Thursday 29 Sep 2016

If I had a Brain
David Simmonds

I could while away the hours, conferrin' with the flowers
Consultin' with the rain.
And my head I'd be scratchin' while
My thoughts were busy hatchin'
If I only had a brain.

I'd unravel every riddle for any individ'le,
In trouble or in pain.
With the thoughts you'll be thinkin'
you could be another Lincoln

If you only had a brain.

Oh, I could tell you why
The ocean's near the shore.
I could think of things I never thunk before.
nd then I'd sit, and think some more.
I would not be just a nothin' my head all full of stuffin'
My heart all full of pain.
I would dance and be merry, life would be a ding-a-derry,
If I only had a brain.

(Song lyric by Yip Harburg, from “The Wizard of Oz,” 1939).


What a great song that was. For some reason, it seemed to enjoy a revival in the George W Bush era. My friends, The Dazzlebugs, still play it around these parts.

For the Scarecrow, in the Wizard of Oz, this news may come a little late but guess what; they’ve made one, at the University of Waterloo! Now, admittedly, this brain is just a virtual brain, a piece of computer software. It scrapes by using only 2.5 million virtual neurons, as opposed to the one billion neurons of the average human. For your average Scarecrow, this represents a vast improvement - unless you take the position that the Scarecrow did in fact have a satisfactory brain, albeit made of flimsy compostable material; he just didn’t realize he did until Dorothy showed him.

The virtual brain is SPAUN, by name, which stands for the “Semantic Pointer Architecture Unified Network,” as if that means anything. The brain is the brainchild, so to speak, of neuroscientist Dr. Chris Eliasmith. While there are other, more powerful virtual brains out there, this one has folks excited because it performs multiple functions. It replicates the very parts of the brain that process images, control movements and store short-term memories. It’s a real glow in the dark brain, too, because the neural pathways, in use at any particular point, light up.

SPAUN can perform a few simple brain pet tricks. It can generate an answer to a number-sequencing question. It can recognize and replicate a symbol from a series of symbols. It can remember most, but not all, of a sequence of numbers.

You must love a virtual brain that is as fallible as a human brain. I suspect, if they can build a mechanical watch accurate to within 5/10,000ths of a second, it won’t be too long before they can build a brain with a billion neurons, probably using a computer to so do, which will give the human brain some real competition. After that, of course, the computer will start to simulate the brain better than the brain itself can. That will tend to put the human brain on the verge of obsolescence, if it isn’t sitting there already.

The SPAUN virtual brain sets the mind spinning. Medical research, for example, can now be carried out not on long suffering laboratory rats, but through a computer, and come as close to a human trial as is mechanically possible: researchers are already lining up to test various drugs that treat psychiatric conditions.

For every positive spin, I see just as many negative worries. What if I think my brain could stand some improvement. Will I be able to shop around for an upgrade, and someday be able to open up my paper and read an ad like this: “This week only: fully functional virtual brain, estimated IQ 128, strength in mathematics and sciences, weakness in fine arts and creativity. $599 delivered; elsewhere up to $899. It ships in five days and does not include batteries. Some assembly required.”

Would a market open up for the great artists of our time to make their brains available for replication? Would that mean a Justin Bieber or Celine Dion hanging around every street corner? If everyone got one, who would come out ahead? More urgently, how can we act quickly to ban the replication of the brains of federal and provincial politicians to prevent neural contamination?

There’s progress to report: you can’t hold it back, or direct where it flows. I shudder to think what SPAUN will spawn. It all makes one long for the good old days when Scarecrows dreamed of having brains, but were satisfied with the ones they had. Indeed, at the end of the story, wasn’t the Scarecrow “the wisest man in all of Oz.”?

Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Mike Barnacle, Jimmy Breslin, the late Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.

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