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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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« Lilly's Gamma Secretase Inhibitor for Alzheimer's: Worse Than Nothing | Main | Not The End. Not At All »

August 18, 2010

Reverse-Engineering the Human Brain? Really?

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Posted by Derek

News like today's gamma-secretase failure makes me want to come down even harder on stuff like this. Ray Kurzweil, whom I've written about before, seems to be making ever-more-optimistic predictions with ever-more-shortened timelines. This time, he's saying that reverse-engineering the human brain may be about a decade away.

I hope he's been misquoted, or that I'm not understanding him correctly. But some of his other statements from this same talk make me wonder:

Here's how that math works, Kurzweil explains: The design of the brain is in the genome. The human genome has three billion base pairs or six billion bits, which is about 800 million bytes before compression, he says. Eliminating redundancies and applying loss-less compression, that information can be compressed into about 50 million bytes, according to Kurzweil.

About half of that is the brain, which comes down to 25 million bytes, or a million lines of code.

This is hand-waving, and at a speed compatible with powered flight. It would be much less of a leap to say that the Oxford English Dictionary and a grammar textbook are sufficient to write the plays that Shakespeare didn't get around to. And while I don't believe that the brain is a designed artifact like The Tempest (or Tempest II: The Revenge of Caliban), I do most certainly believe that it is an object whose details will keep us busy for more than ten years.

Saying that its entire design is in the genome is deeply silly, mistaken, and misleading. The information in the genome takes advantage of so much downstream processing and complexity in a way that no computer program ever has, and that makes comparing it to lines of code laughable. I mean, lines of code have basically one level of reality to them: they're instructions to deal with data. But the genomic code is a set of instructions to make another set of instructions (RNA), which tells how to make another even more complex pile of multifunctional tools (proteins), which go on to do a bewildering variety of other things. And each of these can feed back on themselves, co-operate with and modulate the others in real time, and so on. Billions of years of relentless pressure (work well, or die) have shaped every intricate detail. The result makes the most complex human designs look like toys.

So here I am, absolutely stunned and delighted when I can make tiny bits of this machinery alter their course in a way that doesn't make the rest of it fall to pieces - a feat that takes years of unrelenting labor and hundreds of millions of dollars. And Ray Kurzweil is telling me that it's all just code. And not that much code, either. Have it broken down soon we will, no sweat. Sure.

I see that PZ Myers has come to the same conclusion. I don't see how anyone who's ever worked in molecular biology, physiology, cell biology, or medicinal chemistry could fail to, honestly. . .

Comments (37) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Biological News | The Central Nervous System


1. gr on August 18, 2010 12:49 PM writes...

Kurtzweil just gets worse and worse. It was disturbing enough when he limited it to flirting onstage at TED with a chat-bot duct taped to a cheezy 3D rendering of a woman and babbling about the Singularity.

Now it seems like he's figured out that he can be even lazier and still get the press to talk to him.

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2. Sili on August 18, 2010 1:02 PM writes...

Kurtzweil is getting older and more scared of death. (As nicely summarised by SMBC recently.)

Prepare to sprung upon by the believers in the Geek Rapture, though.

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3. Zsolt Zsoldos on August 18, 2010 1:03 PM writes...

Since you mention the response article by PZ Myers, it would be also prudent to pay attention to the 3rd comment on that article, which says in short (for detailed explanation of this statement look at the PZ Myers article linked and scroll down to comments):

"Yes, the whole thing is a ridiculous idea. No, it's not Kurzweil's ridiculous idea."


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4. Zsolt Zsoldos on August 18, 2010 1:49 PM writes...

A correction to my comment above, I thought you were linking to the response article of PZ Myers in gizmodo, but you linked his blog instead. So the response I was referring to is under the gizmodo response article:

The comment is by "Namarrgon", and the point raised is that the whole subject article of gizmodo is a "very creative reporting", aka miss-quoting and miss-representing.


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5. Phil on August 18, 2010 2:19 PM writes...

Unfortunately, both Ray Kurzweil and Steven Wolfram are suffering from a bad case of "When you have a really, really shiny hammer, everything looks like a nail."

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6. Hap on August 18, 2010 2:46 PM writes...

I'm wondering if he's suffering from the "i'm getting old, so you guys had better figure out how to make me immortal real soon, kthxbai." disease. It also plays into the "really shiny hammer and nail" disease angle, because if he hasn't offloaded his stack/become immortal by the time he dies, the hammer must not be all that he had hoped.

I guess Sili already got that, though. Oops.

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7. Henning Makholm on August 18, 2010 2:57 PM writes...

I don't see how anyone who've ever worked with software could buy that analysis.

It might be possible to funderstand of a million-line program well enough to fix bugs without introducing others, if the program is well designed and documented. But a million lines of unstructured spaghetti code, without comments, in a poorly understood undocumented language without any pretense of consistency, without any overarching design, full of magic numbers and willy-nilly self-modifying code, written over several million years by a series of inept contractors, none of whom tried to understand anything their predecessors did but just fiddled randomly with the code until it seemed not to crash too badly? No chance in hell.

(His numbers are wrong too. A line of code does not equal 25 COMPRESSED bytes. A few quick experiments here indicate that an average line of code compresses to about 4-5 bytes. Not that this matters much in the larger picture, mind you).

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8. HelicalZz on August 18, 2010 3:28 PM writes...

