Is the human brain a digital computer?
You would not believe that we can make artificial intelligence out of a steam engine, would you? So, why would we believe that we can make it out of a digital computer?
Is the human brain a digital computer
It all seems like artificial intelligence is just behind the door or let’s say 20 – 30 years from now.
It’s not just machine learning as we presently know it, but a vision of full artificial intelligence capable of mimicking the cognitive capabilities of humans. This idea, still a bit dreaming stems from one significant presumption. This concept is that the human brain functions as the digital computer.
This analogy has become so ubiquitous and axiomatic that scientists describe the human brain through phenomena usually used in computer science – information, processor, data, software, hardware, algorithms and etc.
Psychologists, linguistics (Chomsky too) and neuroscientists alike compare the human brain to a digital computer. And honestly it’s a useful simplification – it is easy to imagine it.
On the other hand, this kind of comparison creates simplifications, that are a little off reality.
Ray Kurzweil or Nick Bostrom – two futurists that claim that the singularity is just behind the door. It will be the time when artificial intelligence not only reaches the level of human intelligence but actually will outpace it.
It’s been there before
For centuries we have tried to understand how the mind works. There are breakthroughs, but there’s still a long way to go.
One pattern is pretty observable and also practical – we tend to learn in models, analogies and associations. Things we do not understand at first we compare to well – known technologies of the present times.
The popular analogy in ancient Greece was to compare the human brain and body functioning to hydraulic systems. This ancient static concept, that the life comes from the dust was changed by the dynamic technological concept of the industrial era – the water pump and the steam engine.
The doctors of that time claimed that thanks to such systems found in a human body the four bodily fluids are present that are responsible for our mental and physical utterances.
So, it’s been like that.
The 16th century Rene Descartes and Thomas Hobbes imagined the brain as a complex mechanical machine. Of course, this was a machine powered by strings and sprockets.
They imagined human brain kind of like this.
Then the 19th-century steam engine associations came. Even the famous psychologist Sigmund Freud saw the brain and body as a steam engine. Maybe he was just oversimplifying and finding for him a contemporary simile. Maybe.
But in a couple of his articles, we can read of the human mind as pipes, valves, vents and pistons – they alternately mold and relax the pressure, what powers the mechanics of mind and body.
Then the 20th century came and the human mind was compared to the functioning of the telephone or rather a telegraph. The scientists of that era saw neurons as electric wires where signals travel according to patterns similar to a Morse code.
And finally, the psychologist George Millen in 1951 published his book Language and Communication where he suggested to describe the mental world of a human by terms used in computer science.
Is the human brain a digital computer – Software vs. Hardware
Many contemporary scientists are using metaphors like the human brain is an information processor, where our mind is software that runs on hardware – the brain.
And we know why it is cool.
It’s fun, sexy and easily tangible. We have this analogy or to rather say a dichotomy everywhere we look. We see some piece of hardware – the smartphone, computer, smartwatch and etc. That enables some software functionalities.
But, it’s wrong.
The brain has got no central CPU unit. There’s not OS (operation system), no application software. And I think there’s no code like by a computer. I think we can use an analogy of coding. So-called neurolinguist programmers think that the brain is code-able through language, but even that might be wrong because the thought precedes the words.
Our brain is a complex neuron network. You see the hardware matters.
We anchored some valuable knowledge that explains how the human brain changes over time and because of the influence of the environment. In another word, the human brain is plastic. It’s hardware changes in time and place.
The software may run on any piece of hardware – that’s behind the famous growth of Java programming language.
But in the brain, the hardware matters. The psychical and physical utterances slowly change the structure of a brain. So, instead of analogy to software and hardware, we should talk of something like an emergent property of the physical brain.
If we accept that the human mind is a computer – we accept that the mind is divided from the physical brain.
But, we know that the brain (hardware) changes in circumstances, in the time and environment. It’s active in circumstances, not a passive actor.
So, why would we accept the dichotomy of mind and matter?
Is the human brain a digital computer
It does not have lone – standing functions or subprograms
Marvin Minsky was an artificial intelligence professor from MIT who had this idea. In his book the Society of Mind he had the idea that the mind is a collection of subprograms – maybe one program is driving, another one making a phone call, or talking to a spouse. And there are different subprograms for that.
