How scared should we be about IBM’s new ‘TrueNorth’ chip? Is it Self-aware and Conscious?

hfjtdfjdThe results of artificial intelligence, have well, thus far been a complete disappointment.

“Machines will be capable, within twenty years, of doing any work that a man can do.” -Herbert Simon, 1965.

But are things about to change? With this week’s announcement of ‘TrueNorth’, the new brain-inspired computer chip from IBM, set to take computers in an entirely new direction, might artificial intelligence, robotics, the internet and yes, the scary sci-fi self-aware ‘skynet’ type of networks, have come one step closer?

What makes us conscious? What makes us self-aware? These are tough questions that philosophers have pondered on for thousands of years. Nowadays psychologists and neuroscientists have been attacking these questions empirically and mathematically. There are entire conferences concentrating on the scientific study of consciousness (e.g. the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness; ASSC).

So what makes our brains conscious? The current leading theories on consciousness all propose it has something to do with the way information is processed in the brain. For example, one theory called the Information Integration theory (IIT), by Giulio Tononi, talks about the degree of integrated and differentiated information (check out these links for more info: link1 link2). Other more ‘in the wild’ medical applications focus on the detail or level of complexity in brain activity (read this article for more on this or check out this great episode of Radio lab), and they are beginning to be applied during general anesthesia.

These and other theories propose something along the lines of the following: once a system, any system, brain or computer chip, can ‘hold’ or process information in just the right way (lets just say it’s coherent and integrated etc. ) it should simply become conscious.

Is IBM’s new TrueNorth chip one step towards a conscious non-biological entity?

“We have taken inspiration from the cerebral cortex to design this chip,” says IBM’s chief scientist for brain-inspired computing, Dharmendra Modha.

“It can see an accident about to happen.” – Modha.

IBM1IBM says the new chip TrueNorth, communicates via an inter-chip interface, which enables ‘seamless scalability’. In other words, it should be no problem to up-scale TrueNorth to any size we want. This might just be my paranoia kicking in, but I want to ask whether, because the neuromorphic TrueNorth system is completely scalable, could it be scaled up to the size and power of the human brain? What would that be like? Would this TrueNorth network become self-aware like us?

Besides Hollywood, there are some serious discussions developing around the real dangers of large scale/scalable AI systems. For example check out Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom. He writes about the real danger of a Superintelligence that could surpass our own capabilities, and if it is possible to control such an entity. In theory we do have one advantage: we are the ones creating it, so we should be able to predict its occurrence.

Elon Musk, of PayPal, Tesla Motors and SpaceX fame, who has an impressive track record of predicting future technology trends and acting on them, recently tweeted:

“…We need to be super careful with AI. Potentially more dangerous than nukes.”- Elon Musk, 2 Aug 2014

Elon Musk with president Obama at Cape Canaveral in 2010 – photo by Steve Jurvetson.

Elon Musk with president Obama at Cape Canaveral in 2010 – photo by Steve Jurvetson.

As we don’t yet know when or how conscious self-awareness is created, we won’t necessarily know if we do create it.

Maybe TrueNorth is already a little conscious. Maybe 10 TrueNorth chips working together will become conscious? Maybe 100 TrueNorth chips?

The human brain has around 86 billion (give or take) neurons in it. If each TrueNorth chip has around 1 million ‘neurons’ on board, then perhaps if we hook up 86 thousand of them we might have something closer to resembling the human brain…

What would happen then?

As far as I know, IBM hasn’t yet done anything like this. But if TrueNorth chips become as common as smart phones, IBM seems to be predicting this, then this scenario may be realised someday soon.

2070083278_7484ac1432_mWhat signs do we need to be on the lookout for? How would be know if the 86k- TrueNorth network is conscious? Because we don’t have a ‘consciousness meter’ we don’t know how to test such a network for consciousness. We have no way of knowing!

As we don’t yet have a measure or operational definition of consciousness, is it dangerous to build something that our best theories suggest could become conscious? Is this akin to building the AI nuke of which Musk warns us? In this analogy we are building something with potential bomb-like capacity, but with no ability to monitor safety, because we don’t know when it will become bomb-like or if it already is.

On the other hand, maybe all this talk really just belongs in Hollywood, and the chances of us actually creating AI are negligible. But the issue is that we don’t know, and currently have no way of finding out. Would such Superintelligence eventually attempt some form of communication with us?

What if it didn’t… We would never know that it even existed.


Here’s a link to the actual neuromorphic TrueNorth paper in science, although it is behind a pay wall so you might not have access.


Are you scared? Think this would make a great Hollywood film? Want to know more about all of this?  Let us know in the comments.


2 thoughts on “How scared should we be about IBM’s new ‘TrueNorth’ chip? Is it Self-aware and Conscious?

  1. Very interesting article that asks the same question as I ask myself (and everyone interested in the field).
    As I always say, exciting times ahead, but it all depends on the balance of good and evil… if it is used for good then we, as a specicies, will accelerate our advancements, but with that possibility, we will have to be even more careful and responsible…


  2. Pingback: Could IBM’s true north chip be conscious? | innovationexperiments

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