SUPERCOMPUTING NEURONS!

WHAT IS A SUPERCOMPUTER?

To figure out why our brains are supercomputers, we have to find out what a supercomputer is. The Encarta World English Dictionary defines a supercomputer as a "high-speed computer." It goes on to elaborate and describes a supercomputer as "a state-of-the-art computer with the highest processing speeds technologically possible at a given time, used for solving complex scientific and engineering problems." So, basically, a supercomputer is a computer that is very, very, super-fast. Impossibly fast! (with rdude's budget for computing devices). Or, more correctly, it's the fastest possible computer. And a computer is a device used for storing and retrieving data, linking data to other data, performing calculations with or transforming data in some way, and acquiring new data. Now that we know what a supercomputer is, we can compare our brains to supercomputers.


"The brain is a wonderful organ; it starts working the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get into the office."

-- Robert Frost


COMING TO YOUR SENSES

In the definition of computer, you probably noticed that the theme was data. Everything that a computer does has to do with data in some way. To do anything with data, data must first be acquired. For a computer, data comes from keyboards, mice, microphones, digital cameras, or any input device that interfaces with your computer. Data is stored in databases. For you, data is acquired from your six senses: hearing, proprioception, sight, smell, taste, and touch. For you, acquiring data is a supercomputer-like action in itself. Pretend that your keyboard is how you "talk" to your computer, and your computer can "hear" what you type. Have you ever typed so fast when many, many programs were open that it took your computer a few seconds to catch up? That usually doesn't happen to humans. Our buffers don't get full, causing our friend to have to wait five seconds before we can process what they said. Why? If you have a PC camera hooked up to your computer, pretend that it's the computer's sense of "sight". Well, unless you have a very nice PC camera, if you move even a little too fast, the camera won't see you. Things have to move much faster for humans to miss them. Why?

Because you can deal with all the data streaming in from your senses fast enough to be able to deal with more data without missing anything, millisecond after millisecond. That is way, way fast. Faster than your laptop or your desktop. Faster than Everything (wow!). If you think back, you'll remember that a supercomputer is a computer that is way, way fast. Your brain is a supercomputer because it is so friggin' fast!

PAST THOUGHTS

Another amazing feature of your supercomputer, your brain, is its seemingly unlimited and unparalleled memory storage capacity. You've probably never had to buy your brain a new hard drive, have you? I made a four-minute video that takes up about 34 million bytes of space. My entire computer has less than 7 billion bytes of total space. That means that my entire computer can only store about 3 and a half hours of video in AVI format with Indeo compression. As you sit in your chair, think back and reconstruct memories, whether they are pictures, sounds, tastes, smells, thoughts, or a combination of all those. You will quickly exceed the storage space of any computer. Your brain does not know a limit when it comes to memory. There has never been anyone who knew so much that they couldn't remember anymore. Your brain is a supercomputer because you have more memory storage capacity then your computer, all your friends' computers, and Everything, combined.


"Memory is a man's real possession... In nothing else is he rich, in nothing else is he poor."

-- Alexander Smith


ONE MAKES TWO

A computer can find a solution to a problem. That is a fact. But if you give it a relatively simple problem, like finding the most efficient method of taking a shower, eating breakfast, brushing your teeth, checking your email, and leaving for work, it will be unable to find the solution in any reasonable amount of time. This is because there are variables involved that are too large for the computer to consider. They are not too large for your brain to consider. Your brain can consider many, many things to find a solution. Your brain will usually find a better solution to a complex problem faster than a computer will. Your brain is a supercomputer because it can solve complex problems that a computer either cannot solve or cannot solve in a reasonable amount of time. My average typing speed is somewhere around 130 words per minutes. Sometimes, I reach the low 200's. However, when I use the calculator on my computer and type with the numerical keypad, my friends can still come up with answers to math problems faster than the calculator can. Your brain is a supercomputer because it has the ability to find the answer to a problem faster than a computer.

IT'S NOT THAT SIMPLE

Pick any simple physical operation that you can do, and you'll find that it's really not that simple. Somethingfornothing's example was wiggling your fingers. Something even simpler will work. Pat yourself on the back. Do you realize how many senses you've just used: proprioception, sight, and touch. If you patted yourself hard enough, hearing should also be on that list. Let's review what happened, all in less than a second:

  1. You saw the instruction to pat yourself on the back. Your brain thought about what this meant.
  2. Your brain sent the location of your back, along with instructions to pat it, to your hand.
  3. You saw your hand move towards your back. Your brain was able to recognize it as your hand.
  4. You felt your hand touch your back and heard your hand pat your back at the same time. Also occurring seeming instantaneously was your brain triangulating the sound, to find that it came from your back, where your hand patted it.
  5. Your brain was able to conclude that the sound was your hand patting your back.
  6. Your brain was able to conclude that the "pat" operation was successful.
Also occurring during this entire time was constant proprioception: you knew where your hand was as it moved through space. And remember, all this happened in about a second. Your brain is a supercomputer because it can process data and perform consequential actions very fast.

