MATTSPLAINED [] MSP84 [] Our Machine Brains.

Original Images: Pixabay. Glitched @ Kulturpop

Original Images: Pixabay. Glitched @ Kulturpop

MATTSPLAINED [] MSP84 [] Our Machine Brains.

Consciousness is something we take for granted. But what if it was assembled, code by code, like an app on a smartphone?

Produced by Jeff Sandhu for BFM89.9

Episode Sources: 


We’re on a journey to the Dark side of the moon today. No, we’re not talking about Apollo 11 - I’m reliably informed that will be in a couple of weeks time. This is a special episode that literally no one ever has asked for. A journey to the centre of the distorted universe of Matt’s mind.

Before we get into the specifics of today’s episode, I would like to point out that today’s topic is something that we covered on Geek’s Squawk last week.

  • What can I say.

  • I’m a disruptor. I take other people’s ideas and call them my own.

  • I’m also working on a cryptocurrency called Leo, because I’m a Leo, and because, well, the lion is a pitiless hunter.

  • So, I’m not trying to steal your credit with the idea for this.

  • With Leo I’m trying to steal your credit.

  • But the show relates to that New Scientist article we discussed on Geeks, titled, Explaining consciousness.

  • It was because of the time limits we have on that show and because the story was so interesting that I wanted to expand on it and do it more justice this week.

  • And because it’s fun.

  • We talk about a lot of way out there concepts on this show.

  • And we’ve delved into the human brain a few times.

We spend a lot of time examining an inhuman brain…

  • I can only assume that’s a dig at me.

  • Sometimes I kind of forget and say human as though I’m not one.

  • See, I’m doing it again.

  • I know I’m a person. I guess I’m so used to observing that I forget that I belong as well.

  • Or at least I’m of the same species as the people I don’t belong with

  • But yeah, we’ve looked at the brain and the mind before but we’ve never really gone too deeply into the consciousness aspect.

  • Which is weird - because that’s kind of the part that defines who we are.

  • Which is why it was fun to touch on it in Geeks last week - an episode that is still available on the BFM website and all good podcast platforms, I believe.

Let’s give it some context. Why is it relevant to our listeners?

  • One of the reasons that the brain is so mysterious is because it’s so hard to decode.

  • We build all these incredible machines but very few of them can do anything like the multi-tasking that the human brain can do.

  • That’s why you can push bipedal robots over so quickly.

  • Our brains are running our bodies, alerting us to danger, processing speech and allowing you to think about biscuits instead of listening to me.

[Jeff describes his biscuit/candy of choice].

  • And the reason that Jeff is thinking about that biscuit is because people that spend time around me need regular energy boosts.

Or a doctor’s prescription…

  • But weirdly our brains are able to do these things but require very little power to run.

  • And there are loads of other weirdnesses that we’ll get to.

  • But going back to that question of why it’s relevant.

  • We talk about AI a lot on this show.

  • And regular listeners will know that I have a bee in my bonnet about machine rights.

There you go, sounding like an alien again…

  • Don’t care.

  • When I do talks and presentations on AI, almost invariably someone in the audience will ask me about the link between spirituality and consciousness and AI.

  • Now, MSP doesn’t concern itself with spiritual nourishment, other than biscuits.

  • But this is a great opportunity to give that consciousness some additional context.

  • Because it’s a difficult thing to get a grip on.

  • We simply experience consciousness and we assume that everyone else experiences it in the same way.


  • Stick with the biscuits till you’ve got a proper question to ask.

  • There was another story we covered on Geeks - actually it was with Rich while you were away in China for CES Shanghai.

  • And it was about imagination. Again, another story from the New Scientist.

  • They really should sponsor this show…

  • We all tend to imagine that we imagine things in the same way.

  • But it turns out that we don’t.

  • The chances are that you and I imagine things differently.

  • You’re sitting with your back to your workstation.

  • So imagine your desk and the things on it and the people around it.

  • What does it look like, is it clear?

[Jeff Answers]

  • Matt & Jeff chat

  • The reason I bring this up is because the way our brains function is a lot less uniform than we may assume.

  • We accept that people have different points of view.

