Posted: 22 Feb 2014 11:07 AM PST
At 2:30pm (eastern time) today, some of the world's preeminent psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers will discuss the biology of the mind. The discussion, which takes place at The Helix Center in New York, will focus on whether the very human concepts of the mind, consciousness, and self-awareness are merely a function of the mammalian brain's structure, or whether there's more to it. By the same measure, the researchers will discuss whether the mind is purely the reserve of humans, or whether it also exists further down the evolutionary scale (does a dog have a mind? how about a bird, or a crocodile?) These questions, of course, will then lead into another topic that's particularly close to our hearts at ExtremeTech: If the mind exists purely in the morphology (form, structure) of the brain, and doesn't contain some kind of weird, unquantifiable, magical quality, will we one day be able to engineer an artificial mind?
Biology of Mind is a roundtable discussion being held by The Helix Center, a relatively new foundation that is tasked with the "unhurried search for wisdom" through interdisciplinary investigation. "Philosophically, we stand against the trivialization of thought and the balkanization within and between the sciences and the arts." Most of this investigation seems to revolve around a series of roundtable discussions, where the Center puts a bunch of bright people in a room together, gives them a topic for discussion, and then sits back to enjoy whatever emerges. Fortunately for us, the discussions are webcast live on YouTube.
Among the roundtable participants are Gary Marcus, a fairly well-known writer, and professors John Krakauer, Ken Miller, David Rosenthal, and Matthew Stone. I don't think we've covered any of their work previously on ExtremeTech, but they're all fairly well qualified. While there are a couple of neuroscientists, none of them are specifically biologists, which might pose a bit of a stumbling block when trying to get bottom of whether the human concept of mind, of self, of soul, is purely evolutionary and biological.
While it's entirely possible that the Biology of Mind roundtable will stumble across the answer to this rather important question, it's more likely that they'll just cover the same ground that has been discussed for the last few years. This isn't to say that the discussion will be dull — especially if you're not up to speed on the latest and greatest advances in neuroscience and artificial intelligence — but the fact is, we still need to do a lot more research before we can answer these questions with any certainty. We are currently at the point where we have a pretty good understanding of how individual neurons operate — but we still have almost no clue about how the form of the brain, and its various, distinct regions, affect its functionality. If we could build an exact replica of the brain's millions of neurons and billions of synapses — the brain's connectome — some kind of consciousness might emerge… but creating that connectome is likely to be impossible for at least a few more years. Even then, given how neurons readily make and break connections, in ways that we don't yet understand, it's not just a case of creating an exact carbon copy of the brain — such an artificial brain would have to be flexible, malleable, and, well, alive.
The Biology of Mind roundtable discussion kicks off at 2:30pm eastern time today, and runs for a couple of hours. It will be broadcast live on YouTube (embedded above), but a recording will be available afterwards as well.
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