Hugo de Garis


Mad Scientist, Brain Builder, Visionary Pessimist






Many have told him he looks the part of a mad scientist.  He doesn’t mind.


Recently a computer science researcher, a colleague of mine, asked me if I knew him.  I said yes, a little.  The next question: “So is he truly insane or not?” 


His specially-designed computer system, the CAM-Brain Machine, is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “World’s Largest Artificial Brain.”


He believes that, sometime during the next century, there’s going to be a world war between advocates of intelligent computers and those who want to extinguish them to save humanity.


Clearly, Hugo de Garis is not your ordinary everyday research scientist


He’s 54, in his second marriage, with two adult children.   That’s where the “normal average everyday” part ends.   Born in Australia, he’s lived in 6 countries (Australia, England, Holland, Belgium, America, Japan) and now says he feels like a foreigner wherever he goes.   He started off his career as a theoretical physicist, working with quantum pioneer and philosophical maverick David Bohm, but then rapidly turned toward artificial intelligence, where he’s made his mark on the world in an eccentric but definitive way. 


The primary project of his career, the CAM-Brain Machine (CBM), was initiated during the 8 years he spent working in the research lab of ATR, a large Japanese telecommunications firm.   He left Japan in frustration with its culture, and with his brain-building project only half done.  As he puts it, “I lived in Japan … because I felt that country offered me the best opportunities to achieve my long term dream of building artificial brains….  However, Japan's suppression of big egoed individualism, its utter intolerance of western criticisms of its third world social, political and intellectual values, simply enraged me. I had to leave its intellectual sterility to have a life of the mind….  It’s a culture that is first world materially, but third world socially, and is quite unsuited for the vast majority of westerners to live in - too socially backward, too insular, too uncosmopolitan, too closed, too racist, too chauvinist, too passively obedient, too feudal, too fascist for westerners to tolerate. Japan needs two generations of heavy social engineering to catch up with the west socially.”


In ATR’s Human Information Processing lab, run by Katsunori Shimohara – a first-rate techno-visionary in his own right – de Garis developed the theory and designed the details of the CBM, and then contracted out the actual engineering of the machine to some American hardware experts (Genobyte Inc.,  It’s a device of incredible power.  Unlike the general-purpose computers we use everyday, it’s built specifically to do one thing.  It combines genetic algorithms, a computational simulation of evolution by natural selection, with neural networks, a computational simulation of the brain.  It holds a huge number of little neural networks, computer programs roughly emulating the structure of the brain.  It can pass information between these neural networks, and create new neural networks by evolving them according to specified “fitness criteria.”   If one wants a little neural net to solve a certain problem, one casts this problem as a fitness criterion, gives the problem to the CBM, and the CBM will make a neural net that solves your problem.  The idea is that if one hooks together a lot of little neural nets solving relevant, interrelated problems, then one has a brain-mind.


This is one lean, mean, evolving-neural-nets-with-the-genetic-algorithm machine.  It performs as fast as 10,000 Pentium III computers would, if they were turned to this particular task.  So far, 4 of them have been built.  The current pricetag is $400,000.   Only a few more can be built using the exact current design, because one of the components (a special Xilinx field programmable gate array) is not being produced by the manufacturer anymore.  But other similar components could be substituted if more customers were found.


The main limitation of the system seems to be the artificial way that you have to set up the “fitness criterion” in order to have the thing evolve a neural net for you.  You have to specify exactly what outputs the neural net is supposed to provide, when given various inputs.  Not all learning problems are easily cast in this artificial way – for instance, learning how to interact with other minds isn’t about producing the exact right output for each given input, there’s a lot more subtlety to it.  One suspects that when the time finally comes to integrate the CBM with a fully-featured AI system, with long-term memory, perception, action and the whole kit and kaboodle, some substantial modifications will be required.  But even as it is, the CBM is surely a huge boon to AI research – and a powerful reminder of the lack of imagination of the mainstream AI community.  If one maverick researcher can get this amazing AI hardware created, imagine what could be done with a concerted effort to get real AI working, by the governments, universities and corporations of the world.


