Every year summer melts the locals and tourists in Manly Corso into a thick paste of thirsty beachgoers. As you sludge away from the beach and to the crowded vendors, its consistency is unremarkable — a blur of unforgiving pedestrian-traffic and a creeping haze of sweat and vaporising sunscreen. As repetition begins to define itself at the beginning of November, the workers that hold up the sides of Manly Corso descend into homogeneity. A cycle of demand fastens till it reaches constant velocity.
As the arena for predictability rises, the workers let down their own guards as they take their seats for the Summer rush. No one wants to stand and get in someone’s way.
Which is what a thief wants: consistency.
“‘Be yourself’ is about the worst advice you can give some people” — Thomas Lansing Masson
By December she knew when I finished my shift. She knew where my locker was. By January I knew she had my phone.
Yesterday in Seattle, an aircrew ground worker stole a turboprop propellor plane, flew for an hour and then fatally crashed into a wooded island. It was the real-life Grand Theft Auto.
The pilot even said it himself:
Air-Traffic Controller: Right now he’s just flying around, and he just needs some help controlling his aircraft.
Pilot: Nah, I mean, I don’t need that much help. I’ve played some video games before.
When the plane’s fuel tank began to empty at 7,500 feet, the pilot opened up:
I’ve got a lot of people that care about me. It’s going to disappoint them to hear I did this. I would like to apologise to each and every one of them. Just a broken guy, got a few screws loose I guess. Never really knew it, until now.
You can tell a plane has crashed with a full-tank of fuel by the fireball that follows. As the kerosene burns around the passengers, their clothes and watches melt into their skin. For investigators, the wreckage is a paste of burnt steel and flesh. Amongst this mess, reasons and answers need to be found.
But when a plane crashes by running out of fuel, the reason splinters out from the ground. Even without the scorched earth, there’s still a scorched mind somewhere in the crash. Some loose screws let the furnace explode.
Why did she steal my phone? Why did he steal the plane? At this moment it’s easy to connect different characteristics and underline them as “motivations”.
It wouldn’t be uncommon to hear the following:
“She had a broken childhood”
“His work was too much pressure”
“Her friends all do it”
“He was mentally ill”
The majority of these comments are environmental influences. They linger in peoples’ minds, edging and scratching away at new ideas until they burst into our conscious as ‘our’ choice.
But when someone’s described as ‘mentally ill’, we introduce a seismic shift into how we can ‘be’. It’s no longer ideas fighting for attention as we pass by new scenery. In this case there’s no rules — it’s a brawl in the dark. No one knows who’s fighting who. As the silhouettes grapple with each other, it’s only the ones that fall into stillness that tell us what’s lost.
There’s nothing more biologically fascinating than the human brain. As we dig our way through craniums, we find the teeth marks of evolution having torn into us again, and again. The electric paste that now floats in each of our heads is like bubble-wrapped popping candy. Billions of muffled explosions showering the mind with sugar to keep it alive. Yet quiet enough that you can forget how bloody it once was.
The four lobes of the brain are the Frontal (working-memory, planning, motivation), Parietal (sensory information), Occipital (vision processing) and the Temporal (derives meaning from sensory information). Neural tissue can be further divided into either grey or white matter.
Grey tissue is used for information processing, where electric impulses converge into actionable opportunities. To facilitate these impulses, white matter helps propagate electric energy through the type of neurons found within.
At the light microscope level (1 millimetre — 1 micrometre) we can distinguish the cytoarchitecture of nerve cells. With their soma (cell bodies) ranging in diametre from 10–50 micrometres, they can be up to twice the width of red-blood cells.
The distinction between nerve cells and the rest that make up our bodies, is their ability to innervate others.
Like a chain reaction in a nuclear bomb, the human brain is an infinitely recursive set of reactions being ignited from the world around you. In thanks to the pitch perfect harmony between your motor and sensory systems, you’re able to react to this world and live for another day.
‘Living’ is all evolution wants. It doesn’t care about a species’ integrity — it cares about whether there’ll be a tomorrow. Such persistence across time has allowed phylogeneticists to map the evolution of neurons from simple nerve nets to the complex domains they inherit today in the central and periphery nervous systems.
When eukaroytes (plants, animal and fungi) split from the prokaroytes (bacteria) more than a billion years ago, multicellular organisms formed and separated into the five major animal groups of today: Ctenophora, Poriphera, Placozoa, Cnidaria and the more than two dozen phyla that make up Bilateria which includes chordates such as humans.
