Ray Kurzweil on Creating Ourselves

Ray Kurzweil on Creating Ourselves

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Ray Kurzweil on Creating Ourselves

So we actually create our own neocortex. All those connections between these different modules, you create with your own thoughts — and what you choose to think about. Not only does your brain create your thoughts, but your thoughts create your brain.

– Ray Kurzweil

Jump to minute 2:50 in the video to get to this really interesting part where Kurzweil is talking about new research on the prefrontal cortex. Mani Scienide or Derya Unutmaz – do you know to what he is referring? 

Thanks to Brad Acker for drawing this interview to my attention (and for getting the text for the quote).




  1. Major caveat with much of what Ray Kurzweil thinks he understands about mind and brain. 

  2. Do you mean that this goes against what he’s said, or that you don’t agree with it, Gregory Esau? 

  3. I’m dubious about much of any of his understanding of the mind and brain, Gideon Rosenblatt . 

  4. Try find any well respected neuroscientist, or cognitive philosophy that supports his understanding, and it is pretty slim ground. 

  5. He’s talking about the cortical column:


    He’s right that it’s a functional unit of the neocortex (the mammalian brain).  He’s also right that it’s highly adaptive to feedback from the the environment, and it’s incredibly good at learning. That said, we still don’t understand a whole lot about the function of the cortical column and its role in cognitive processing. 

    He’s emphasizing the cortical column in particular because it’s the part of the brain we’ve had the most success simulating in machines (see the Blue Brain project: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_Brain_Project). Kurzweil’s most recent book advocates simulating this part of the brain at scales comparable to a complete neocortex in order to “build a mind”. 

    It’s worth point out that the neocortex doesn’t have much to do with a lot of brain functions, including most of the body’s self-regulation, emotions, and importantly leaves out the hippocampus, which is responsible for memory and a pretty important aspect for how the mind works.

    Kurzweil’s made a career of making claims that are perhaps suggested by our best science, but are far stronger and more provocative than our best science strictly supports. That means he’s not wildly off base, but he nevertheless gets far more attention than he deserves and frankly has too much influence over our discussion of technology. He’s often says things people want to hear (especially regarding exponential growth, that old reliable capitalist workhorse) rather than what’s genuinely warranted by the evidence. So I agree with Gregory Esau, it’s not wise to use him as the bellweather and Nostradamus he’s postured himself to be. 

    More: http://digitalinterface.blogspot.com/2013/09/bewilderment-in-age-of-technology.html

  6. There is some truth to what he says but the quoted statement is a pretty big stretch and quite a bit misleading. It’s true that thoughts create connections but not to the extent of creating our own neocortex. There are many factors involved in how individuals’ neocortexes will develop. 

    It’s useful to think of it as something like learning a new golf swing for example. In doing that, you’re going to create new connections. But it takes a LOT of repetition to do that. The same is true of thoughts. It takes very consistent thoughts to create new connections. You don’t just create whole new connections with random thoughts. 

    As well, much of what creates the neocortex is memory building, much of which is subconsciously driven (IE: not thought driven). 

  7. Very interesting guys. Thanks for the detailed thoughts on this Brad Esau and Daniel Estrada. I’ve read two of his earlier works on AI and found them both very interesting. But I have not read the most recent on mind. So, given that, in wondering if we’re running into an issue around embodied intelligence and how important the whole physicality of our experience is when it comes to holistic human and other forms of natural intelligence. Candace Pert spoke quite eloquently about the absolutely critical role our bodies play in memory and overall intelligence. In fact she saw our bodies as our subconscious.

  8. Most interesting part for me is between 1:40 and 2:20 where he talks about the most creative phase between dreaming and consciousness.

    A state of #preconscious – between #subconscious and #conscious – the not-yet rational part where inventions starts to become a feasonable, rational, shareable solution.

  9. I appreciate the additional thoughts and insights, Daniel Estrada , Brad Esau , Mani Scienide , and Drew Sowersby . 

    Just to belabour the point, there are reams of incredible books, papers, articles, posts (etc) on the latest workings of the mind and brain, and, for that matter, artificial intelligence. It’s just Kurzweil isn’t one of them. 

    He is a terrific opportunist and, let’s call him neural entrepreneur. Read him for entertainment, or for provocative thought, just do not read him if one wants to understand the mind and brain. He isn’t qualified. 

    Even on AI, he brings more discredibility to the field than he does credibility. 

