Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Why this crazy idea would be the last thing on my mind

It’s another decade, which means top experts have been blabbing about all the big changes that are going to happen in the next 10 years.

You’ll know the script: everyone working from home; giant screens on the walls of our living-rooms, yada-yada. This stuff has been predicted for a couple of decades now, and ain’t happening to any meaningful extent. Same with the pod-like hovering cars that just go where you tell them. All a dream.

Robots — that’s another one. By now, they were supposed to be vacuuming our hair, doing the dishes and bringing us dry martinis. Where are they? You will search every department in Dunnes in vain.

Now someone has gone one step further and said he’s going to create a human mind. A mind, mark you. Not just a mouldy old brain, which anyone could make, given enough pie-meat, Velcro and string. No, a mind wherein great thoughts arise. A mind where perhaps even a soul lurks, our authentic inner self, unsullied by the ghastly, real world and all its sordid moral compromises.

Professor Henry Markram reportedly believes he’ll be presenting one such artificially created mind to the world by 2018. I was not present when he supposedly uttered these words, and it’s possible he was speaking from an area below the waist. But that he is sincere in his plan seems clear.

Described as “a combination of Victorian gentleman scientist and New Age guru”, the good prof clocks into work every day by the shores of Lake Geneva and fiddles about with rats. They probably think it’s a great laugh — free food, central heating — until the prof removes their brains. This is where it all gets icky because, while it’s the mind the prof is after, he believes it has a physical base.

It’s a case of mind under matter. Working from the bottom up, as it were, Prof Markram believes there’s nothing mysterious, nor necessarily ethereal, about the mind. It’s all explicable physically by electrical impulses, which may be discovered and emulated by a computer. Once all the connections are in place, a sentient mind will spark into life, a mind capable of all the emotions that make life for us mere humans such a pain in the neck.

It could be sensitive. It could fear loneliness. It could even fall in love, leading also to the possibility that, if female, it could go in a huff and stop speaking to you for days at a time. This happened to a mate of mine over Christmas, just because he said his wife’s new dress made her look like Henry the Eighth.

If this all sounds bonkers to you, bear in mind the project is being funded by all the usual suspects, not least that European Union. Indeed, far from being bonkers, the project could even cure insanity. Think about it. Our whole political system could collapse.

But other top professors are sceptical of Prof Markram’s loopy project. They say, at best, all he could produce was an empty bucket that lay on the floor and gurgled. Mind you, a gurgling bucket would be a novelty. You could shift a few of these at Christmas, enabling some funders to have their contributions repaid.

The world’s eyes will be on the prof’s laboratory by Lake Geneva, but will eventually get bored and watch Strictly Come Dancing instead.

But he’ll keep beavering away with his rats, like a latter-day Dr Frankenstein.

We wish him well but have this message for worried readers: Never you mind about this sort of thing. Like floating pod-cars and everyone working from home, it ain’t going to happen.

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