How Good 99% Brains?

Software systems are divided into parts, and we have two main ways to measure the fraction of a system that each part represents: lines of code, and resources used. Lines (or bits) of code is a rough measure of the amount of understanding that a part embodies, i.e., how hard it is to create, modify, test, and maintain. For example, a system that is more robust or has a wider range of capacities typically has more lines of code. Resources used include processors, memory, and communication between these items. Resources measure how much it costs to use each part of the system. Systems that do very narrow tasks that are still very hard typically take more resources.

Human brains can be seen as software systems composed of many parts. Each brain occupies a spatial volume, and we can measure the fraction of each brain part via the volume it takes up. People sometimes talk about measuring our understanding of the brain in terms of the fraction of brain volume that is occupied by systems we understand. For example, if we understand parts that take up a big fraction of brain volume, some are tempted to say we are a big fraction of the way toward understanding the brain.

However, using the software analogy, brain volume seems usually to correspond more closely to resources used than to lines of code. For example, brain volumes seem to have roughly similar levels of activity, which isn’t what we’d expect if they corresponded more to lines of code than to resources used.

Consider two ways that we might shrink a software system: we might cut 1% of the lines of code, or 1% of the resources used. If we cut 1% of the resources used via cutting the lines of code that use the fewest resources, we will likely severely limited the range of abilities of a broadly capable system. On the other hand, if we cut the most modular 1% of the lines of code, that system’s effectiveness and range of abilities will probably not fall by remotely as much.

So there can be a huge variation in the effective lines of code corresponding to each brain region, and the easiest parts to understand are probably those with the fewest lines of code. So understanding the quarter of brain volume that is easiest to understand might correspond to understanding only 1% or less of lines of code. And continuing along that path we might understand 99% of brain volume and still be a very long way from being able to create a system that is as productive or useful as a full human brain.

This is why I’m not very optimistic about creating human level AI before brain emulations. Yes, when we have nearly the ability to emulate a whole brain, we will have better data and simulations to help us understand brain parts. But the more brain parts there are to understand, the harder it will be to understand them all before brain emulation is feasible.

Those who expect AI-before-emulations tend to think that there just aren’t that many brain parts, i.e., that the brain doesn’t really embody very many lines of code. Even though the range of capacities of a human brain, even a baby brain, seems large compared to most known software systems, these people think that this analogy is misleading. They guess that in fact there is a concise powerful theory of intelligence that will allow huge performance gains once we understand it. In contrast, I see the analogy to familiar software as more relevant; the vast capacity of human brains suggests they embody the equivalent of a great many lines of code. Content matters more than architecture.

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