Thinking computers: BCS lecturer addresses the quest to mimic the human brain
“Can machines think?” That’s a question posed by Alan Turing in 1950 that still pricks the minds of scientists and engineers everywhere. Will machines ever have the same functionality of a human brain? Can machines exceed the brain’s capacity and intelligence? These and other such questions are the inspiration behind this year’s Lovelace Lecture presented by the British Computer Society.
This year’s lecture is set for March 19, when the Royal Society in London will play host to Prof. Stephen Furber of the School of Computer Science at the University of Manchester. Furber, currently involved in an ongoing project to build a computer that mimics the function of the human brain, is the 2014 winner of the Lovelace Medal.
The Lovelace Medal is awarded annually by the BCS to an individual who has made a significant contribution to the understanding or advancement of computing. The categories in which candidates are eligible for the medal are: information systems engineering, computer science and information systems products and practices. Furber qualified for the medal with his research and understanding of both artificial intelligence and what he calls natural intelligence.
“The quest to understand the brain is attracting huge attention worldwide right now,” Furber said when contacted via e-mail, “and will have major consequences for cognitive systems on the tech side, and potentially for mental health on the medical side, if real progress can be made.”
According to Furber, progress in pursuing this line of study relies on engaging young minds and directing their interest toward computer science, neuroscience and mathematics. Furber emphasized the importance of education in this line of work.
“Get the best education you can find!” said Furber. “Technology moves very fast, so you need to learn the fundamentals, but then be prepared to keep on learning throughout life. A Ph.D. in a multidisciplinary area is one of the best ways to stretch the learning muscles!”
Furber was drawn to Turing’s work on computing and intelligence in 2012, but has been striving to gain an understanding of the brain since the late 1990s. For years, Furber has aimed to narrow the gap between artificial and natural intelligence, which is what he will be speaking about in his upcoming Lovelace Lecture.
“The areas of real change for the next decade in the tech industry will revolve around machine learning, AI and cognitive systems,” said Furber. “The key innovations will come from folks with deep understanding not only of computer science, but also of maths — especially statistics — and neuroscience.”
When asked about the future of machines and their ability to develop qualities similar to those of the human brain, Furber said the roots of that achievement are in the simple cognitive systems of a device like a robot vacuum cleaner or a driverless car. “These are a very long way short of human-level functionality,” said Furber. “It will take a very long time to get close to human-level functionality, and there may be fundamental problems on the way — we still have no idea of the basis of consciousness, for example.”
Furber’s lecture may help stir up some of the interest and engagement he predicts that the field will need. The lecture is a free public event for those living in the United Kingdom, or who have the means to travel there, but registration is requested (including a small fee to cover the cost of a reception and drinks). Those not able to attend in person will be able to view the proceedings online at a later date.
Furber’s lecture will also feature a handful of colleagues, including Simon Segars, CEO of ARM; Carol Goble, Professor of Computer Science at the University of Manchester; and Andy Hopper, Professor of Computer Technology at the University of Cambridge.