Adam Singer

Veni, vidi, expertus sum- I came, I saw, I tested

More machine than man now

The other day, someone not in the computer related fields asked me an interesting question. He wanted to know what I think the difference is between the human brain and a computer. Now, it’s been a long time since I took biology, but I believe I remember most of it.

The first thing that jumped into my mind is that all of the parts of the human brain are neurons which happen to be specialized for one purpose or another. When you get right down to it, they’re really all the same type of cell that just happens to be versatile enough to do everything from storing memories to guiding motor functions, from sorting and analyzing sensory input to performing complex computations.

In a computer, however, ever piece is highly specialized by design. We couldn’t very well put a harddrive in where the CPU is supposed to be, or RAM in the place of a network card. Perhaps if we break everything down small enough we could claim that the parts all have the same sorts of roots, but the a capacitor functions very differently from a NAND gate.

Putting these thoughts in order, I decided that what I see as the main difference between the human brain and a computer is that the human brain has multiple orders of magnitude greater adaptability. A computer, in the meantime, is only as smart as the people who designed it and programmed the software that exercises the hardware. We might even add in the end user here since they might not exercise the full capabilities or may do something to further restrict the computer’s capabilities (like not plug in the ethernet cable, disable certain settings, install unknown software, etc).

In summary, while my opinion of the human mind’s potential is very high, I don’t see computers as having the same capabilities. Perhaps some day we’ll be able to decouple “computers” from any particular physical media and thus give them the ability to incorporate whatever components they need to perform a specific function at a given time. Still, the computers will only be as smart (or as dumb) as their programmers. As the poster on my wall reminds me daily, “Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.”