Brain vs. Computer

The brain is an amazing thing. That mysterious little jelly pudding up there in your head has an unsurpassed computing power that we all use everyday to at least some extent. Humans have always been amazed by the brain and there has been a strong trend throughout history to build machines which can take over some of that computing power.

From the first electronic computer Colossus (using 1500 vacuum tubes and used to crack the Enigma code during World War II) until recently the IBM Watson: a computer which is able to understand natural questions, which can perform reasoning based on a huge amount of information stored in its memory and can come up with the correct answer. And all that within 3 seconds.

Watson consists of 90 IBM Power 750 servers, 15 Terabytes of RAM, 2880 processor cores and can operate at 80 teraflops. Very impressive specifications. A couple of days ago Watson competed in a Jeopardy! game against two humans and he managed to win quite impressively (although he made one quite shameful mistake).

Watson competing against humans

So does that mean that a bunch (ok, quite a big bunch) of processors can immitate the human brain? Well, to some degree it has proven it can. But the brain can do a lot more than understanding and answering questions. And besides functionality there is another factor, just like Dr. Bernard S. Meyerson, IBM’s vice president for innovation, mentioned: "The fact is that a human being is impossible to beat right now, in the sense of power efficiency, because you’ve got this little 20-watt thing, the brain, going up against many kilowatts."

So does this fact mean all the efforts made by the researchers are in vain? Definitely not, of course. It just means that we will have to keep using our little 20 watt miracle in order to come up with even smarter machines!

 Marijn van Dongen

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