From this split, brain development has uniquely emerged at least in five separate radiations of vertebrates. The kinetic energy of cephalisation that concentrated neural activity into human heads ensured that the Homo gene was delivered a decisive strategic advantage within the animal kingdom.
But what happened within our brains that made us the dominant species?
There’s approximately 100 billion neurons in a human brain but they’re outnumbered 10 : 1 by Glial cells.
Neuronal function isn’t a binary matter. It’s as rich as dining experiences that are engineered by a near infinite list of parametres: the menu, the weather, the waiter, the entreé and so on.
Neurons are excited by a changing chemical gradient around their neuronal membrane. As ions permeate through sodium, calcium and potassium channels, the changing electric difference between the extracellular fluid and the cytoplasmic substance leads to a rise from the resting potential of -65 millivolts until it crosses threshold at approximately -30millivolts.
At this moment, an electric signal charges from the axon hillock to the axon terminals within 1000th of a second.
When this action potential reaches the axon terminals, a neurotransmitter is released from the presynaptic neuron so it can communicate to the post-synaptic neuron by connecting with its dendrites. The neurotransmitter acts as an effector molecule, enabling the propagation of the action potential across the nervous system.
But what’s to guide these neurotransmitters from the presynaptic to postsynaptic neuron? Thanks to the structural support of Glial cells, the brain has limited free space. Astrocytes invest synaptic clefts to maintain the brain’s biochemistry so there’s no concentration of any particular neurotransmitter.
How about the speed of these action potentials? Why do they move so fast in the first place? In the Central Nervous System, oligodendroglial cells envelop the axons of neurons to create an internode/Node of Ranvier pattern called myelination that not only improves the conducting speed of the impulse, but also reduces the leakage of ions into extracellular fluid.
Similarly, in the Peripheral Nervous System, Schwann Cells myelinate the peripheral nerves that enable us to react and sense our environments.
As opposed to the simple network of neurons that are usually heralded as the architects of human behaviour, there’s instead an overwhelming grasp on the brain that’s controlled by glial cells.
Neurons wouldn’t be able to fire their action potentials if astroglial cells couldn’t absorb glutamate from the synaptic cleft and then create glutamine from ammonia (via glutamate synthetise), because glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter. Unfortunately, excess glutamate behaves as a excitotoxin that leads to neuronal damage.
Instead of the brain being just 100 billion neurons, it’s 1 trillion glial cells and 100 billion neurons. Together, these networks have made us human.
On the course to machine intelligence there’s a branch approaching that leads to Whole Brain Emulation (WBE). It sounds as it reads.
By uploading someone’s mind to a computer, it’ll be possible to model somebody’s behaviour and the derivates that come with it. For instance, prediction.
Successful WBE requires an innate understanding of neural and cytoarchitecture that’s beyond our levels today. Only in the last decade or so are glial cells receiving the attention they deserve, previously thought to be just “space-fillers” in the brain.
While WBE may be used to understand the minds of those that escape our logic today, they may lead to inescapable realities.
For anyone that misbehaves, it’s easy to discern their behaviour as a byproduct of their environment. That’s why we hear…
“She had a broken childhood”
“His work was too much pressure”
…after any malicious, confusing or simply inhumane act.
But what if within the network of neurons and glial cells, there was a menacing set of wires that led to someone’s mind becoming entangled in a toxic worldview that strangled any sense and empathy from them.
When gametes fuse together during sexual reproduction, zinc atoms burst from the egg marking a successful fertilisation. It’s easy to forget that in this moment, two individual cells have mixed together and are about to form a zygote. In that moment, all the genetic material needed to form a complete human has been processed. Life has begun. The mind floods open.
Remember, “that” person came from just one cell.
The comprehensive goal of computing is to emulate and improve upon, human cognition. Presently, computers demonstrate discrete abilities that are mostly inspired by either human abilities or lack of.
WBE represents the pivotal moment when computers are able to emulate human brains. A technical achievement that will be perhaps one of humanity’s greatest. At long last, the inner workings of someone’s mind will finally be able to be cracked open and the paste of ‘us’ can be filtered. Each constituent, dissected and categorised so the precision of the human brain can be unveiled.
For programmers that are currently working directly or indirectly towards WBE through machine-learning research and neuroscience, it’s not enough to consider the brain as a network of neurons.
So why are all machine-learning algorithms obsessed about neural networks and not the glial networks that outnumber them 10 : 1?
Cheers for reading, hope you’ve enjoyed it!