A huge evergrowing pulsating brain that rules from the centre of the ultraworld*

29 June 2008

Whenever I read something from the Cult of the Singularity, I find it hard to not conjure up the hectoring tones of Johnny from Mike Leigh's film Naked. You have to wonder how many spurious factoids David Thewlis had to commit to memory to get his improvised monologues* to work:

"And every barcode is divided into two sections by three markers and those markers are always represented by the number six. Six, six, six

"And what they’re planning to do, in order to eradicate all credit card fraud and in order to precipitate a totally cashless society…and they’ve already tested it on the American troops: they’re going to subcutaneously laser-tattoo that mark onto your right hand or onto your forehead. They’re going to replace plastic with flesh!

"Fact!"

I'll spare you the whole tirade but it leads up to the point where Johnny and the Singularists come together as one:

"And no, we’re not going to sprout extra limbs and wings and things because evolution itself is evolving. When it comes, the apocalypse itself will a part of the process of that leap of evolution. By the very definition of apocalypse, mankind must cease to exist, at least in a material form. We’ll have evolved into something that transcends matter, into a species of pure thought. Are you with me?"

And so, there I was reading Kevin Kelly's exposition of the OneMachine made out of old PCs yoked together that thinks with hyperlinks, mentally adding an extra "Fact!" at the end of every paragraph to complete the effect:

"Each new link wires up a subroutine, creates a loop, and unleashes a cascade of impulses. As waves of links surge around the world, they resemble the thought patterns of a very large brain."

Fact!

"By 2040, the planetary computer will attain as much processing power as all 7 billion human brains on Earth."

Fact!

And what do these computers actually do when harnessed as one? Some of them do something useful such as perform quantum mechanical calculations to predict protein folding. Unfortunately, they are more likely to be sending out tons of spam. But no mind, "we are headed toward a singular destiny: one vast computer composed of billions of chips and billions of brains, enveloping the planet in a single sphere of intelligence".

Fact! The techalypse is coming.

But there was one thing niggling at me: where were the figures coming from to support the contention that the One Machine rivals even one brain today? And this is assuming you accept Giulio Tononi's assertion that intelligence comes as a function of complexity, that you can just slam a bunch of circuits together and automatically get something that thinks. Towards the bottom of the page are some figures in a diagram.

By far the oddest one is the choice of 70MHz for the brain's operating frequency: "grey matter is about as speedy as an original Pentium". That sounds pretty quick to me given that the calcium induced cascade that triggers a neural response takes on the order of 200µs. That gives you a maximum frequency — even working on the basis that neurons switch like electronic transistors, which they don't — of tens of kilohertz. By that token, the human brain can barely keep up with a Sinclair ZX80. The actual frequency is probably way lower than that as neural signalling seems to rely on pulse trains that take tens of milliseconds to transmit from one neuron to another. The brain makes up for that sluggishness by not trying to work like an electronic computer. The transistor, as it turns out, is a pretty rotten analogue for a neuron, although maybe not nearly as bad as equating a hyperlink with a synapse.

But I'm really curious about the 70MHz. Where does that figure come from? Surely it can't be derived from Bruce Tainio who claimed in the early 1990s to have found a relationship between frequency and disease. According to Tainio's measurements, the brain has a 'bio-frequency' of 72MHz to 90MHz — genius intelligence is at the upper end, apparently. Fans of the woo business will be delighted to know that you can buy 'essential oils' that resonate in the same range and so help you get a better brain. And not those nasty gigahertz frequencies, like 2.4GHz, that mess your brain up. I can't find any paper from Tainio that explains his conclusions, just references on essential-oil websites, found courtesy of the resident Overmind otherwise known as Google. However, if I suspect my neurons to be running at 70MHz, I'm going to be ringing the doctor pronto, assuming that I'm actually able to.

* Sorry Orb fans, this post has approximately zero to do with Minnie Ripperton done ambient stylee, but here's a link to the video if that's all you wanted. But thanks to the Orb for sampling so much of Naked on S.A.L.T. (Orblivion) to save the aggro of fast-forwarding through the film to find the monologues.