Spaun, Spanner and the moral Porsche

porsche_911__by_k_mate-d3gaiwuThree pieces of news caught my attention this week: a Science paper published by a group of Canadian scientists describing a functional brain, a Wired’s article on Google’s Spanner database, and a New Yorker blog post on the morality of Google’s Driver-less car. Can you figure out how they are related? No, it is not because the last two are related with Google’s relentless innovation, but almost.


Scientists from the University of Waterloo have built a model to explain how brain activity generates complex behaviour. In a paper published in Science, Chris Eliasmith and his colleagues describe “Spaun,” a 2.5-million-neuron model of the brain. Spaun, short for Semantic Pointer Architecture Unified Network, can perform eight different tasks. It can recognize numbers, generate answers to simple numerical questions, and write them down using a physically modelled arm. Eliasmith is also writing a book with detailed instructions, ” How to build a brain”, which is due out in February.

Eliasmith’s brain model is hard-wired and cannot learn new tasks. However, in a related article published in the same number of Science, another neuroscientist, Christian Machens, says that the model provides a coherent theory on how the brain works:

To paraphrase the statistician George Box, their model is likely to be wrong, but is certainly useful.

Several brain model projects, such as the Blue Brain Project (1 million neurons) or IBM’s SyNAPSE (1 billion neurons, a bit larger than a cat brain) are trying to reverse-engineer the brain. In a new book published this month, “How to Create a Mind“, futurist Ray Kurzweil champions their cause. Reverse-engineering the human brain could open the door to all sorts of significant innovations, including the extension of brains to the cloud and the merge of human and machines (trans-humanism and mind uploading)

Kurzweil predicts this might happen as early as the 2020s, which is debatable. But it seems increasingly clear it is where the science is going, much to the chagrin of strong AI detractors, and does it really matter if he is off by a decade or two?


Spanner is Google’s scalable, multi-version, globally distributed, and synchronously-replicated database. It is the first system to distribute data at a global scale and support externally-consistent distributed transactions. Spanner runs across hundreds of data centres throughout the world. It’s so smart that it rapidly shifts resources during outages without human intervention and keeps everything perfectly in sync using GPS and atomic clocks.

According to Venturebeat, Spanner is not yet Skynet —the self-aware artificial intelligence system in the Terminator movies— but it does show how far we have come at building connected systems and databases.


As provocative as these would-be Skynets are, the moral debate around the rise of the machines, might well come hand in hand with a much more modest and familiar kind of machine: the car. Google’s driver-less cars are already street-legal in three USA states: California, Florida, and Nevada; and Gary Marcus, a Professor of Psychology at NYU, points out in a New Yorker blog post:

Within two or three decades the difference between automated driving and human driving will be so great you may not be legally allowed to drive your own car, and even if you are allowed, it would be immoral of you to drive, because the risk of you hurting yourself or another person will be far greater than if you allowed a machine to do the work.

That moment will be significant not just because it will signal the end of one more human niche, but because it will signal the beginning of another: the era in which it will no longer be optional for machines to have ethical systems.

Marcus continues to paraphrase a well known thought experiment in ethics, the trolley problem:

Your car is speeding along a bridge at fifty miles per hour when an errant school bus carrying forty innocent children crosses its path. Should your car swerve, possibly risking the life of its owner (you), in order to save the children, or keep going, putting all forty kids at risk? If the decision must be made in milliseconds, the computer will have to make the call.

Can you imagine a future in which car manufacturers will angrily compete to show which car model is the most moral? Can you guess which will be the first ever moral car? An Italian Ferrari, a Japanese Toyota, a German Porsche? Go place your bets!


Featured Image: Porsche 911 by k-Mate

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.