The Brain as Computer: Bad at Math, Good at Everything Else

Modeling computers after the brain could revolutionize robotics and big data

Advertisement
June report icon

1. A Unique Machine

Painful exercises in basic arithmetic are a vivid part of our elementary school memories. A multiplication like 3,752 × 6,901 carried out with just pencil and paper for assistance may well take up to a minute. Of course, today, with a cellphone always at hand, we can quickly check that the result of our little exercise is 25,892,552. Indeed, the processors in modern cellphones can together carry out more than 100 billion such operations per second. What’s more, the chips consume just a few watts of power, making them vastly more efficient than our slow brains, which consume about 20 watts and need significantly more time to achieve the same result.

Of course, the brain didn’t evolve to perform arithmetic. So it does that rather badly. But it excels at processing a continuous stream of information from our surroundings. And it acts on that information—sometimes far more rapidly than we’re aware of. No matter how much energy a conventional computer consumes, it will struggle with feats the brain finds easy, such as understanding language and running up a flight of stairs.

We're glad you're enjoying IEEE Spectrum

Get access to this story now by registering for a free IEEE account.