In Minsky’s world, the brain is a collection of apps, just like our smartphones. That’s very tangible and sellable for times we live in.
But, this is again an analogy of a digital computer.
The neurologist David Eagleman in his book Incognito states that the brain is using a diverse and a lot of time competitive strategies. It’s the interaction of systems that counts and we still have to understand better.
So, when the children touch an object, it is not just to know the shapes and structure, but also to improve their visual abilities.
If we hear something we’re almost immediately trying to picture it and vice versa. Evolution has been a very different process than what is an architecture of a digital computer.
Algorithms in our brains
There are two types or ways how artificial intelligence is working with information.
- We can label one as being a supervised way
- the other as unsupervised
Supervised processing of information is based expert systems (top-down approach). These systems include GBs of rules, data, commands, and programmes created by engineers and scientists.
In order to find an apple in the pile of fruits, I have to first tell the computer exactly, in its computer language, what is an apple.
Then there’s an unsupervised learning (down – top) – or imagine you would be thrown in a country where nobody speaks your language. You would not understand a single thing, but after a while, living in that country, you would understand certain patterns (what is an apple) – what words do the people speak when some phenomena occur. It’s not exactly like that, but I can’t think of a better comparison. That’s more of a machine learning scenario.
Either way, both approaches are reliant on plans and especially algorithms, recipes, scenarios – structured hierarchical procedures.
If this would be an analogy for the human brain, then we would only have to find the key algorithms to brain functioning – pick them, study them and apply in a machine.
Is the human brain a digital computer?
Ray Kurzweil in his book how to create a mind certainly thinks so.
He thinks that it’s just enough to copy these main algorithms that are present in the human brain into a computer. After that, it’s just a matter of time when the singularity is going to come.
The brain as an emergent system
David Eagleman suggests that we should see the human brain as a decentralized neuron network.
The neuron is a specialized cell communicating through electrochemical signals, which is governed by applicable physical and chemical laws. The task of each neuron is to fulfill its local tasks without knowing the whole scenario.
Is the human brain a digital computer according to this theory?
Oh, no! Because there’s no global plan, no global algorithms that govern the central purpose.
All that is present are neurons that are adapting and reacting on the local environment.
It seems like a local chaos and yet still the neurons create a spontaneous, self-organized and enormously complex order.
This was wonderfully described in a book called The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins.
His main point is this:
The essence and key point is that there is nothing like a choreographer or a leader of the ensemble. Order, organization, and structure are by-products of rules that are observed locally and repeatedly.
So, if this is true then we can’t reduce our effort in AI to simply finding the right algorithms.
To find a simile we should rather point to the study of the economy.
A very simplified picture of this complex problem is offered by the economic system, which is a typical example of such a decentralized system. Everyday transactions of individuals create an extremely complicated global economic system. Although it is much easier than what’s going on in our head, there’s no mathematical algorithm or model that can model and describe this dynamic, down-organized system.
Is the human brain a digital computer – the conclusion
We believe it is not.
AI, as we know it in our contemporary days, has wonderful mathematical and practical implications.
One of the most advanced is AI in the field of marketing, where the advertising is customized based on our search preference. But, there are of course other fantastic enhancements to existing applications that are getting attention in a business world.
The point is this. We believe that it is a bit Moon race by building a ladder to the Moon.
The functioning is simply different. Even the most advanced computer might still fail to reach not to surpass the skills of the human brain.
The exponential growth of computation muscle based on Moore law is surely making the computer scientists confident.
And don’t get us wrong we’re not anti-AI and we believe that singularity is possible.
But, under different terms and means, especially technologies.
We need to develop new technologies that are based on study of the human brain.
Isn’t it something that we’ve been doing all this time?
Well yes, but the human brain is a complex thing you know. We might know the thing or two about it, but we’re still only at the beginning.
The hypothesis is that the key lies in the decentralized self – organizing systems.
Even when we do not acquire the whole picture of how this humongous decentralized self – organizing network is functioning, we know by pure empirical practicing what works and what does not.
For sure we know that learning is the single most significant factor to life’s enhancement and prosperity.
It’s though in our hand to take it seriously and become superlearners.
First, know who you are, then learn accordingly. And use superlearning techniques.
This course might be helpful as always.
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