Tag Archives: creativity

Slow deep thoughts from a planet-sized brain

I overheard a clip on the radio last week in which someone was parodying the quote from Marvin, the Paranoid Android in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: ‘Here I am with a brain the size of a planet and they ask me to pick up a piece of paper. Call that job satisfaction? I don’t.’  It set me thinking about something that I read a few months ago in Max Tegmark’s book: ‘Life 3.0 – being human in the age of artificial intelligence‘ [see ‘Four requirements for consciousness‘ on January 22nd, 2020].  Tegmark speculates that since consciousness seems to require different parts of a system to communicate with one another and form networks or neuronal assemblies [see ‘Digital hive mind‘ on November 30th, 2016], then the thoughts of large systems will be slower by necessity.  Hence, the process of forming thoughts in a planet-sized brain will take much longer than in a normal-sized human brain.  However, the more complex assemblies that are achievable with a planet-sized brain might imply that the thoughts and experiences would be much more sophisticated, if few and far between.  Tegmark suggests that a cosmic mind with physical dimensions of a billion light-years would only have time for about ten thoughts before dark energy fragmented it into disconnected parts; however, these thoughts and associated experiences would be quite deep.


Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Penguin Random House, 2007.

Max Tegmark,  Life 3.0 – being a human in the age of artificial intelligence, Penguin Books, Random House, UK, 2018.


Citizens of the world

Last week in Liverpool, we hosted a series of symposia for participants in a dual PhD programme involving the University of Liverpool and National Tsing Hua University, in Taiwan, that has been operating for nearly a decade.  On the first day, we brought together about dozen staff from each university, who had not met before, and asked them to present overviews of their research and explore possible collaborations using as a theme: UN Sustainable Development Goal No.11: Sustainable Cities and Communities.  The expertise of the group included biology, computer science, chemistry, economics, engineering, materials science and physics; so, we had wide-ranging discussions.  On the second and third day, we connected a classroom on each campus using a video conferencing system and the two dozen PhD students in the dual programme presented updates on their research from whichever campus they are currently resident.  Each student has a supervisor in each university and divides their time between the two universities exploiting the expertise and facilities in the two institutions.

The range of topics covered in the student presentations was probably even wider than on the first day; extending from deep neural networks, through nuclear reactor technology, battery design and three-dimensional cell culturing to policy impacts on households.  One student spoke about the beauty of mathematical equations she is working on that describe the propagation of waves in lattice structures; while, another told us about his investigation of the causes of declining fertility rates across the world.  Data from the UN DESA Population Division show that live births per woman in the Americas & Europe have already fallen below the 2.1 required to sustain the population, while it is projected to fall below this level in south-east Asia within the next five years and in the world by 2060.  This made me think that perhaps the Gaia principle, proposed by James Lovelock, is operating and that human population is self-regulating as it interacts with constraints imposed by the Earth though perhaps not in a fashion originally envisaged.


When will you be replaced by a computer?

I have written before about extending our minds by using external computing power in our mobile phones [see ‘Science fiction becomes virtual reality‘ on October 12th, 2016; and ‘Thinking out of the skull‘ on March 18th, 2015]; but, how about replacing our brain with a computer?  That’s the potential of artificial intelligence (AI); not literally replacing our brain, but at least taking over jobs that are traditionally believed to require our brain-power.  For instance, in a recent test, an AI lawyer found 95% of the loopholes in a non-disclosure agreement in 22 seconds while a group of human lawyers found only 88% in 90 minutes, according to Philip Delves Broughton in the FT last weekend.

If this sounds scary, then consider for a moment the computing power involved.  Lots of researchers are interested in simulating the brain and it has been estimated that the computing power required is around hundred peta FLOPS (FLoating point Operations Per Second), which conveniently, is equivalent to the world’s most powerful computers.  At the time of writing the world’s most powerful computer was ‘Summit‘ at the US Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which is capable of 200 petaFLOPS.  However, simulating the brain is not the same as reproducing its intelligence; and petaFLOPS are not a good measure of intelligence because while ‘Summit’ can multiply many strings of numbers together per second, it would take you and me many minutes to multiply two strings of numbers together giving us a rating of one hundredth of a FLOP or less.

