Go up another five levels, and you’re now at a pretty high level of this hierarchy, and stretch down into the different senses, and you may have a module that sees a certain fabric, hears a certain voice quality, smells a certain perfume, and will say, “My wife has entered the room.”
Go up another 10 levels, and now you’re at a very high level. You’re probably in the frontal cortex, and you’ll have modules that say, “That was ironic. That’s funny. She’s pretty.” You might think that those are more sophisticated, but actually what’s more complicated is the hierarchy beneath them.
There was a 16-year-old girl, she had brain surgery, and she was conscious because the surgeons wanted to talk to her. 42You can do that because there’s no pain receptors in the brain. And whenever they stimulated particular, very small points on her neocortex, shown here in red, she would laugh.
So at first they thought they were triggering some kind of laugh reflex, but no, they quickly realized they had found the points in her neocortex that detect humor, and she just found everything hilarious whenever they stimulated these points. “You guys are so funny just standing around,” was the typical comment, and they weren’t funny, not while doing surgery.
So how are we doing today? Well, computers are actually beginning to master human language with techniques that are similar to the neocortex. I actually described the algorithm, which is similar to something called a hierarchical hidden Markov model, something I’ve worked on since the ’90s.
“Jeopardy” is a very broad natural language game, and Watson got a higher score than the best two players combined. It got this query correct: “A long, tiresome speech delivered by a frothy pie topping,” and it quickly responded, “What is a meringue harangue?” And Jennings and the other guy didn’t get that. It’s a pretty sophisticated example of computers actually understanding human language, and it actually got its knowledge by reading Wikipedia and several other encyclopedias.
Five to 10 years from now, search engines will actually be based on not just looking for combinations of words and links but actually understanding, reading for understanding the billions of pages on the web and in books. So you’ll be walking along, and Google will pop up and say, “You know, Mary, you expressed concern to me a month ago that your glutathione supplement wasn’t getting past the blood-brain barrier. Well, new research just came out 13 seconds ago that shows a whole new approach to that and a new way to take glutathione. Let me summarize it for you.”
Twenty years from now, we’ll have nanobots, because another exponential trend is the shrinking of technology. They’ll go into our brain through the capillaries and basically connect our neocortex to a synthetic neocortex in the cloud providing an extension of our neocortex.
Now today, I mean, you have a computer in your phone, but if you need 10,000 computers for a few seconds to do a complex search, you can access that for a second or two in the cloud.
In the 2030s, if you need some extra neocortex, you’ll be able to connect to that in the cloud directly from your brain. So I’m walking along and I say, “Oh, there’s Chris Anderson. He’s coming my way. I’d better think of something clever to say. I’ve got three seconds. My 300 million modules in my neocortex isn’t going to cut it. I need a billion more.” I’ll be able to access that in the cloud.
And our thinking, then, will be a hybrid of biological and non-biological thinking, but the non-biological portion is subject to my law of accelerating returns. It will grow exponentially.
And remember what happens the last time we expanded our neocortex? That was two million years ago when we became humanoids and developed these large foreheads. Other primates have a slanted brow. They don’t have the frontal cortex. But the frontal cortex is not really qualitatively different. It’s a quantitative expansion of neocortex, but that additional quantity of thinking was the enabling factor for us to take a qualitative leap and invent language and art and science and technology and TED conferences. No other species has done that.
And so, over the next few decades, we’re going to do it again. We’re going to again expand our neocortex, only this time we won’t be limited by a fixed architecture of enclosure. It’ll be expanded without limit. That additional quantity will again be the enabling factor for another qualitative leap in culture and technology.
Thank you very much.