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Thursday, June 30, 2005

Our Brains are Not Like Computers

With nearly 15 years of software engineering experience, I have noticed that many people assume our minds function just like a computer. In other words, the difference between you and your computer is simply a matter of horsepower and programming - if we just get a fast enough processor, and write a smart enough program, viola! "artificial intelligence!" And, hey, it's just around the corner!

That's the common thinking among many - especially software developers and computer scientists. New research coming out of Cornell University, however, suggests that our minds work differently than computers. Roland Piquepaille summarizes:
"We're using computers for so long now that I guess that many of you think that our brains are working like clusters of computers. Like them, we can do several things 'simultaneously' with our 'processors.' But each of these processors, in our brain or in a cluster of computers, is supposed to act sequentially.

Not so fast! According to a new study from Cornell University, this is not true, and our mental processing is continuous. By tracking mouse movements of students working with their computers, the researchers found that our learning process was similar to other biological organisms: we're not learning through a series of 0's and 1's. Instead, our brain is cascading through shades of grey."
At least one conclusion is obvious: many of the artificial intelligence "experts" seem to have been barking up the wrong tree. What interests me more, however, is why they were wrong in the first place.

You see, we software geeks tend to be notoriously optimistic, often in spite the facts. For example, somewhere between 70-80% of software development projects fail, die, or are abandoned, but you will rarely meet a programmer who anticipates it happening with his or her project.

Why is that? Why are we so confident in our reasoning abilities, even when all manner of metrics raise questions about our ability to draw accurate conclusions?

I think part of the problem is that by its very nature software design involves abstraction and simplification. A bigger issue is the the objectivity of the developer. You see, when your methodology inherently involves simplification, it's very easy for the desires of the simplifier to color the conclusions - it's very easy to end up with oversimplification.

That's why so many developers are wrong about things - we want it to be a certain way, and so we interpret the data accordingly: we think artificial intelligence is cool (after all, all of us geeks like Star Trek, right?), we see similarities between computers and our minds, and so we conclude (wrongly) that our minds work like computers.

It works just fine in sci fi, but it's not reality.

Unfortunately, all of the sciences are subject to the same critique. There really are no "brute facts" - every fact is an "interpreted fact" which cannot escape being affected by the emotional (and religious!) affections of the interpreter. Our hearts cannot help affecting our heads.

Consequently, I think we'd all do well to be a little more skeptical of our certainty, particularly when the conclusions are biased in favor of our actions. What we really need is someone who sees clearly to interpret reality for us. And I'd suggest that that is what God does through Scripture, through Christ.

What we really need is divine insight - after all, we already have plenty of artificial intelligence.


At 9:26 PM, June 30, 2005, Blogger Charles said...

There are a few reasons most programs fail. One is analysis paralysis. A bunch of programmers cursing at each other jokingly about how to structure a date field. Another is the nature of programmers to be loaners. The main reason is external forces. The people who tell you what the program should do not telling you the whole story, even when you probe them ridiculously. It’s mostly lack of communication, but sometimes it’s “the man” trying to get you to do more than is possible.

At 7:04 AM, July 02, 2005, Blogger CM said...

My personal opnion is that consciousnes is one of the Mysteries that we are never going to fully understand - at least this side of heaven...
I guess most of the time my gut reaction is a form of dualism - I'd say that mind does not reside within physical matter - however I also wonder if the truth is slightly more complicated than that, and maybe that our minds are the only things in the universe not explainable by Science...

At 6:54 PM, July 03, 2005, Anonymous Uncle Jake said...

Is a psychological theory why we program in binary, whilst the rest of the world is definately NOT binary?

Is this a matter of projection?


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