Will We Ever Figure It Out?

The Astronomer Royal of Britain, Sir Martin Rees, stood before the crowd to make a deceptively straightforward point about modern research: "Chimpanzees cannot appreciate the issues in a field such as quantum mechanics, much less solve them," he said.

The learned crowd, assembled at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California for a weekend event called Sci Foo, didn't disagree. After all, none of them could reliably name even a single simian contributor to The Physical Review.

If you had asked the audience why this was true -- why the apes were so academically unproductive -- they would surely have cited the obvious: their brains, which weigh in at just under a pound, are too puny to ponder modern physics. (Or for that matter, and to their greater shame, even classical physics.)

When it comes to brains, size matters. It's not all that matters, of course. Whales and dolphins have brains that are larger than humans', but few of the flippered and fluked set win tenure at Stanford. Our brains are the largest in proportion to body size, and they're also highly sophisticated. Indeed it's chic to say that the human brain is the most complex thing in the universe. Despite the breathtaking hubris of this claim (has anyone consulted the Klingons?), there's good reason to admire the intricacy of our brains.

None of this will surprise you, especially as the products of our cranial hardware are in plain view. We've invented a stunning gamut of devices from the wheel to the Wii. More than that, we've puzzled out such esoterica as the way stars work, and how most of the cosmos came into being.

But there are still plenty of things we don't know. We haven't devised a satisfying "theory of everything," nor do we have a firm grasp on whether our universe is unique. For that matter, we still don't know how our own brains work.

"Just wait," you may be saying to yourself. "Another few dozen years, and we'll put the physicists and the neuroscientists out of business." And maybe it's true -- maybe we eventually will pry apart all of Nature's secrets.

But then again, perhaps that's all an illusion, or better said, a delusion. Perhaps, like the chimps, our brains simply don't have enough horsepower to do that. Not for lack of will, nor even for lack of adequate research funding. Simply for lack of ability. Rees' comment about the chimps might also apply to us: the complexity of the universe could be too subtle for a three-pound brain to decipher. Ever.

That would be an endless bummer, if true.

But there might be a way out. Most obviously, our brains are continuing to evolve, and perhaps a few tens of thousands of years from now, our descendants will walk around with five pound brains, allowing them insights that we can't imagine. Mind you, there are objections to this idea from some biologists, who maintain that our brains are already very near to capacity in terms of performance. Getting more capability would require wider neurons, a new heart, and bigger arteries. In other words, a major re-engineering of our bodies.

Well, maybe we will produce such changes with some clever genetic engineering. But that seems to be the wrong approach. Instead, consider the possibility that we'll soon be able to supplement our brain with electronic devices to improve memory and -- who knows? -- even our ability to think. We'll be "outsourcing" our creativity and our thought processes to manufactured components that could be inconspicuously implanted beneath our coiffeurs. Welcome to the Borg.

You might not be entirely comfortable with such cybernetic enhancements, but all the smart money says it's going to happen. However, it might be irrelevant because there's something better coming down the pike: Instead of sticking chips into the wetware of your head, we'll eventually make a thinking machine that isn't burdened by the mundane requirements of living protoplasm. A souped-up, cogitating computer.

So when true Artificial Intelligence arrives -- and that might happen within a century -- Rees' problem may be solved. Sure, our three-pound brains might be inadequate to understand the universe. But perhaps they're just good enough to build something that can.