  • That people feel and experience things in different ways.

  • We’ve all been in that irritating and frustrating position where someone else remember the exact same event in a different way.

  • The interesting thing is that we now have the science and the technology to both examine and explain some of these things that we take for granted.

  • And as with anything to do with our own brains…

See, you can sound like a human when you try…

  • As with anything to do with our own brains.

  • The reality is often a lot weirder than we think.

  • And even talking about it is strange.

  • I wanted to ask ppl on social media to tell me what consciousness meant to them.

  • In the end I didn’t.

  • Because no matter how I phrased it, the question looked bizarre.

What makes the human brain special?

  • Tons of stuff. Much of which we’re really only discovering now.

  • We don’t have the largest mammalian brain. Whales have us beat.

  • But we are unusual in terms of the size of the brain relative to the size of the body.

  • Even there, there are other primates who have relatively larger brains than us but are less effective at using them.

  • So, it’s not necessarily the brain itself - certainly in terms of size - that makes the difference, it’s how we use

How did you research  today’s show by the way?

  • By watching the Luc Besson movie Lucy again.

  • It’s already been established that Morgan Freeman is the closest thing we have to god on the planet.

  • And in the movie, Scarlett Johansson is smarter than MF.

  • So, I figured, you know, it must all be true.

I believe food might have something to do with it…

  • One of the theories is that the invention of cooking allowed our bodies and by association our brains to absorb calories more easily, so our brains essentially had spare fuel our bodies didn’t need, to play around with.

  • And certainly we have more neurons than any of the other primates.

  • But According to Suzana Herculano-Houzel at Vanderbilt Unversity, it’s also about where those neurons are and also their nature, what they’re there to do.

  • And we have more neurons in our cerebral cortex than other mammals.

  • Herculano Houzel contends that this is part of what gives us the ability to choose.

We can suppress the fight or flight instinct?

  • Partly. It’s about developing complex behaviours.

  • Most animals are reactive. You walk towards a squirrel or a flock of birds in a park and they instinctively move away from you.

  • Although, in some places they’ve learned that humans feed them, so they might actually make a beeline for you.

  • I once watched squirrels climbing all over a guy in a london park who obviously came to feed the same animals every day.

  • But the point is that we’ve used those neurons to shape the way we behave.

  • We don’t simply react.

  • It’s given us that ability to examine our options and to make choices.

Is what we eat an important factor in the way our brains and our consciousness form?

  • To be honest I’m not sure.

  • Later on we’ll touch on the gut and the microbiome.

  • And as I mentioned a minute ago, how we convert the food into energy is important.

  • And it does seem to be that our brains start to shrink when we hit our 40s.

Yours must have shrunk loads…

  • Fortunately my brain was ginormous to begin with so, figuratively, I have some wiggle room when it comes to the shrinkage.

  • But certainly you shouldn’t put off the mind games like the one that Jeff is playing with me.

  • Middle age really does seem to be the time to learn to play that instrument. or learn a new language and actually use it.

  • Read some books on neuroscience.

  • Sleeping is important.

That’s one skill you’ve definitely nailed…

  • But don’t leave it too long.

  • If you’re leaving all those life improvement lessons for when you retire, it might be too late.

  • Your brain won’t be as responsive to these mental workouts.

  • And of course, hand in hand with eating well, is exercise.

  • As I think we mentioned in the fitness episode a few weeks ago, exercise is great for brain health, not just because it keeps the vascular system healthy, but because of all the complex systems it fires up.

  • Balance, coordination, perception, problem solving.

  • All the things the sofa promises but never delivers.

After the break. Being Matt Armitage. A true waking nightmare.


In case you’re wondering if this is all a bad dream, the answer is yes. Daydreaming is apparently one of the things that sets us apart from other animals.

  • Yes. Turns out that daydreaming might be more important than many of us assume.

  • It gives us that opportunity to pause and reflect, so we’re calling up memories.

  • But we’re also planning. We’re making projection for the future.

You do make us sound very machine like. Running a sub-routine during some down time.

  • I think maybe we’re looking at things the wrong way round.

  • I mentioned at the top of the show that I often get asked about spirituality in relation to AI.

