Have you ever tried to match wits with a computer? Perhaps you’ve tried playing it in a game of chess or raced to perform a calculation before your laptop could spit out the correct answer. You probably lost the chess game and the computer definitely beat you in the mathematics race. Given that, when you measure the ability of the human brain vs. a computer at face value, it seems like a computer would be faster and smarter, but there is actually far more to the story.
If you had posed this same question a few decades ago, there would be no question… the human brain could run circles around computers, but is that still true? Has technology begun to catch up to the most remarkable and awe-inspiring organ in the human body?
Old Ideas Aren’t Always the Best
Since the inception of the first computers, there has been a direct comparison between these “computational machines” and the human brain. One of the common phrases that has stuck around for decades, and which encourages the idea of a brain vs. computer argument, is “brains are analogue, computers are digital”. This makes it seem like computers are superior, but in truth, the human brain is far more advanced and efficient, and possesses more raw computational power than the most impressive supercomputers that have ever been built.
At the time of this writing, the fastest supercomputer in the world is the Tianhe-2 in Guangzhou, China, and has a maximum processing speed of 54.902 petaFLOPS. A petaFLOP is a quadrillion (one thousand trillion) floating point calculations per second. That’s a huge amount of calculations, and yet, that doesn’t even come close to the processing speed of the human brain.
In contrast, our miraculous brains operate on the next order higher. Although it is impossible to precisely calculate, it is postulated that the human brain operates at 1 exaFLOP, which is equivalent to a billion billion calculations per second.
In 2014, some clever researchers in Japan tried to match the processing power in one second from one percent of the brain. That doesn’t sound like very much, and yet it took the 4th fastest supercomputer in the world (the K Computer) 40 minutes to crunch the calculations for a single second of brain activity!
Brains Are Very Different From Computers
When we discuss computers, we are referring to meticulously designed machines that are based on logic, reproducibility, predictability, and math. The human brain, on the other hand, is a tangled, seemingly random mess of neurons that do not behave in a predictable manner.
Biology is a beautiful thing, and life itself is much smarter than computers. For example, the brain is both hardware and software, whereas there is an inherent different in computers. The same interconnected areas, linked by billions of neurons and perhaps trillions of glial cells, can perceive, interpret, store, analyze, and redistribute at the same time. Computers, by their very definition and fundamental design, have some parts for processing and others for memory; the brain doesn’t make that separation, which makes it hugely efficient.
The same calculations and processes that might take a computer a few millions steps can be achieved by a few hundred neuron transmissions, requiring far less energy and performing at a far greater efficiency. The amount of energy required to power computations by the world’s fastest supercomputer would be enough to power a building; the human brain achieves the same processing speeds from the same energy as is required to charge a dim lightbulb. Biological processes have had billions of years to evolve perfect, efficient organs that far supersede technology, and we are beginning to reach those artificial “limitations”.
One of the things that truly sets brains apart, aside from their clear advantage in raw computing power, is the flexibility that it displays. Essentially, the human brain can rewire itself, a feat more formally known as neuroplasticity. Neurons are able to disconnect and reconnect with others, and even change in their basic features, something that a carefully constructed computer cannot do.
We see this amazing transformative feat in a wide variety of brain functions, such as the formations of memory, knowledge acquisition, physical development, and even recovery from brain damage. When the brain identifies a more efficient or effective way to compute and function, it can morph and alter its physical and neuronal structure, hence the term “plasticity“. Until we achieve true Artificial Intelligence (in which computers should theoretically be able to re-wire themselves), neuroplasticity will always keep the human brain at least one step ahead of “static” supercomputers.
Looking Towards the Future
If there is one thing about human beings, it’s that we don’t like being told something is impossible. Therefore, now that we have a clear goal that is nearly in sight (a computer that operates at the exaFLOP level), we have begun to pay more attention (and spend more money) towards achieving it.
For example, the Human Brain Project has the ultimate goal of reaching exascale computing (computing at the same processing power and speed as the human brain; an artificial brain, so to speak). Launched in 2013, the Human Brain Project has already sourced billions of euros for this project, which could have hugely important ramifications in many different industries.
The fastest supercomputers created thus far (like the one seen above) haven’t even breached the 50 petFLOP mark, which is still 20 times slower than the human brain’s processing speed, not to mention…they’re massive!
Experts believe that exascale computing could be possible by 2020, but Intel, one of the largest technology companies in the world, boasted that they will have achieved that capability by 2018. By creating a legitimate artificial brain modeling, we will be able to explore real-time simulations of human brain activity – a major breakthrough.
Furthermore, major interests ranging from engineering and basic research to national security agencies and telecommunication giants are eager to see what this dreamt-of level of technological advancement will bring.
However, as we explained above, there are some serious issues with reaching this level of technical sophistication, namely energy, memory, and physical constraints. Even with new advancements in graphene transistors and the complex possibilities of quantum computing, a purely artificial brain on par with the real thing seems out of reach – for now.
The recent stall in any new supercomputers at the top of the “Fastest List” has made some people question the possibilities, but these new advancements may pay off in a major way, which would launch us into a new generation. If and when that happens, the answer to “who would win, the human brain or a supercomputer” might be different!