DeGaris himself understands that the CBM has some fairly serious limitation, but he reckons it’s already pushing the limits of what can be done with current science and technology.  “Real AI,” he says,  “is still many decades away. We still haven’t a clue how the brain works. What is an idea? How is memory stored? ….  I think humanity will have to wait until we can ‘scan’ the brain, which is probably a decade or two away. Then we can store the scanned results and analyze them with massively parallel computers that future technology will give us. Circuits keep doubling their speed and densities every year or two, so 20 years from now our circuits will be on a molecular scale, with trillions of trillions of them. Then I think humanity will be able to tackle real AI.  Our present tools are too primitive.”


One of his goals, in the short run, is to create a robot kitten, Robokoneko, with a billion artificial neurons.  This project is being carried out by Dr. Michael Korkin of Genobyte, the one who actually built the CBM hardware to de Garis’s specifications.  (See for details on the CBM and Robokoneko.)  Building the kitten will be a tremendous learning experience, one step on the path to creating an artificial human brain.




All this is fascinating, visionary scientific work.  De Garis is one of a small but growing breed of scientists who are genuinely coming to grips with the technological revolution emerging all around us.


The peculiar and fascinating irony of the man, however, is that he is fundamentally very pessimistic about the future to which the technology to which he is devoting his life will lead.  His inner contradictions are far worse than those of Bill Joy or Jaron Lanier.  Joy, the Chief Scientist of Sun Microsystems, and Lanier, the virtual reality pioneer, have come to the media recently with strong anti-technology statements, and in spite of this they continue to pursue high-technology work.  But Joy and Lanier are working on particular pieces of technology that are only indirectly related to the technologies they’re warning us about.  They’re warning us about AI and nanotechnology and genetic engineering, and then working on Internet distributed computing and computer vision.  Compared to the mild conflicts between belief and action presented by Joy and Lanier, de Garis is really a seething, bubbling mass of contradictions.  He’s working directly on building brains, and then telling us that brain building may destroy the world.


Quite simply and strikingly, and apparently quite seriously as well, he predicts a late 21’st century world war between two human groups, whom he terms the Cosmists and the Terrans.  The Cosmists will be in favor of creating “artilects,” superhuman artificial brain-minds, the next phase in the evolution of intelligence.  The Terrans will be radically opposed to this kind of technology development, and willing to kill billions in order to prevent the advent of artilects – because, after all, the artilects will have the power to destroy humanity altogether.


He is well aware of the contradictory nature of his roles as artificial brain builder and visionary pessimist. ” I feel I am part of the problem,” he says … “the problem being, "Who or what should be dominant species in the 21st century?….  I am helping to pioneer this brain building field, so I feel a strong moral obligation to stimulate discussion on this enormous question. It is for this reason that I try to ‘raise the alarm’ in the world media, by making the general public conscious that next century's global politics will be dominated by the ‘Artilect Question’, i.e. do we allow the "artilects" (artificial intellects) to take over, or not.”


Crazy?  Certainly not.  Out of the ordinary?  Well, your average ordinary Joe doesn’t go around creating artificial brain machines, now does he. 


Currently there are serious funding problems with the CBM project.  Starlab, where de Garis is now working, is paying his salary while he does his research, but isn’t backing the brain building enterprise in the way it really requires.  But even if Robokoneko never comes to fruition, because of funding problems, de Garis’s work has advanced our understanding of the brain building problem considerably.  He has shown us what can be done with highly specialized hardware, oriented specifically toward one key aspect of computational intelligence.  And I’m sure he will teach us much more in years to come.


Personally, I find his political prognostications much less convincing than his scientific work.  If there is another world war, which I doubt, I suspect it will be centered around old fashioned concerns like religion and money and national pride rather than being focused on artilects in any direct way.   But even so, the dilemma that de Garis points out is real and inescapable.  This contradiction between AI boosters and AI detractors is going to be a huge part of the human dialogue over the next century, though probably in a more complex manner than de Garis envisions, mixed up with the whole mess of other, more familiar human issues and conflicts.


In the end, even if one doesn’t agree with all his theories and predictions, one has to admire the man for his courage to confront large scientific and moral issues directly, instead of, like most of his colleagues, hiding in a little tiny corner of the world, working on narrowly-defined research problems and letting the big issues evolve of their own accord.  We could use more mad scientists like this one.