Geeks Weigh In: Does a Human Think Faster Than a Computer?

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While many people stereotype geeks as only being interested in using the computer all day, the truth is that a geek is actually a person who often contemplates many of the deeper questions of the universe while busy installing the coolest new add-ons to Firefox or tweaking their mobile phone so that they can control it from their desktop. One of the universal debates many geeks have centers around an important question that involves neurobiology and the science of artificial intelligence, and that question is – Does a human think faster than a computer?

What a question. Just think of the necessary evidence that one would need to produce in order to prove, or disprove, that statement. In fact, what is the question about really? Is it whether a human brain or a computer is faster, or is it which form of information processing is better? Is it even a fair comparison? Today, I’d like to engage MakeUseOf readers into a debate on this subject by first providing my own take – and then asking for yours.

The Question: Does a Human Think Faster Than a Computer?

The question itself represents the fallacy of how people think about computers. When a person uses a computer, if it’s slow then it’s junk. But there are certainly other factors to consider when examining intelligence – what about image recognition, language recognition, multi-tasking capabilities or self-learning and self-healing features?

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First, to partially answer the “speed” question we need to examine data transmission. In the Hartford Examiner, writer Joy Casad answers the question, “How fast is a thought” by describing the chemical/biological propagation of “thinking” neurons before getting to the point in the final paragraph – these neurons transmit signals at 0.5 milliseconds. That’s pretty fast!

In 2006, the fastest reported fiber optic transmission rate was 2.56 terabits a second. Okay, but a bit is nothing more than a zero and a one. Well – the current state of the art is the cutting edge subatomic technology created by Stanford researchers representing one bit with 35 electrons, or 35,000,000,000 electrons a millisecond. Due to the fact that axon/neuron electrical transmission depends on the chemical and biological environment it is in, data transmission of one neuron is actually millions of times slower than the fastest electrical transmission rates over copper electrical wire, and even slower compared to fiber optics. Score one for computers.

What About Processing Power?

The question of processing is a tricky one. According to the Top500 list of super computers, the fastest one as of 2009 is the RoadRunner BladeCenter at 12.8 GFlops (floating point operations per second).

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A GFlop represents a billion operations per second. Now, you’re thinking of that Monday morning in class when your professor asked you to perform a simple calculation and your mind went blank. You’re ready to chalk up another point to computers, right? Wrong.

While the transmission of electrical impulses may be slower in the brain than over wire, the processing power of the brain is represented by not one, but thousands of processors backed into one major super computer. One example is the retina, which is sort of like your computer web cam, in that it transmits light (images) to the brain for processing. Except the retina itself has its own processing power, sort of like a subprocessor – 100 million neurons packed into a one centimeter by one millimeter space.

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This stunning little processor is capable of processing ten images, each of about a million light points, every single second. Not only that, the data isn’t transmitted over a single fiber of nerve cells, but over a cable to the brain made up of a million of these fibers, all transmitting bits of data at the same time in parallel. If you multiply the processing power of this volume of neurons by the overall size of the average 1,500 cubic cm human brain, the overall processing power of the brain is about 100 million, million operations per second. For those of you who are trying to do the math with your super computer brain – that’s over 100,000 times more processing power than today’s cutting-edge super computer.

Image and Language Recognition, Learning and Common Sense

If our brains are such super computers, then why do we feel so dense and so slow sometimes? I don’t know about you, but I’m horrible at doing calculations in my head. The problem is that people think of computers only in terms of how many calculations it can do per second. The truth is, when it comes to intelligence there’s so much more to process than calculations alone. How do you calculate what the tone of someone’s voice implies they are really saying?  How do you calculate the irony of a joke that, when taken literally, makes no sense at all? This is where the true power of the human brain makes itself known.

jokemilkHave you ever had a friend who was such a genius that they could perform the most astounding calculations in their head, or they could fathom the most complex equations or problems imaginable – yet when faced with the simplest common-sense joke, they just didn’t get it? This is the major difference between a human brain and a computer.

Author Gary Marcus writes, in his book on the human mind that, “The fundamental difference between computers and the human mind is in the basic organization of memory.”

What he means is that a computer organizes information in a logical way. To retrieve data, the computer uses logical storage locations. A human brain, on the other hand, remembers where information is stored based on cues. Those cues are other pieces of information or memories connected to the information you need to retrieve. This means that the human mind can connect an almost unlimited number of concepts in a variety of ways, and then sometimes disconnect or recreate connections based on new information. This allows the human to step outside the boundaries of what has already been learned – leading to new art and new inventions that are the trademark of the human race.

