PARTICIPANTS: R. Douglas Fields, Kristen Harris, Murray Shanahan, Gregory Wheeler
PROGRAM DATE: Friday, May 31, 2013

Is the human brain an elaborate organic computer? Since the time of the earliest electronic computers, some have imagined that with sufficiently robust memory, processing speed, and programming, a functioning human brain can be replicated in silicon. Others disagree, arguing that central to the workings of the brain are inherently non-computational processes. Do we differ from complex computer algorithms? Are there essential features of the physical make-up and workings of a brain that will prevent us from creating a machine that thinks? And if we should succeed in constructing a computer that claims to be sentient, how would we know if it really is?

This program is part of the Big Ideas Series.

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Executive Producer, Writer and TV host

Bill Weir is the executive producer, writer and host of The Wonder List with Bill Weir an acclaimed CNN original series in search of people and places, cultures and creatures on the brink of seismic change. Debuting in March 2015, the first season took viewers from Venice to Vanuatu, from the Alps to the Everglades, telling unforgettable stories shot in lush, cinematic style by London filmmaker Philip Bloom. Weir joined CNN in November 2013 as anchor and reporter after a decade of distinctive broadcast journalism at ABC News. After helping to launch the weekend edition of Good Morning America in 2004, Weir became co-anchor of Nightline in 2010 while his reporting was featured on World News with Diane Sawyer, Good Morning America, 20/20 and his own Yahoo! News digital series, This Could Be Big. In his network career, Weir journeyed to more than 50 nations and all 50 states, covering breaking news and uncovering global trends. He was among the first reporters into the floodwaters of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and Japan’s tsunami zone during the nuclear crisis of 2011. He dodged Taliban bullets in Afghanistan, led network coverage from Iraq and was the first American to broadcast live from Tibet. In 2012, he anchored ABC’s Summer Olympics coverage from London and brought unprecedented reporting from inside Apple’s Chinese factories. His live shots have come from atop the Golden Gate Bridge and below the waters of the Great Barrier Reef while his signature adventure reporting includes jumps from hot air balloons, hikes deep into the Amazon, and one fun night spent lashed to the side of Yosemite’s El Capitan. Before joining ABC News, Weir wrote and hosted projects for the FX and USA Networks and was an anchor/reporter in Los Angeles, Chicago, Green Bay and Austin, MN. He lives in New York with his wife, daughter and a four-pound dog named Burt. He sincerely believes he could escape from prison if the need ever arose.


Neurologist, Author

R. Douglas Fields is a developmental neurobiologist and author of The Other Brain, a popular book about the discovery of brain cells (called glia) that communicate without using electricity. He is an authority on neuron-glia interactions, brain development, and the cellular mechanisms of memory. Fields serves on the editorial board of several neuroscience journals and also enjoys writing about science for the general public in Scientific American, Huffington Post, Psychology Today, Outside, Odyssey,, and others. He received advanced degrees from UC Berkeley, San Jose State University, and the University of California, San Diego. He held postdoctoral fellowships at Stanford, Yale, and the National Institutes of Health. He is currently chief of the section on nervous system development and plasticity at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the NIH. In addition to science, Fields enjoys building guitars, rock-climbing, and scuba diving.


Kristen Harris is one of the world’s leading neuroscientists investigating synapse structure and function. She has been a professor of neuroscience at Harvard, Boston University, Georgia Health Sciences University, and since 2006 in the Center for Learning and Memory at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of numerous publications and recipient of the prestigious Sloan Fellowship and Javits Neuroscience Investigator Awards, and she serves as a reviewer for the National Institutes of Health. Her research uses 3D reconstructions from electron microscopy to decode the cell biology of learning and memory. Recent findings show that mature neurons sustain a maximum synaptic capacity, exactly balancing the strengthening of some synapses by eliminating weak neighbors during long-term potentiation, a cellular mechanism of learning. These novel findings provide the basis for new understanding of structural and molecular mechanisms of synapse growth and elimination in the mature brain, a crucial step in developing treatments to mend the mind.

Cognitive Roboticist

Murray Shanahan is a professor of cognitive robotics at Imperial College London. In the 1980s, he studied computer science as an undergraduate at Imperial College, and then obtained his Ph.D. from Cambridge University (King’s College). Since then he has carried out work in artificial intelligence, robotics, and cognitive science, and has numerous peer-reviewed publications in these areas. For the past decade or so, he has turned his attention to the brain, and the relationship between cognition and consciousness. His book Embodiment and the Inner Life, was published in 2010.

Computer Scientist, Philosopher

Gregory Wheeler, born in 1968, is an American logician, philosopher, and computer scientist, who specializes in formal epistemology. Much of his work has focused on imprecise probability. He is a visiting associate professor of philosophy at Carnegie Mellon University, and has been a research scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, a senior research scientist in artificial intelligence and member of the board of directors at the Center for Artificial Intelligence Research at the New University of Lisbon. He is a member of the progic steering committee, the editorial board of Synthese, and is the editor-in-chief of Minds and Machines. He obtained a Ph.D. in philosophy and computer science from the University of Rochester under Henry Kyburg.