Respect Your Brain, It's a Heck of a Computer


There's an undercurrent in the technology press, the general media, and academic papers focused on our feeble, 3-pound human brains. The accompanying message is that we need technology to rescue us from the limitations of this lowly organ.

I've seen the theme in discussions of how humans can't handle big data, particularly why we need cognitive computing, and how we can't separate good data from masses of useless or bad data.

There are even literary references to our fascination with the blinking lights of a computer. I'm left feeling that we humans are as dense as my dog when she sees her reflection in a glass door and thinks its another Laborador Retriever. When she walks to the other side, that other Lab is always gone. We invented all these computers, wrote all that software, and created all that data, but we can't see the results. At least that is what we are left to believe.

However, I stand before you defending the human brain.

Computers are amazing tools. Decades after I started using computers I'm still impressed by even the simple tasks that they accomplish, like word processing. Still more extraordinary is how computers handle in seconds what was once deemed impossible: our daily searches for information located all over the world. Unheard of just over 20 years ago.

So, who designed those machines, including the machines that now design other machines? Humans with brains much more advanced than that of my black Lab.

Cognitive computing, machine learning, and other forms of artificial intelligence may be where we see technology going, however, those advanced technologies are intended to emulate that cursed human brain. They might do it a whole lot faster than we can imagine, but the bottom line is that we want machines to think like us, and solve problems the way we do with that 3-pound brain.

We often lose sight of the fact that our brains are exceptional at a couple of things, multitasking and finding perspective.

Multitasking. Your computer is great at it, right? You type and it displays letters on a digital screen, saving your work as you go, spell checking, suggesting new words, and sometimes highlighting additional online resources, even things to buy.

Yet, your brain multitasks in dozens of distinct ways every second of every day, with no more programming than our parents having taught us to walk, talk, and read.

Consider what happens when we drive or walk even a few hundred yards. Without conscious thought, our brain tells our limbs to move, directing our legs to walk or our hands and feet to operate the car. We have more complicated sensors in those limbs than you will find in any Internet of Things device. Our sensors tell us that the pavement is uneven, and to adjust our gait. Our eyes view not just the path ahead but provide peripheral vision that checks clearances and threats for us. We don't have to think to turn right, we do it.

While our sensors and our limbs help with navigation, our eyes take in a beautiful sunrise. We know it's beautiful because our brain defines beauty for us. Meanwhile, we are thinking about today being Friday, the project that is due, uncooperative coworker X who is a jerk, relaxing at the lake tomorrow, and whether we want a bagel or a donut today. We hear music on the radio and construction noise. We feel the heat of summer and the cold of winter.

Two seconds later, and we are computing on a dozen different tasks.

Perspective. I see this as a result of our constant multitasking. We provide an awful lot of data input for our brains. Estimates of the brain's capacity range from 10 terabytes to 2.5 petabytes. Hmmm, sounds like a big data application.

Perspective sets us apart from computers. We know beauty, sadness, fear, joy, love, and so many other emotions. Those sensations are based on all that data that we take in during each of the 86,400 seconds in a day, 31.5 million seconds a year.

Perspective tells us whether we like that music on the radio or dislike the construction noise. It drives our conscious actions, like changing songs or raising the window to dampen the outside noise.

Our ventures into artificial intelligence are based in large part on giving machines the ability to find perspective in data. We want cars to know when it is safe to move forward. We teach machines to recognize the difference between a cat and a dog. Those are things that we humans "just know" based on the data that we have processed over the years, and the data that we took in a second ago.

We aren't about to stop adding intelligence to machines. In fact, the progress researchers are making with smart machines is remarkable, and I can't imagine what machines themselves will "just know" 20 years from now.

Yet, in the end, machine intelligence is still based on what our brains already do, though machines might do it faster, with greater accuracy, and even outside of our presence. Perhaps they will make us redundant in some ways. But, aren't they still just copying how the human brain works?

So, take a moment this weekend and tip your cap to your brain. It's an amazing machine in its own right.

James M. Connolly, Editor of All Analytics

Jim Connolly is a versatile and experienced technology journalist who has reported on IT trends for more than two decades. As editor of All Analytics he writes about the move to big data analytics and data-driven decision making. Over the years he has covered enterprise computing, the PC revolution, client/server, the evolution of the Internet, the rise of web-based business, and IT management. He has covered breaking industry news and has led teams focused on product reviews and technology trends. Throughout his tech journalism career, he has concentrated on serving the information needs of IT decision-makers in large organizations and has worked with those managers to help them learn from their peers and share their experiences in implementing leading-edge technologies through publications including Computerworld. Jim also has helped to launch a technology-focused startup, as one of the founding editors at TechTarget, and has served as editor of an established news organization focused on technology startups and the Boston-area venture capital sector at MassHighTech. A former crime reporter for the Boston Herald, he majored in journalism at Northeastern University.

