The Ultimate Thought Experiment Part III: Flowers for Algernon

In Part II of this series, we considered artificial intelligent in the context of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel and Stanley Kubrik’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. In Space Odyssey, intelligence is arguably seen as an end in-and-of itself, rather than a means to an end. Flowers for Algernon, a short story later turned into a novel by author Daniel Keyes, questions that assumption while considering the ethical implications of artificially manipulating a person’s intelligence.

The protagonist of Flowers for Algernon is Charlie Gordon, a janitor who begins the story with intellectual disability, or mental retardation as it was referred to at the time when Keyes wrote the story. Gordon’s intellectual disability is a result of phenylketonuria, a real life metabolic disorder resulting from mutations of the gene encoding phenylalanine hydroxylase, an enzyme that breaks down the amino acid phenylalanine. An inability to metabolize this amino acid causes its toxic build up in the brain, often resulting in a low IQ and other problems, such as mental disorders.

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The Ultimate Thought Experiment Part II: 2001: A Space Odyssey

In our previous post, we considered the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in the context of a thought experiment: a thinking tool used by scientists and philosophers to reframe an unintuitive problem in a new, more familiar context.

Another great thought experiment of the 1960s is 2001: A Space Odyssey. Developed in parallel as both a novel by Arthur C. Clarke and a film by Stanley Kubrick, Space Odyssey is a story about the evolution of humanity and intelligence. Beginning with the invention of tool use in Africa, the story asks how intelligence might continue to evolve after humans develop sophisticated technology. Both the novel and the film follow astronaut Dave Bowman on his journey to the Outer Solar System guided by HAL 9000, an artificial intelligence (AI) that controls the spaceship and is responsible for the well being of the crew.

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The Ultimate Thought Experiment Part I: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Let’s imagine something crazy.

What if each person in China was ordered to simulate a neuron in a brain, making an enormous “China brain?” Every participant in this grand experiment would be given a two-way radio to communicate with other people, similar to how neurons talk to each other. Some people play the role of “effector neurons,” which control parts of a giant robot, just as motor neurons in our nervous system control bodily movements.

Basically, imagine that the entire nation of China became a giant robot’s brain. What might happen?

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What the Heck is a Claustrum?

Given its subjective nature, consciousness is already a controversial topic in the world of brain science. While some neuroscientists doubt that consciousness can even be studied, others still endeavor towards identifying parts of the brain that support subjective awareness. At a gathering of neuroscientists February 15 in Bethesda, Maryland, an announcement has thrust the quest to understand consciousness into the spotlight once again. A team of neuroscientists lead by Christof Koch has identified neurons in a relatively obscure brain region known as the claustrum that send fibers far throughout the entire cerebral cortex, well beyond where they are expected to project. One neuron shown in the presentation engulfed the brain like a “crown of thorns” with its colossal fibers. According to Nature News, “Koch sees this as evidence that the claustrum could be coordinating inputs and outputs across the brain to create consciousness.”

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What Happens If You Stick Your Head in a Particle Accelerator?

What would happen if you stuck your body inside a particle accelerator? The scenario seems like the start of a bad Marvel comic, but it happens to shed light on our intuitions about radiation, the vulnerability of the human body, and the very nature of matter. Particle accelerators allow physicists to study subatomic particles by speeding them up in powerful magnetic fields and then tracing the interactions that result from collisions. By delving into the mysteries of the Universe, colliders have entered the Zeitgeist and tapped the wonders and fears of our age.Continue reading

The Consequences of Illusory Superiority

On January 6, 1995, a large five-foot-six 270-pound middle-aged man robbed two Pittsburgh banks in broad daylight. He didn’t wear a mask or any sort of disguise. And he smiled at surveillance cameras before walking out of each bank.

Later that night, police arrested a surprised McArthur Wheeler. When they showed him the surveillance tapes, Mr. Wheeler stared in disbelief. “But I wore the juice,” he mumbled.Continue reading

Learning from Disorder: The Paradox of Information in the Brain

In Dante’s Inferno, the fifth circle of Hell is a place where the wrathful fight each other for eternity.  Similarly, I often consider YouTube comments to be an extracanonical circle of Hell where the trolls fight each other for eternity.  You might, then, imagine my surprise when I found many thoughtful comments expressing wonder and intrigue on a YouTube video of brain activity in a zebrafish.  Continue reading

Jupiter and Beyond! The Unsung Friendship between Neuroscience and Space Exploration

This weekend, I attended a special event at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena, CA to celebrate the Juno spacecraft’s July 4th arrival at the planet Jupiter.  Planetary scientists study outer space, while neuroscientists such as myself study inner space.  But as my visit to JPL revealed, the goals and challenges of each discipline are far more similar than you might think.  So, what is Juno, and how does its mission mirror that of many neuroscientists?Continue reading