  10. Gregory Esau – exactly. “Neural entrepreneur” is an apt term. 

  11. Nice try, Mani Scienide , but I don’t buy it, not even a little bit. 

    The rest is perfectly aligned with what everyone else is saying.

    Seriously, Mani? Really?? Come on, man!

  12. Mani Scienide , I left that comment hanging. I don’t buy your comments as supportive defence of Kurzweil’s credibility. 

  13. This review of Kurzweil’s rambling “How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed.” is a decent enough overview of some of the scepticism around Kurzeil: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/11/ray-kurzweils-dubious-new-theory-of-mind.html

    That would be big news. But does the book deliver? Kurzweil’s critics have not always been kind; the biologist PZ Myers once wrote, “Ray Kurzweil is a genius. One of the greatest hucksters of the age.” Doug Hofstadter, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of “Gödel, Escher, Bach” has been even harsher, saying once in an interview that “if you read Ray Kurzweil’s books … what I find is that it’s a very bizarre mixture of ideas that are solid and good with ideas that are crazy. It’s as if you took a lot of very good food and some dog excrement and blended it all up so that you can’t possibly figure out what’s good or bad.”


    Even more disappointing is the fact that Kurzweil never bothers to do what any scientist, especially one trained in computer science, would immediately want to do, which is to build a computer model that instantiated his theory, and then compare the predictions of the model with real human behavior. Does the P.R.T.M. predict anything about human behavior that no other theory has predicted before? Does it give novel insight into any long-standing puzzles in human nature? Kurzweil never tries to find out.


    The deepest problem is that Kurzweil wants badly to provide a theory of the mind and not just the brain. Of course, the mind is a product of the brain, as Kurzweil well knows, but any theory that seriously engages with what the mind is has to reckon with human psychology—with human behavior and the mental operations that underlie it. Here, Kurzweil seems completely out of his depth. The main place where the book discusses psychology is a chapter called “Thought Experiments on Thinking,” a scant nine pages devoted to “thought experiments” that Kurzweil seems to have performed while sitting in his arm chair. Not a single cognitive psychologist or study is referred to, and he scarcely engages the phenomena that make the human mind so distinctive. There’s no mention, for example, of Daniel Kahneman’s Nobel Prize winning work on human irrationality, Chomsky’s arguments about innate knowledge that sparked the cognitive revolution, or Elizabeth Spelke’s work on cognitive development demonstrating the highly nuanced structure that is present within the mind even from an extremely early age. Similarly absent is any reference to the vast literature on anthropology, and what is and isn’t culturally universal.


    What Kurzweil doesn’t seem to realize is that a whole slew of machines have been programmed to be hierarchical-pattern recognizers, and none of them works all that well, save for very narrow domains like postal computers that recognize digits in handwritten zip codes. This summer, Google built the largest pattern recognizer of them all, a system running on sixteen thousand processor cores that analyzed ten million YouTube videos and managed to learn, all by itself, to recognize cats and faces—which initially sounds impressive, but only until you realize that in a larger sample (of twenty thousand categories), the system’s overall score fell to a dismal 15.8 per cent.

  14. _The beauty of science, +Gregory Esau, is that you don’t have to believe it for it to be true. _

    Huh? What? Science is just for “believers” now? I gotta run from that one.

    If you can repackage his soup into something marketable, hats off to you, Mani Scienide , but let’s not pretend he has credibility in areas he doesn’t. 

  15. This is why I like actual science, Mani Scienide . Kurzweil spins thought experiments, he doesn’t seem to be too bothered with doing science. 

    I can’t recall the source, but word was that when Google did bring him on to “lead” the AI team, insiders working on the project (real scientists) were not thrilled. 

    Having Kurzweil lead an AI team, is like having a science fiction writer lead a team to travel to Mars. 

  16. Argh…really want to ride on this wave, but I’m out for much of the day today. Will have to check in later tonight. Thank you all for the very interesting perspectives. 

  17. Science fiction is the ground for testing for science fact.  


    Maybe I’ll be proven wrong on this one, but my take is Kurzweil is not only off base, but dangerous. 

    I would listen to what Kurzweil says, but every time I read him I want to throw up. 

    To paraphrase the quote above from the review I posted, reading Kurzweil is like eating gourmet food and dog shit at the same time, except Kurzweil is a master at disguising which is which.  