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Re: The beautiful unique brain
  • 7/31/2016 10:22:55 PM
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I read once that it takes 82,944 processors to simulate 1 second of 1% of the human brain.   If thatis indeed true, I don't think we'll come close until quantam computers becomes an everyday thing.  Supercomputers might be able to pass the number of sheer caculations a human does but think of all the rooms they take up. 

Re: The beautiful unique brain
  • 7/31/2016 9:31:09 AM
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I think as we find more ways to use technology we will find more ways to appreciate our brains and everthing that drives that 3 lbs of organic cells to make life have meaning. 

Re: Feed your head
  • 7/30/2016 11:00:42 PM
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Broadway, no question that more tools are available for validation and detection, making it cost effective to pursue. We all benefit.

The beautiful unique brain
  • 7/30/2016 10:07:17 PM
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Jim I agree I love tech but it does not replicate the subtle aspects of the brain like judgement it's a discussion we see over and over again with autonomous cars and other tech tools. Our brains are very unique --after all they developed all the tech we use!

Re: Feed your head
  • 7/30/2016 9:55:18 PM
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Rbaz, true about the hospitals. But insurance companies and Medicare are getting more and more sophisticated to try to avoid paying those bills. It's too much money going out the door as essentially waste when a good algorithm can catch it and subrogate the claim.

Re: Feed your head
  • 7/29/2016 11:50:11 AM
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I think the impact of being overfocused on menial tasks comes also from how we learn. I'm not recalling the source, but we tend to learn with a focused attention to recall and with a defuse attention. We don't apply these perspective together, so we have to go back and forth. When we don't is where we get stuck and not appreciate the missing perspective. 

Re: Feed your head
  • 7/29/2016 10:52:05 AM
NO RATINGS

Broadway, hospitals don't really care about having the more appropriate entity pay. They want the bill paid and will seek the easiest route to that end. The deep pockets in line usually are targeted because they usually settle easily because they tend to view such charges as a nuisance.

Re: Feed your head
  • 7/28/2016 11:12:38 PM
NO RATINGS

Rbaz, it's no so much lining up the deep pockets as it is making sure the right entity pays. Medicare doesn't want to pay if a workers comp insurance compani should be. What's troubling is when hospitals bill everyone and get duplicate payments.

Re: Feed your head
  • 7/27/2016 5:53:31 PM
NO RATINGS

"But I was responding to my boss's urgent email when I stepped into the street without looking. So yes, it was work related."

It's easy to forecast the eventual class action suits that will come from all sorts of WWD incidents and injuries. But issue lots of citations in the meantime!

Re: The biological brain is clustering/classifying and engaging in dimensionality reduction as needed besides complex numerical computation
  • 7/27/2016 12:44:19 PM
NO RATINGS

Thank YOU, for taking the time to share the original thoughts.

it is helpful to me and to my students to realize that PCA,svd,cholesky,SVM,and all the

other techno-jumbo-mumble are child's play and innate to the most rudimentary

biological brain. It is so internalized we do not even realize it.

Only time I realize is when I have to walk down an escalator that is not moving or when I am climbing down the steps non-uniform height. under those circumstances my brain hesitates,struggles and pauses to move down. recall (in the case of escalator) and lack of opportunity to apply learning (each step the brain has to compute how much to move)

it is fascinating and mind-blowing to reflect on what the 3 lb lump just did and even the greatest machination of machine learning algorithms is in reality an alternate and approximate realization of those brain functions, recast in a mathematical apparatus.

it is no wonder given than mathematical rigor that comes with M/L, some of the ingenuity and fuzzy logic is lost... feature engineering gets promoted at the expense of fast convergence. Thank you again.

Sir, I have to say it is hopeless to compete with nature. we just put some dry seeds into a 1 cubic foot mud pot. 10 days later there is jasmine whose fragrance is out of this world and tomatoes hanging in the plant. Now let us challenge DuPont or DOW to extract that much (flower and fruit) from a cubic foot of mud. These plants dont even speak or move. But these organisms live "singularly" driven by purpose and efficacy, it is "pure" magic. It is best to stop thinking we somehow can do any better. Just let nature run its course!!! Yes, we may not be in a position to share these thoughts.

Thank you again, my students and I are having a blast of an intellectual discourse beyond algebra, symbols and formalism.

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