Ray Kurzweil is an American author, computer scientist, inventor, futurist, and is a director of engineering at Google.
200 million years ago mammals evolved the neocortex. This allowed them to learn and think around problems, to develop new behaviour. Previous reptiles needed to ‘evolve’ new behaviour over thousands of years, but these early rodents could do so instantly. This helped mammals survive the cretaceous extinction event, and since then the neocortex has gotten larger and larger to enable high level thinking.
The brain is a series of ~300 million modules in hierarchies to work on patterns of data: to recognise, learn, implement a pattern. For example a series of modules might look for the crossbar part of an “A”, then a higher module would decide it is an “A”, then the word, sentence etc. It can also work in reverse, using context of higher levels (the rest of the word) to lower thresholds as if asking “I think it is: could this letter possibly be an A?”. This is similar to a Hierarchical Hidden Markov Model, being used in AI to understand language.
In the future hybrid thinking will evolve: combining human and computer thinking. Google will understand language more than just series of keywords, and could anticipate user problems and keep them up to date on research of interest to them. Ray also predicts that nanobots could interface with out neocortex and connect it to ‘the cloud’ – to massively expand our brainpower using an external computer network. This will expand our neocortex: and remember how powerful it was last time mammals developed their neocortex… This time we will not be restricted by the architecture of our heads – there could be no limit.
The history of the neocortex is one of the better descriptions I have heard. The models he describes are easy to understand for the layman and also useful enough to apply to reality.
His comments on the future seem a bit too sci-fi though. It isn’t that this won’t happen, but he doesn’t really describe how or why. Thoughts of the AI singularity and similar ideas have been knocking around human culture for 50 years, constantly just around the corner. We are no doubt closer now than before, but the nanobots and ‘brain extension’ he talks about are a long way away. Even if AI is ready for this advancement, medical understanding of the brain is still too far away to connect us into computers.