The Mind's Eye

Mind's Eye

Consider the human brain as a computer. It is an electrical signaling system capable of carrying out mathematical and logical operations. It has short-term and long-term memory. It exchanges inputs and outputs with external devices, like ears and arms. Estimates of human brain performance vary widely because no direct method of comparison to a computer is known, but based on the brain’s hardware and architecture, some experts peg its computing power roughly on par with the world’s fastest supercomputer.

Yet it is clear that the brain is not like a computer. For one thing, humans are notoriously bad at arithmetic. Even humans who excel at arithmetic are bad at arithmetic when compared to even the most limited calculators and computers. But while humans lose every “mathletic” contest hands-down, they utterly obliterate the electronic competition when it comes to more sophisticated tasks, such as recognizing other people—even when seen from different angles or illuminated by different light sources—and reading their emotional states from the subtle variations of their facial muscles. And while a supercomputer might store more bytes or achieve more operations per second, it takes up an entire room and consumes enough electricity to power thousands of homes. The human brain, on the other hand, fits neatly between the ears and runs on chicken and broccoli.

Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory and elsewhere have been striving to program a computer to accomplish complex tasks as well as a human being, with only limited success. One reason for the difficulty stems from the significant technical differences between a brain and a computer. For human beings, there is no rigid distinction between processors and memory chips (the same neurons are both), nor is there even a simple distinction between hardware and software. In addition, the basic processing unit of the brain, the synapse, is substantially more complex than a computer chip’s transistor. The brain does amazing things, but it’s not yet clear how its organization contributes to its success.

Read the entire story (pdf). Article courtesy of 1663, Los Alamos National Laboratory's science and technology magazine.

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