  • Would we expect a conscious AI to have a spiritual dimension.

  • But I think the point is back to front.

  • We make this assumption that the machines are unlike us.

  • But what do we base it on?

  • Mostly on the fact that philosophy and some psychology has tried to define human consciousness in terms of experience. A thing called qualia.

  • And that makes the case hard for neuroscientists. Because that qualia is very hard to quantify.

So they’re just ignoring it?

  • Yeah. Or rather they’re redefining it in terms that are much easier to understand.

  • Like Patricia Churchland at the university of California, SD.

  • Who believe that our consciousness might have much simpler, biological roots.

  • Or, Daniel Dennett, of Tufts university, who thinks that our consciousness may be an illusion.

A simulation?

  • No. I mean, it’s possible that Dennett beleives we’re all tiny people locked in a computer but I haven’t seen anything to suggest he does.

  • If that appeals to you btw, read the Demi- Monde saga by Rod Rees and it soon won’t.

  • But no, we’re not taking the simulation route today.

  • And it goes back to what I was saying about machines and their structure being more human like than we like to give credence to.

  • The analogy he makes is that our minds may be very much like a smartphone.

  • And our consciousness is a screen.

Because the phone screen is a user illusion?

  • Yeah. Those apps are not on your screen.

  • The software is conjuring up a graphical illusion that allows you to navigate the code that is swimming around inside the phone’s hardware.

  • When you call up that app, you’re actually accessing information from multiple sources.

  • For example, when you fire up Instagram and look for a photo.

  • Those images reside in another app, or even, beyond that app, in the cloud.

  • In any case, they don’t exist as we see them.

  • What the app is doing is bringing information together and processing and sorting it in a way that we can understand.

And that’s what you think our brains are doing?

  • It’s kind of what Daniel Dennett is saying.

  • In that sense, consciousness is the screen.

  • The new scientist article also makes an allusion to a work area, like a giant whiteboard.

  • So, that’s our consciousness, a kind of home screen that calls up the apps we need.

  • While our brains are the phone itself.

  • The storage and the connectivity and all the complicated bits that do the actual work but which we really don’t perceive.

Essentially your consciousness is like a sandbox?

  • Yes. so if any parents listening have kids who still use Minecraft, you should be supporting them.

  • Because that sandbox is giving them an insight into the mysteries of neuroscience.

One of the things that interested me in the New Scientist article was the assertion that smarter people have a different brain structure.

  • Yes, it’s really simple.

  • If you don’t understand how, then you don’t have one of those smarter brains.

  • because they come with a how to guide that explains why you’re better than everyone else.

  • pause

  • This is another one of those weird and slightly inexplicable things.

  • We’ve already said that intelligence and consciousness aren’t determined by brain size.

  • But amongst humans, it does seem to be that a larger brain corresponds to a higher IQ.

  • It’s probably why the people who use those wing suits can float on the air for so long.

  • I imagine they have very light heads.

Does that suggest that we can identify intelligence in the brain?

  • There are physiological differences as well as size.

  • to do with the grey and white matter in the brain, which gets very complex.

  • Our brains look like walnuts because of the way the tissue is folded.

  • And that folding allows us to think faster because it brings the cells physically closer together.

  • And it does seem that smarter people have more folded brains.

  • Back to your question about identifying where intelligence resides and how it functions.

  • That’s still a work in progress.

  • But even there, the evidence we have suggest we’re more machine like than we’d like to think.

In what sense?

  • A really fun and snappily titled concept called parieto frontal integration theory suggest that intelligence can be mapped around a series of hotspots in the brain.

  • So, rather than our intelligence being concentrated in certain areas - it’s actually distributed..

Like the cloud?

  • It’s not an exact analogy but kinda.

  • And again, you come back to that idea of a screen or whiteboard where the components of all those thoughts are assembled.

  • But intelligence isn’t just derived from the size or the speed that information floods from these areas.

  • It’s also about how efficiently we use our brains.

  • And this is something that we may be able to influence externally.

You do understand that people get worried when you say things like influence our brains externally…

  • I’m not talking about cutting people open and playing with their brains.