IN CONCLUSION

The following is a list of all the reasons your brain is a supercomputer that I have covered:

  • because it is so friggin' fast!
  • because it has unparalleled and unlimited storage capacity
  • because it can solve complex problems that a computer can't
  • because it can find the answer to a problem faster than a computer
  • because it can process data very fast
Now take that supercomputer brain of yours and go do something useful!


Sources:
Encarta World English Dictionary
http://quoteland.com


NOTES

lost sock center points out that the brain isn't the fastest possible computer, as it could get faster, and machines could also be faster. And that the human nervous system relays signals slower than computer chips.

Perhaps a more cautious, but accurate assertion is 'Your brain is like a supercomputer'. Throughout history thinking people have tried to understand the nature of the thing between their ears and have, quite naturally, drawn analogies with whatever technology is around at the time. Mechanical engines, telegraph networks and early computers have had their moment. Computer networks represent the current state of the art and so we compare them to the only thing we know that beats them hands down -- our brains.

The 'computer' in my head has trouble remembering telephone numbers. It's also quite slow at doing simple arithmetic. Simple, cheap computers are much better at this and make far fewer mistakes. Does this represent a design flaw in the human brain? Not really. Evolution has dictated that remembering faces and abstract reasoning are far more important.

Evolution produced the brain, and it shows. The brain is composed of a series of layers ballooning out from the top of the spinal column, each one a later extension/patch/upgrade to those before which adds more abstract capabilities. Each layer is made up from groups of your basic neuron. Each neuron may take several milliseconds to fire, in which time a supercomputer may have processed many millions of instructions. However, since very many neurons can fire at a time, the brain has inherent massive parallelism and this is the key to its awesome power.

Supercomputers have been built with large-scale parallelism (see Daniel Hillis) and Neural Networks have been knocking around for ages. IMNSHO, wherever this research goes will be closer to brains than today's supercomputers, not just in power but in nature.

Alright, I have a big problem with rdude's assertions here. Here are some reasons why the brain is not a supercomputer, or any other kind of computer for that matter.

Computers do only what they are told: What a computer does relies completely and totally on input from users. With no input from users (either directly from terminal, or indirectly through a network device) a computer does NOTHING. If this were true for brains, then one might imagine that your brain would shut down in the absence of sensory stimulation. AFAIK, sensory deprivation of any kind does not induce coma.

Computers are static in their structure, while brains are by nature dynamic: A computer is designed, manufactured and assembled. From that point on its fundamental computational structure (e.g. the configuration of its transistors and integrated circuitry) will never change. Neurons in the brain change their structure and function all the time, from the moment they are formed in the fetus, throughout adult life and continuing until death. The fundamental structure of brains is always changing, whereas computers never change.

Computers are explicitly algorithmic, while brains are probably not: Bear with me here: Many of the digital elements of any computing system (e.g. bytes, bits, etc.) are explicitly representative of items, concepts or objects of interest to the user (e.g. words, numbers, pictures). These elements can interact in a lawful or algorithmic fashion -- this is the essence of computation. In brains however, objects and concepts are not explicitly represented -- that is as far as anyone can tell. Futhermore it has never been demonstrated (and it is probably not the case) that "processing" in the brain is remotely algorithmic. (How then does the brain do or represent anything? This is a topic for another node, but suffice it to say that the brain might be, in large part, a dynamical system.)

Computers remember EVERYTHING with perfect accuracy. Brains have a very limited accuracy : Computers store vast amounts of data in a long-term manner with perfect accuracy. Brains only remember a bare fraction of what goes on -- even in the case of vivid and intense memories. (Do you remember what you were wearing the day you graduated form high school?) Futhermore, the memories can be highly inaccurate, can degrade and can even change over time. In fact, it is a well documented psychological phenomenon that people can manufacture ficticious memories if given even the slightest suggestion (while awake, aware and sober). No computer does this.

rdude does not really make any incorrect points above, but what they tell us is that Your brain is like a supercomputer. You brain does many, many more things that a supercomputer does -- and a supercomputer can do some things that brains will never do. Your brain is a supercomputer? Its a wonderful idea, but it doesn't work.

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