This week Edelman has visited Valencia (Spain) to participate in Jaime I prizes as judge. The following is a transcription and translation of an interview with Gerald Edelman published in Spanish by elmundo.es:

Question: Why did you leave immunology for the exploration of mind?

Answer: Once I understood the workings of antibodies, let’s say that I relieved the intellectual itchiness that this research field had caused to me. Then, I got a new itchiness: I started to focus on how the brain works. My question was: how is it possible that the brain is able to perceive, classify the world in different categories, divide the world in tables, chairs, shapes and colors, etc.? Since then, I have focused on the development of a theory about the brain architecture. This is an extremely complex problem, and I am still engaged in it.

Question: To what extend in the human brain still a mystery?

Answer: Well, some things are very clear. Firstly, the brain is a product of evolution. Secondly, the brain does not work alone, in a vacuum, but is completely embedded in the body and the environment in with a person lives. Thirdly, even though each signal received by the brain from the world is unique, it is clear that common perception mechanism exist that allow us to share experiences as members of the same specie. Thanks to that, you and I can agree on the fact that this object is a table, and this other one a chair.

Question: Do you believe that it will be possible to create robots that replicate the working of the brain in the future?

Answer: This is just what we are doing in my lab. We are trying to create a conscious machine. In fact, we have already built devices whose performance is based on the structure of the brain. They look like robots, but I wouldn’t call them that way, because they don’t have an automatic programmed behavior, they have an artificial brain whose design in based on what we know about the human brain structure. This devices, even not being living entities, are able to perform some cognitive operations that imply the usage of memory.

Question: For instance?

Answer: They can learn by heart different paths to an object, and apply learning to get to the object by the shortest path. In fact, our devices have participated in robot soccer tournaments, and they have won all the matches because they are able to learn and adopt strategies. In sum, today we can say that we have managed to build devices that are able to do certain things by themselves; this is something that 10 years ago I myself would have said to be science fiction. Therefore, nowadays I would dare to say that, once we understand more about the structure of the brain, we will be able to build conscious machines in the future.

Question: The picture of a world inhabited by thinking humanoid is scary, don’t you think so?

Answer: Some people may be concerned about that, but I think this is a very important research line because we are going to learn a lot about how the brain works. These devices, replicating the states of consciousness, are going to allow us to explore in detail the neuronal structure. We can’t prohibit the research on nuclear fission due to the fact that it could be used to build a bomb. In the same way, it will be unacceptable to stop the research on consciousness because it could have negative application if it is managed by the wrong hands. Science never should be condemned to the obscurantism.

[1] El Mundo Digital.

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