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Scientist takes on the consciousness conundrum

Christof Koch
Neuroscientist Christof Koch, president and chief scientific officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, talks about the roots of consciousness at the 2017 GeekWire Summit. (Photo by Dan DeLong for GeekWire)

Do animals possess consciousness? Can consciousness be uploaded into a computer? Can we measure objectively whether someone is conscious or not?

Those may sound like deep, imponderable questions — but in a newly published book, “The Feeling of Life Itself,” neuroscientist Christof Koch actually lays out some answers: Yes, no … and yes, scientists are already testing a method for measuring consciousness, with eerie implications.

Along the way, Koch addresses brain-teasing concepts ranging from the Vulcan mind melds seen on “Star Trek” to the kind of brain-computer interface that billionaire Elon Musk is backing through his Neuralink venture.

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Scientist tracks where consciousness comes from

Claustrum neurons
A digital 3-D reconstruction shows a handful of neurons that wrap around a mouse’s brain and are connected to a sheet of brain cells known as the claustrum. (Allen Institute for Brain Science)

SAN FRANCISCO — For decades, neuroscientist Christof Koch has been searching for the seat of consciousness — a quest that has taken him deep within the brains of mice, and to the doorstep of the Dalai Lama.

Now the president and chief scientific officer of Seattle’s Allen Institute for Brain Science is closing in on a big part of the answer in a small part of the brain.

The part in question is known as the claustrum, a thin, irregular sheet of neurons that’s found in each hemisphere of the brain, underneath the cortex.

Koch and the late biologist Francis Crick, a co-discoverer of DNA’s double helix structure, took note of the claustrum more than a decade ago — but it’s taken that long for experimental techniques to progress to the point where neuroscientists can literally shed light on how the claustrum and its network of connected neurons work.

“It connects to every point of the cortex, bidirectionally,” Koch said Oct. 27 at the World Conference of Science Journalists in San Francisco. “Crick and I hypothesized that the function of the claustrum is to do something like consciousness. In a sense, it acts like the conductor of the cortical symphony.”

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Scientist maps path to merge humans and machines

Christof Koch
Christof Koch, chief scientific officer for the Allen Institute for Brain Science, addresses the GeekWire Summit. (Photo by Dan DeLong for GeekWire)

It may sound like a zombie movie, but Seattle’s Allen Institute for Brain Science is studying fresh human brain tissue to see up close how our neurons work — and perhaps eventually figure out how to meld minds with machines.

Integrating artificial intelligence chips into our own neural wiring may be the best way to address concerns about the rapid rise of AI, and the potential that the machines could outpace humans, said neuroscientist Christof Koch, the institute’s chief scientific officer.

Studying the brain should be a “matter of great urgency,” whether you believe that AI will lead to a work-free paradise or a Terminator-style nightmare, Koch said today at the 2017 GeekWire Summit.

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