The U.S. military’s premiere research agency is already trying to use math to predict human behavior and neuroscience to replicate a primate’s brain. The next step: Lean on the study of energy and heat to create an entirely new theory for how intelligence actually works.
The idea behind Darpa’s latest venture, called “Physical Intelligence” (PI) is to prove, mathematically, that the human mind is nothing more than parts and energy. In other words, all brain activities — reasoning, emoting, processing sights and smells — derive from physical mechanisms at work, acting according to the principles of “thermodynamics in open systems.” Thermodynamics is founded on the conversion of energy into work and heat within a system (which could be anything from a test-tube solution to a planet). The processes can be summed up in formalized equations and laws, which are then used to describe how systems react to changes in their surroundings.
Now, the military wants a new equation: one that explains the human mind as a thermodynamic system. Once that’s done, they’re asking for “abiotic, self-organizing electronic and chemical systems” that display the PI principles. More than just computers that think, Darpa wants to re-envision how thought works — and then design computers whose thought processes are governed by the same laws as our own.
Sounds spooky, but what Darpa suggests has been kicking around as branch of philosophy, called physicalism, since the early 20th century. And researchers have already designed computers that can solve problems of complex physics. What is a little freaky is what DARPA’s new paradigm would mean for the distinction, or lack thereof, between humans and machines.
“If successful, the program would launch a revolution of understanding across many fields of human endeavor, demonstrate the first intelligence engineered from first principles, create new classes of electronic, computational, and chemical systems, and create tools to engineer intelligent systems that match the problem/environment in which they will exist.”
Even for Darpa, this is a wildly ambitious goal — one that may never be reached. But if the human mind is nothing more than the sum of its parts, Darpa’s new paradigm just might create computational intelligence that outdoes our own thermodynamic capabilities… making your brain the equivalent of last year’s mod.