Stephen Smith's Blog

Musings on Machine Learning…

Is the Brain Really a Computer?

with 2 comments


Introduction

There is a lot of debate about whether the human brain is really a computer or is it something more than a computer or is it something quite different from a computer? In this article I’m going to look at some of these arguments, many of them positing behaviours of the brain that are claimed to be impossible to be exhibited by a computer.

Some of the arguments tend to be based on a need for humans to somehow be special, similar to the passion of people who stuck to the idea that the Earth was the center of the universe because we were somehow special and they couldn’t bear the idea that we were located on one insignificant planet orbiting one of billions of suns in our galaxy in a universe of billions of galaxies.

Other arguments are based around human behaviours like humour, saying it would be impossible to program a computer to create or really appreciate humour.

We’ll look at some of these arguments and consider them in the context of what we’ve been looking at in complex emergent behaviour of simple iterated systems.

The Brain Looks Like a Computer

As biologists study the workings of the brain, it is very structurally similar to a modern computer. In the sense that a neuron cell has a number of inputs through synapses and dendrites that conduct the input signals into the cell body that then does a summing and limiting function to decide if it will fire an output signal through the axon to feed into other neural cells. This structure is very similar to the basic logic gates the modern processing units are composed of. It also seems like a very simple and logical comparison. Often the simplest and most straightforward theory is also the correct one.

Emotional Computers

One argument against the brain being a computer is that computers are logical and not emotional. How could a computer program be humorous? How could a computer program appreciate humor? How could a computer program ever be jealous? A lot of these arguments were used to highlight how humans are different than animals with the claim being that animals never find anything funny or exhibit jealousy. That these are strictly human traits and show how we are special and different in some fundamental way than animals. However modern animal research now shows that animals do exhibit these behaviours and that we aren’t special in these regards. In fact any one who own two or more dogs will certainly see a lot of jealousy exhibited, plus any dog owner knows that dogs do find some things exceedingly funny. I think the people who promote these ideas really put on the blinders and really have some deep down need to be special, to avoid all the rather clear evidence to the contrary.

There is now a branch of AI that is looking to add emotion to computer systems, so that personal assistants can be humorous and can understand and take into account our emotional state so they can be better assistants. I tend to think that long term this forcing of emotion into chat-bots and such is unnecessary and that as these programs become more complex we will see emotions start to surface as emergent properties like some of the emergent behaviour we talked about here and here.

Quantum Complexity

Another argument is that the billions of neurons in the brain would be a computer if they worked electrically and chemically. However this wouldn’t be good enough to produce human intelligence. The argument here is that neurons hide in their structure small constructs that operate at the quantum level and that these combine to form some sort of new much powerful computing structure that might be like a computer or might not. That if it is like a computer then it’s many orders of complexity more than current computer hardware, so AI can’t be anywhere close yet. Or the quantum nature of these behaviours is beyond a Turing machine and much more powerful.

The problem with this argument is that neuron cells have been studied to great depth by biologists and nothing like this has been found. Further neurons don’t contain any way to network or communicate these processes with other cells. Further we’ve studied and simulated much simpler life forms that have just a few neurons and managed to accurately simulate their behaviour, indicating that we do have a fairly good idea of how neurons work.

I think these arguments tend to be blind to how complex a few billion neurons are already and how complex emergent properties from such a system can be.

Something Undiscovered

Perhaps a more religious argument is that there is some force or dimension that science hasn’t discovered. Perhaps intelligence doesn’t reside entirely in the brain, but in something like a soul. And that its having this soul that leads to human level intelligence. Religious thinkers started to unravel this argument back in the 1600s where it was usually referred to as Cartesian Dualism. It is understood how the neurons in the brain control the body through our nervous system. The question becomes how does the soul interact or affect the brain?

What science has shown is that if the interaction was through a known force like electromagnetism or nuclear weak force, then we would be able to detect and see this in action, and it has never been observed. What is then posited is that it must be via a force that science hasn’t discovered yet. However quantum field theory eliminates this possibility. There can certainly be undiscovered forces, but due to experiments in devices like the Large Hadron Collider, we know that any undiscovered force would be so powerful that we could detect it and that the interactions would be like nuclear explosions going off (ie very hard to miss). This is because if a force interacts with a particle like an electron, then quantum field theory says that you can produce the carrier particle for this force by crashing an electron into an anti-electron (positron) with sufficient force. We’ve now done this with all the particles to very high energy levels to know there is no low energy unknow force that could be doing this. Incidentally this is the same argument basically to prove that life after death is impossible, because we would be able to detect it at the point of death.

Summary

As Biologists study the brain, it does appear that the brain acts like a computer. As our studies get more and more detailed we are thoroughly eliminating any contending theories. Further, being a computer doesn’t limit us in any way because we know how complex and amazing emergent behaviour can be when simple systems are iterated.

 

Advertisements

Written by smist08

June 14, 2017 at 9:05 pm

Posted in Artificial Intelligence

Tagged with , ,

2 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. […] Last time we posited that the human brain and in fact any biological brain is really a type of computer. If that is so, then how is it programmed? What is its operating system? What are the algorithms that facilitate learning and intelligent action? In this article we’ll start to look at some of the properties of this Biological operating system and how it compares to a modern computer operating system like Windows. […]

  2. […] the last couple of articles we were considering whether the brain is a computer and then what its operating system looks like. In this article we’ll be looking at how the brain […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: