In 1950, Alan Turing, a Cambridge graduate and the father of modern computing, made a cautious wager. Turing regarded the mind as a fascinating computational phenomenon. He believed that the key to understanding something so complex lay in being able to describe it using the clearest, most unambiguous language there is – mathematics.
Turing’s wager was about how long this might take: over a thousand years. Mentioned in the famous paper in which he described the idea of an ‘imitation game’ for comparing human and artificial intelligence, Turing’s wager provides a reality check on the practical feasibility of brain mapping.
And yet, attempting to understand the mathematics of the mind – even if they can’t beat the wager – is exactly what Dr Andrew Thwaites and colleagues from Cambridge’s Department of Psychology and the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit have set out to do. Why? “Because there will be major gains along the way,” explains Thwaites.
“Prosthetic limbs and hearing aids already use mathematical algorithms to mimic the equations of the brain and nervous system, and more detailed maps will make it much easier to replace lost function. Better maps also allow us to improve diagnosis and treatment of neurological disorders.
“A complete map could introduce a wide range of futuristic technologies – perhaps the ability to download memories as if they were photographs, to plug in instant multilingual translation or to augment intelligence.”
These revolutionary applications won’t be here any time soon – a full mathematical description o