Why we are not computers: The case of memory

Brain coral, Ben Stoate, www.sxc.hu
Brain coral. © Ben Stoate, http://www.sxc.hu

Ray Kurzweil, futurist, author, and director of engineering at Google, has ambitious plans to create computer copies of human brains by 2045. He teamed up with a Russian entrepreneur to found the 2045 Strategic Social Initiative, which promises ‘the transfer of a individual’s personality to a more advanced non-biological carrier, and extending life, including to the point of immortality’. At the Faraday Institute summer course last month, Noreen Herzfeld explained why she thinks developing a synthetic copy of the human brain is impossible.

Herzfeld is Professor of Theology and Computer Science at St John’s University, Minneapolis, and she thinks that a brain model would have reduced capabilities compared to a human brain in a human body. The example of memory show that computers simply do not function in the same way that humans do.

Human memory is multi-layered, partial and necessarily fallible. An example of the multi-layered nature of memory is Marcel Proust’s description of eating a madeleine cake that evoked a rush of childhood memories. As he ate, tasting butter and lemon, he was reminded of childhood pleasures: the house where he lived, the streets he played in, and the gardens he enjoyed. These linkages between sensation and memory are unintentional, almost accidental, but are an essential part of our lives. Continue reading