First, I see we have another Zz in town. Oh well, always room, so hello Zsolt.

Second, I find laugh out loud irony in Kurzweil wrting about the 'compression' or 'limiting redundancy' of anything. The man has never been known to convey an opinion in a sentence, when an entire essay can be substituted in its place.


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9. RKN on August 18, 2010 4:28 PM writes...

At least Kurzweil appears to understand the real objective is understanding the principle of operation (PoO)of the human brain, not merely constructing a simulation. Unfortunately, one is no more likely to get at the PoO of the human brain by assembling its parts list, than you are to understand the PoO of a high performance car merely through the assessment of its parts list.

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10. Peter Griffin on August 18, 2010 5:42 PM writes...


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11. drug_hunter on August 18, 2010 6:27 PM writes...

While I agree that Kurzweil is (once again) getting ahead of himself, the field of computer simulation of brain function is fascinating. There are respectable scientists attempting to build models of insect brains, for example. One could imagine this work being successful in the next decade. Still a long way from a human consciousness simulacrum, but then again, the singularity, according to Kurzweil, isn't until 2045. Lots and lots is gonna happen during the next three and a half decades...if only our ability to design drugs would similarly advance during that era! One can only hope.

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12. rby on August 18, 2010 6:41 PM writes...

While I agree with you~ N.B. Many programming languages do support a style of writing in which instructions generate another set of instructions (e.g. Lisp, Template Haskell). This is called meta-programming.

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13. Morten G on August 18, 2010 7:08 PM writes...

I can't believe Sili mentions SMBC without linking to the relevant comic so here goes:

Also I should warn that SMBC is hysterically funny and a bit offensive. It's a bit xkcd with a healthy preoccupation with sex and very expressive drawing.

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14. Skeptic on August 18, 2010 7:12 PM writes...

Before writing off Kurzweil as a Kook, lets examine the Medicinal Chemist WorldView:

The Central Dogma of Medicinal Chemistry is that structurally similar molecules have similar biological activities. However there are many EXCEPTIONS. Imagine that.

So Kurzweil says its just code. Guess what, the med chems say the exact same thing, only they use the word 'structure'.

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15. Anonymous on August 18, 2010 7:54 PM writes...

It may be profitable for Kurzweil to look into changing careers...perhaps making pianos/keyboards. At least the name is already established...ah, but that would be reinventing the wheel...

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16. AKS on August 18, 2010 8:30 PM writes...

Yes, Kurzweil is kind of a kook, hard to take serious. But if you want a fascinating, plausible and well thought out theory on how the brain works from a computer scientist then look at Jeff Hawkin's work:

He's the guy who invented the original Palm Pilot, but his passion was always figuring out how the brain works.

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17. MedInformaticsMD on August 18, 2010 8:38 PM writes...

Kurzweil suffers from what I described as the 'Syndrome of Inappropriate Overconfidence in Computers.'

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18. J. Peterson on August 18, 2010 11:44 PM writes...

I think Kurzweil is subject to the Law of Futurology...

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19. ale on August 19, 2010 5:37 AM writes...

The idea isn't anywhere as ridiculous as you are making it out to be. I think people are mostly confusing information theoretical bits with computer bits (eg the mistaken analogy with lines of code)
Given physics as the decoding machine, the brain design must mostly be stored in the genome. You might quibble with the estimate, and with the possibility of decoding it, but the concept shouldn't be that laughable (or even original). Processing doesn't add bits of information (eg the information content of pi is just a couple of bits, even if the digit expansion has every finite sequence of digits contained in it).

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20. cynical1 on August 19, 2010 9:17 AM writes...

@15 anonymous - Ray Kurzweil IS the name behind the keyboards with his surname. And what he did in the synthesizer world was pretty amazing if you are old enough to remember anything about the advent of synthesizers. Bob Moog and Kurzweil should be put in the same category.

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21. Cellbio on August 19, 2010 9:24 AM writes...

The brain design in the genome? Really? Such thought drives me nuts. How about turning off all your gadgets, stop texting and simply think. If that fails, try some scientific literature, or even text books. Funny how information yields more complexity that limits ideological utopia, read fantasy.

Simple question for ale and others: what about the environment as a primary force in driving brain 'design'? Seems the design of the human brain derives in some part (large part?) from observation and learning. Maybe none of these futurist have kids, or have watched their children develop, or bother to bring into these ridiculous arguments a vast field of scientific knowledge that lays out human/primate intelligence and that comes with it biologically and socially, like societies that care for young that do not emerge from an egg ready to hunt for food. Really people, display some of our species ability to think. Hey, maybe for some, the design does stop at the genome.....

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22. ale on August 19, 2010 10:17 AM writes...

@cellbio I was not referring to the adult brain, but to the brain. Does an 8 month old foetus not have a brain? And it has spent all of its life in, what, an environment which was also has most of its properties encoded in the genome.

(Why not try to understand the arguments being presented under the most generous light you can imagine instead of assuming idiocy? Do you know anything about information theory?)

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23. Cellbio on August 19, 2010 10:51 AM writes...

ale, are we talking about information theory, or an idiotic claim that the brain is encoded in the genome. And no, the environment of an 8 month old, in terms of the developing brain, is not encoded in the genome.

Further, I believe that seeing things in the most generous light one can imagine leads to great flights of fancy, fun yes, but in this case and others, the