If you are a regular follower of my blog, you know I like to write about the plight of women in business and the challenges we sometimes face in being treated equally to our male colleagues. As a regular reader you would also know that I am fascinated by how technology is being adapted and adopted to improve the human condition and that I sometimes like to make fun of some of the more over-the-top applications (see FitBit article HERE). And yet, when I read a story in the International Business Times entitled IBM Develops Brain-like Chip, I immediately recognized that my two of my pet issues were on a collision course.
According to the IB Times article, “IBM is deploying its [research] expertise in the attempt to accomplish the unthinkable: developing a chip to mimic the human brain. IBM says its new chip, called SyNAPSE, comes closer than anything done before at replicating the human brain, a breakthrough considering the system is capable of “rewiring” its connections as it encounters new information the same way the biological synapses of a human brain would.”
According to IBM Research project leader Dharmendra Modha, each SyNAPSE chip has 262,144 programmable synapses and 65,636 learning synapses. These synapses can take in new information and then effectively rewire the system to benefit from the learnings of that information. By replicating the “rewiring” connections feature of the technology in a manner similar to how the brain rewires itself in response to new stimuli, the chip is in effect able to learn in a manner similar to how humans learn — applying new information and experiential information to evolved thinking. According to the article, “Synaptic connections between brain cells in humans and animals physically connect themselves depending on experience in the world. Learning is a process of forming and strengthening these connections.”
Aside from the obvious risk of triggering the start of a Terminator-like society, why should this concern me? Well, as you can imagine, the entire project is being led by male scientists. This means that when humans are replaced by learning, thinking machines, they are going to be learning and thinking exactly the way men do. Dr. Modha reports that the SyNAPSE research team is actively trying to “recreate aspects of the mind such as emotion, perception, sensation and cognition by reverse engineering the brain.” One of Modha’s goals is to use these so-called cognitive computers to understand human behavior. With only men in the room, however, that “human behavior” is going to be decidedly Y-chromosomy.
God help us. When cognitive computers take over society, I fear that it is going to devolve even faster into a world of testosterone-driven competitiveness, TV sports and activities that reinforce the universal advantages of large breasts. By creating a system that “learns” from outside stimuli, it seems to me a sure bet that the system will not consider admonitions to lower the toilet seat, wear matching socks, pick up milk on the way home from work, or remember one’s wedding anniversary as legitimate inputs to the system. That stuff will simply get caught up in the male-programmed spam filter.
Just reading the lead scientists comments in the IB Times article make me quite sure my fears are well-founded. Dr. Modha, in an interview with John Roach at msnbc.com, used the following examples of the kinds of things that the first generation of SyNAPSE can do: “[It can] drive a car through a simple maze and reconfigure a triangle from just a fragment. It can also play Pong, the 1970s arcade game, and it might beat you…”
So there you have it in a nutshell: Mr. SyNAPSE, the product of countless millions in research dollars and time, is described by its inventor first and foremost as a lover of fast cars, tools and video games. Need I say more? The only thing it’s missing is a 24-hour porn channel and the power to turn water into beer. Nowhere in the press SyNAPSE did I see anything to suggest it would also have an inate love of shoes, a drive to seek out great bargains at Nordstrom or a burning desire to optimize its cuddling skills.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. In the same John Roach interview Modha said the following, “the next step is to take these tiny brain-like circuits and weave them into a system that eventually has 10 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses that consume just 1 kilowatt of power and occupy the same volume as a shoebox.” So there you have it, a gratuitous use of a shoe-related receptacle, but only in the context of figuring out how to make this already bad-ass chip better, stronger and faster. Of course, the compulsion to figure out how to make the chip’s most prized feature ever-smaller is decidedly unmale, but that must just be a temporary programming glitch.
So ladies, if you thought that our plight in the business world might just get better as the next generation of men become more metrosexual and evolved, think again. If computers programmed by men are used to displace humans in more and more facets of commerce and community, the odds are against us. We are going to have to get to work upgrading the cognitive computing skills of those Austin Powers-fighting FemBots or our daughters are doomed to a lifetime of lower wages and glass ceilings.