  18. That’s exactly what I am tell you, Mani. Time management. I do not deem him worthy of dissection. 

    I just read clips of some of his ideas on AI, and think: “This guy’s a madman.”


    I don’t get the interest or attraction in him–At All. Anybody truly interested in the brain, the mind, and in artificial intelligence should have better things to do. 

  19. I do, however, appreciate your terrific efforts at trying to salvage something from this! 🙂

  20. That sounds very inviting, Mani Scienide ! But for me, it just keeps coming down to time. I am easily distracted as it is! 

    These days I am struggling to keep my mind at least generally pointed in the direction of growing Glia into a viable business and social organizational system. 

    I like to keep tabs on machine learning and artificial intelligence, in that it will play a role in advanced organizational systems. And at some point one has to have a system of filtering. And time management. 

    If somebody gleans something useful from Kurzweil’s ‘ideas’, and has an idea how to plug that into what were working on in Glia, I’m all ears, it’s just not a path I want to pursue. 

    I am pretty sure the horse I am beating is good and dead, and I should retract to the sidelines and let people who happen to appreciate Kurzweil go on appreciating him. 🙂

    ::exists, stage right::


    The book he refers to is “How to Create a Mind”

    Find something you are passionate about,

    choose your environment, choose your friends, choose your thoughts.

    We have outsourced our facts to the clouds, train brain to create knowledge. these are the main takeaways for m the video.


  22. That is a very clean take away, Deborah L Gabriel .

    It’s a path I would like to pursue, Mani Scienide , once Glia gets a solid footing. 🙂

  23. I am at a disadvantage, Gregory Esau, in that I have not read How to Create a Mind, but I did read both The Age of Spiritual Machines and The Singularity Is Near some time ago, and found them both very thought-provoking.

    A couple quick thoughts: 

    The first is that as I start thinking about shifting my own work towards more of a focus on technology and its evolution, I am struck by just how dangerous it is to try to predict the future of technology. For me, those kinds of exercises are most interesting when they highlight the potential consequences of choices we now face and choices we will soon face. To be honest, it’s just been too long since I read those books for me to now judge them on that basis right now.

    The second is that I think that Kurzweil suffers a bit from a kind of Cartesian blind spot that fails to take into full account the embodied aspects of intelligence…or let me be more specific… embodied aspects of human intelligence. You see some of this blind spot with notions like “downloading a mind.” A mind is part conscious but mostly unconscious thoughts, and as I note above, scientists like Pert believe that much of that subconscious intelligence is not just located in the brain. It’s distributed and embedded throughout the body.

    I’m not AI expert, but I’m hoping to learn more about this area in the years ahead. I guess the thing I wonder right now is whether a software engineer might be naturally biased toward thinking of mind as something that can be truly stripped of its hardware platform.  That seems to be the case with Kurzweil, and I guess I’m suspicious about that idea. 

    That said, I still find the guy very interesting. 

  24. Posted this over on Gregory’s thread, but bears repeating here too:

    Nicholas Taleb explains his “Precautionary Principle” based on Fragility (to counter pollyanas of all stripes, including climate change deniers, GMO issues blindness, AI/Singularity, …)


  25. Gideon Rosenblatt great thread BTW! All too rare nowadays on here…

  26. Thanks Alex Schleber. 

  27. What an interesting thread. Life is a thought experiment, is it not, Mani Scienide What are you if you are not what you think you are?

    I am pretty much in agreement with Gideon Rosenblatt on Ray Kurzweil and Candace Pert. Much of Ray’s work is in practical usage now like Siri. I listened to an interview by a director of SAS today and the  innovation  this data analysis software company is doing to provide organizations analysis processing    at Google like speeds sounds very much like what Kurzweil was describing in “The Singularity.”

    And Candace Pert’s work is well respected enough (she discovered the lock and key effect on opiate receptors while still a graduate student) and was well respected enough  to be   Chief of the Section on Brain Biochemistry of the Clinical Neuroscience Branch of the National Institute of Mental Health. The lock and key effect of receptor cells is the basis of neuropharmacological drug research. I do believe emotions live in all cells of the body for toxicity or health, compassion or anger lodges somewhere. I think we all know this on some level.

    A side note, if any you any students or teachers that need STEM preparation tools, this is an interesting free resource: http://www.sascurriculumpathways.com/portal/

    I think I might do the writing revision section. I need an English teacher to buff my writing skills:)

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