The Brain versus Computer Grudge Match

I found a great NYT Opinion piece by neuroscientists Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang entitled Computers vs. Brains. Remember Ray Kurzweil and his prediction in 2005 that computers were on a trajectory to out think brains by a couple of decades from now? Do you agree?

Ms. Aamodt, Mr. Wang (and I) do not agree. The authors believe this because of the fundamental differences between how brains and computers develop, how they are powered and how they function. Unlike computers, brains develop overlays of pre-existing systems, a far more efficient means of dealing with evolutionary need than a complete rebuild. I love their analogy comparing a brain to a 1925 Model T that keeps getting hot-rodded with new parts and never stops running. Re-engineering old computer systems into new tech, however, is not exactly an efficient way to evolve machines.

The energy consumption differences are striking as well. The brain is amazing in its compactness. Because of this compactness, the brain can store massive amounts of information, about a petabyte. The compactness also aids energy efficiency – all memory and thought processes in your brain consume about 12 watts of energy. Less than your reading lamp.

The comparable computer would use a gigawatt of power, which is similar to the amount consumed by all of Washington DC. The authors posit that such a computer would be far to costly to construct and run.

But the most important distinction (for me at least) is that brains are wonky things. They are not reliable in their functioning and, consequently, have become masters as getting themselves out of dark alleys. The brain’s synapses don’t always work so the brain is required to come up with quick fixes and solutions, approximations and work-arounds. Computers, on the other hand, do not have this built in unreliability and consequent irrationality.

I think this wonkiness is the very strength of the brain. We can fix it on the fly, shift gears in mid-stream and create new solutions from ashes.

So, how does this have anything to do with the law? Next time you are tempted to rely on your computer, consider the brain option – you might surprise yourself with your own creativity and ingenuity. It’s still the best tech there is.

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