  • The police said I had to stop that.

  • Plasticity - the ability to change - may be an important component.

  • Research by Emiliano Santarnecchi at Harvard Medical School suggest that we can increase our intelligence using magnetic stimulation.

  • So, this week we have a message going out to the tinfoil hat brigade.

  • You’re protecting yourself from signals that will make you smarter.

  • But then, that’s what they want you to think, isn’t it?

But we are getting closer to decoding the signals, though…

  • We’ve talked about the case where a university team was able to play tetris using eeg caps.

  • and that most of the big tech companies are researching brainwave technologies as an interface.

  • A team at university of california san francisco has developed a system that mimics the human jaw and its muscles.

  • Linked to electrodes in the brain it allows patients to form the word in their head and then, rather than reading that word because we still don’t know how, it intercepts all the messages that would form the word in your mouth.

  • And a machine generates the word for you.

  • It’s still a little basic and it can be hard to understand, but the team hopes that will a little refinement, it will allow people with conditions like paralysis that prevent speech, to at least regain enough vocabulary for basic communication.

What’s your gut telling you? Will it be a breakthrough?

  • Ah. Very clever.

  • It is a breakthrough but yes, we have to end today with the stomach.

  • We’ve heard for a few years now that we may have a kind of second brain functioning in our gut.

  • Even things like nausea - we have a visceral reaction to certain things that horrify us - but that’s physical response to a moral situation.

  • So in a very real sense that’s the brain and the gut working together.

  • The question is which organ do those reactions arise? the brain or the gut.

Is this where you make another machine analogy?

  • Absolutely. Look at your car, or most complex automated systems.

  • You don’t just have one control unit. You probably have dozens, which are interdependent but can act independently of the system core.

  • We’re no different. There are estimated to be around 500m neurons in the gut.

  • What we ingest is critical to maintaining the functioning of the body.

  • And digestion is one of the most taxing things we put our bodies through.

  • So you want there to be a signalling mechanism that tells the brain what you’re eating is providing enough fuel, detecting the pathogens it can deal with and sending out emergency signals to the rest of the body for any it can’t.

Isn’t there also evidence that some medical conditions start or are triggered in the gut?

  • We’re really only at the infancy of research into the microbiome in our gut.

  • I think we’ve reported on the show before that some mental health conditions like depression may be treatable or alleviated with probiotics in the future.

  • Although we’re yet to identify the magic strain.

  • Parkinson’s and some forms of autism are also thought to originate in the gut.

  • Some epilepsy sufferers have had success with high fat diets alleviating their seizures.

  • A 2013 study found that test subjects who were given a fermented milk drink experienced a change to their resting brain activity and to the way they responded to emotional stimuli.

What have we learned today, that humans are machines?

  • We’ve learned that the brain and consciousness are amazing things.

  • That the way we experience the world is literally assembled in a way that isn’t dissimilar to a computer.

  • With a hard drive, an operating systems, applications and most importantly a screen that we call consciousness

  • Maybe what we should think about is that machines - devices that we create - are more like us than we think.

  • That perhaps they’re assembled from a subconscious human blueprint.

  • It makes sense that we would create machines that mirror our own functionality and systems.

  • Just because we aren’t consciously aware of how our brains work, in the same way we don’t see the processes that are delivering this podcast to your headphones or speakers…

  • That doesn’t mean that our brains aren’t influencing the way we design along similarly human paths.

  • It’s just that we may not be aware that we know how our minds and bodies function at a conscious level.

  • I know some people will be uncomfortable with this.

  • But I find it reassuring to think that machines, and maybe the AI powered androids of the future, will be far more human than they are alien.

  • That the automatons of tomorrow will be using my machine brain as their blueprint.

If you haven’t booked your tickets yet, a reminder that I’ll be speaking at the Archidex design event on Saturday 6th July at KLCC at 3pm. At the Tomorrowland Pavilion in Hall 8 I believe. I’ll be talking some more about the chaos factory, the enslavement of humanity by machines and other things that make me happy. Drop by if you’re in the area. Entrance is free, but please remember to register at Details are on the MSP facebook page, Instagram and all those kinda places.