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What can we learn from bird brains?

by Tom Austin  |  January 6, 2015  |  Comments Off on What can we learn from bird brains?

Have you seen the chatter on computational neuroscience, computational neurobiology, the existential risks AI poses for all of humanity and other dire forecasts for the future impact of all-knowing, sentient artificial intelligence?

All of it makes great intuitive leaps from models of how neurons behave to methods for constructing general purpose machine intelligence at a par with or superior to humans, potentially ending all carbon based life on the planet.

Nevermind the gaps in knowledge. (We know that having a pile of 300 million transistors doesn’t create a CPU but I’ll spare you more of that metaphor.)

Wired has breathlessly carried a story predicting “Reverse-Engineering of Human Brain Likely by 2020” and the Financial Times (FT) has carried stories about risks to civilization on a par with nuclear accidents and the invasion of an alien species. To be fair, the FT closes its article with a note saying that there is no evidence these catastrophes will occur but the buildup about disaster leaves the reader with the wrong conclusions.  (I wrote about Elon Musk and Steven Hawkings doomsday predictions earlier in this blog.)

With my background in the intersection between biology and behavior, I was attracted to a recent study published in the journal Current Biology (and summarized by Science Daily). In this empirical study, the authors conclude that crows demonstrate “higher order abstract reasoning” (i.e., crows can learn to judge sameness and differentness in abstract images.) Coauthor Wasserman is quoted in  as saying “we have always sold animals short,” he says. “Human arrogance still permeates contemporary cognitive science.”

We should learn from this crow study.

How well can we document how humans think? Crows? Rats? Cows?

Throughout my life, I’ve heard all sorts of explanations for how humans are superior to other species. And time after time, the logical arguments fall to the side in the face of smart research testing (and debunking) the common wisdom.

Do we know enough about mouse behavior to emulate and surpass it with artificial intelligence? If not now, when?

So, what can we learn from “bird brains?” That we don’t really know enough about how brains work. And just because we think we understand how neurons behavior doesn’t mean we can construct something as “smart” as a person (or a pig.)

For the record, we don’t really know enough about how neurons work and how they interact with glia cells. So we haven’t even gotten to first base. The search for “artificial intelligence” still feels to much like the search for the philosopher’s stone


Tom Austin
VP & Gartner Fellow
20 years at Gartner
41 years IT industry

Tom Austin, VP, has been a Gartner Fellow since 1997. He drives Gartner's research content incubator (the Maverick Program) and is leading a new research community creating research on the emerging era of smart machines. Read Full Bio

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