So, raw computing power does not appear to equate to intelligence, instead intelligence seems to be related to our ability to network our neurons together in massive assemblies that flicker across our brain interacting with other assemblies [see ‘Digital hive mind‘ on November 30th, 2016]. We have about 100 billion neurons compared with the ‘Summit’ computer’s 9,216 CPUs (Central Processing Unit) and 27,648 GPUs (Graphic Processing Units); so, it seems unlikely that it will be able to come close to our ability to be creative or to handle unpredictable situations even accounting for the multiple cores in the CPUs.  In addition, it requires a power input of 13MW or a couple of very large wind turbines, compared to 80W for the base metabolic rate of a human of which the brain accounts for about 20%; so, its operating costs render it an uneconomic substitute for the human brain in activities that require intelligence.  Hence, while computers and robots are taking over many types of jobs, it seems likely that a core group of jobs involving creativity, unpredictability and emotional intelligence will remain for humans for the foreseeable future.


Max Tegmark, Life 3.0 – being human in the age of artificial intelligence, Penguin Books, 2018.

Philip Delves Broughton, Doom looms over the valley, FT Weekend, 16 November/17 November 2019.

Engelfriet, Arnoud, Creating an Artificial Intelligence for NDA Evaluation (September 22, 2017). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3039353 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3039353

See also NDA Lynn at https://www.ndalynn.com/

Thought leadership in fusion engineering

The harnessing of fusion energy has become something of a holy grail – sought after by many without much apparent progress.  It is the energy process that ‘powers’ the stars and if we could reproduce it on earth in a controlled environment then it would offer almost unlimited energy with very low environmental costs.  However, understanding the science is an enormous challenge and the engineering task to design, build and operate a fusion-fuelled power station is even greater.  The engineering difficulties originate from the combination of two factors: the emergent behaviour present in the complex system and that it has never been done before.  Engineering has achieved lots of firsts but usually through incremental development; however, with fusion energy it would appear that it will only work when all of the required conditions are present.  In other words, incremental development is not viable and we need everything ready before flicking the switch.  Not surprisingly, engineers are cautious about flicking switches when they are not sure what will happen.  Yet, the potential benefits of getting it right are huge; so, we would really like to do it.  Hence, the holy grail status: much sought after and offering infinite abundance.

Last week I joined the search, or at least offered guidance to those searching, by publishing an article in Royal Society Open Science on ‘An integrated digital framework for the design, build and operation of fusion power plants‘.  Working with colleagues at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, Richard Taylor and I have taken our earlier work on an integrated nuclear digital environment for the nuclear energy using fission [see ‘Enabling or disruptive technology for nuclear engineering?‘ on january 28th, 2015] and combined it with the hierarchical pyramid of testing and simulation used in the aerospace industry [see ‘Hierarchical modelling in engineering and biology‘ on March 14th, 2018] to create a framework that can be used to guide the exploration of large design domains using computational models within a distributed and collaborative community of engineers and scientists.  We hope it will shorten development times, reduce design and build costs, and improve credibility, operability, reliability and safety.  It is a long list of potential benefits for a relatively simple idea in a relatively short paper (only 12 pages).  Follow the link to find out more – it is an open access paper, so it’s free.


Patterson EA, Taylor RJ & Bankhead M, A framework for an integrated nuclear digital environment, Progress in Nuclear Energy, 87:97-103, 2016.

Patterson EA, Purdie S, Taylor RJ & Waldon C, An integrated digital framework for the design, build and operation of fusion power plants, Royal Society Open Science, 6(10):181847, 2019.