AI mind games

Gehrn und Computer

Thought experiments can also influence and stimulate research. For example, the thought game Silicon Brain: In the human brain, each nerve cell is replaced by an electrical circuit one after the other. Always one after the other. In the end, the biological brain would be replaced by a technical one. Would man still be the same in the end, with the same consciousness?

Can you create human consciousness in a computer? © wigglestick/ Getty images

How does the brain work?

This is just one of a whole series of thought experiments that deal with the human brain. It is often about complex and sometimes highly philosophical topics such as consciousness, artificial intelligence or the role of sensory impressions. “However, there is always a fundamental question behind this: How does the human brain work?” says Markus Diesmann, head of the “Computational and Systems Neuroscience” department at Forschungszentrum Jülich.

He’s trying to find out exactly that. “Thought experiments show where assumptions and hypotheses ultimately lead, especially when you think beyond what you can practically actually do or determine,” he believes. Because, of course, a thought experiment like the Silicon Brain cannot be tested in the laboratory. Diesmann and his team of physicists also use computer simulations for their research approach.

100,000 neurons in the computer

The Jülich researchers are working on a simulation of the human brain: “We describe a nerve cell with a few equations and use them to assemble networks that should be as similar as possible to the human brain. We believe that what is really interesting is how the nerve cells work together in a network.”

In years of work, Diesmann and his colleagues simulated one cubic millimeter of a human brain: around 100,000 cells, each with around 10,000 contacts leading to other cells. “As scientists, we have our limited toolbox, our scientific methods. With this we are trying to understand the brain.” The philosophical question of consciousness naturally recedes into the background at first. Perhaps Diesmann’s research will one day help to answer it.

“Silicon Brain is about identity and self-confidence. As with many thought experiments, there is also an ethical component here,” explains Bert Heinrichs, who deals a lot with applied ethics, especially in the neurosciences and medicine. The Institute for Neuroscience and Medicine brought the philosopher to one of its annual retreats, where he presented the world of thought experiments. Johannes Ermert, coordinator of the retreat: “We have many ethical questions in the Jülich neurosciences – it is important to introduce our doctoral students to helpful tools such as thought experiments.”

John Searle
The philosopher John Searle giving a lecture at the University of Oxford. © Matthew Breindel/ CC-by-sa 3.0

The Chinese Room

When asked which of Heinrich’s thought experiments would give his Jülich colleagues something to think about, he describes the “Chinese Room” of the philosopher John Searle: In this scenario, a person who does not speak Chinese sits in a closed room. In front of him is a text written in Chinese characters, to which he is given question cards – also in Chinese – through a slit in the wall and is supposed to answer them.

To do this, he has a manual in his native language and Chinese scripts that contain the information necessary for the answer. The manual includes instructions on what characters to answer in response to specific characters in the question. The person carries out these instructions purely mechanically and formally without understanding the meaning and returns the answer cards through the slot to the outside. “And the people outside? They assume that there is someone sitting in the room who speaks Chinese,” says Heinrichs.

John Searle used this thought experiment to illustrate that an apparently intelligent computer does not have to possess or develop consciousness in order to fulfill its functions. In his view, even passing the Turing test would not be proof that an artificial intelligence would have real intelligence in the human sense. Whether Searle was right is still a matter of debate to this day.

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