There are a lot of other ways the human mind blows computers away – it can self repair itself, it can produce chemical reactions within its host body to induce instinctive reactions and protect itself from danger, it can handle every last function required to operate the machine of the human body while simultaneously processing information from outside that body, and most importantly it can continue learning and building new connections within that contextual storage array in ways that seem infinite.

In short, the answer to the question “Does a human think faster than a computer?” is yes. And it can also do a whole lot more than that.

Geeks out there – weigh in with your opinion in the comments section below!

Image Credits: cbowns

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Comments (36)
  • Gary W Waggoner

    Simply a mind knows what it knows a computer doesnt… What is my mothers maiden name… ask a computer and it begins the endless search untill it finds it does not… we know what we know a computer does not. We store information much differently. A heiachy of information and while we think we see and know something, it is actually based on our minds eye and preception of things based on our experiencies.

  • harold

    i have read everything in this article and while i was sitting here my slow brain realized something…a computer is only as smart as we make it. im no geek or nerd, im ur average high school grad working a reg job, but the human brain was the one that made the computer. without a human brain to tell the computer what to do or how to do it in some cases the computer would do what? Nothing. therefore i know a computer can do some things faster than me but only as fast as my human brain is telling it to do it. otherwise without me the computer is dumb and does nothing at all. so talk about processing power and all that but what good does it do without the power of the human brain. maybe this was a lil off the subject but i feel it had a lil to do with this, or maybe it had nothing to do with this article at all. all i know is that when i stopped typing right there so did the computer. without my brain the computer does not know what to do. Human brain wins and i hope it stays that way….just think of what could happen if computer became self aware and smarter than us. terminator was the best example of that.

  • Call Center Guy

    Ok now I can’t look at anything without thinking about how fast my brain is processing and calculating these images.

    As for the debate, until computers can smell and feel, while doing other things such as sitting up straight, feeling hunger, and craving for a smoke while sitting in the office reading blogs rather than doing work, human brain > fastest computer.

  • Doctor Fonz

    Your the topic on processing power is *very* incorrect.

    You mention that the 2009 Supercomputer ‘Roadrunner’ is ticking over at 12 GFlops – heck, my graphics card is running at over 1000 GFlops, aka 1 TFlop.

    I think you’ll find that Roadrunner actually has the processing power of 1.1 MILLION GFlops, also known as PFlops or Petaflops.

    This flaws this plus point to humans I’m afraid :-( …and thats not taking into consideration distributed supercomputers made up of millions of smaller nodes. Folding @ Home peaks at over 7 Petaflops, making it six times faster than Roadrunner!

    Evidence of Roadrunner’s speed at the following URL :-
    http://www.top500.org/system/performance/9707

  • Soph

    You’re comparing a flop to a neuron firing as your benchmark “unit” and then making comparisons in terms of these. It’s too apples-to-oranges a comparison to give any kind of meaningful answer.
    Is a neuron like a processor? It evaluates input and computes an output, so it is somewhat processor-like, but it’s output is just a 1-bit, yes/no, fire/no-fire, answer. Even the most active neurons in the brain fire around 10-100 times per second (perhaps as much as 300-500). 1k per second or so is probably the maximum firing rate, and if you down some ecstasy with a can of redbull, snort some coke, smoke some meth, strap on your nitrous mask and have sex with a supermodel while riding a rollercoaster through a fireworks display at a rock concert, you might get some of your neurons to fire that fast. You’ll also cause quite a bit of permanent brain damage.
    A neuron then is somewhat like a slow, 1-bit processor. It would appear rather pathetic compared to even the rather run of the mill processors that control things like, say, an elevator, or the electrical timing of a modern car’s ignition system. We now have 64, 128 and 256-bit procossesors, operating many millions and billions times faster. By these standards a neuron sucks and the brain is pretty lame. But flops is a lousy proxy for intelligence. Ramp your brain up to a million times its normal speed and you’d think a lot faster, but you wouldn’t be any smarter. If you didn’t understand something with a 1khtz brain, you still wouldn’t understand it with a 1petahtz brain. On the plus side it would only take one trillionth as long to realize that you didn’t understand it.
    There are around 10 billion neurons in an adult human brain (Specifically there are around 10 billion cortical pyramidal cells, which are believed to be the main cells responsible for cognition, and billions more glial and other support cells). The better analogy here might be to the transistor. Transistors can be used as switches, like the on/off firing of a neuron, and they can be used as amplifiers, a slightly more complicated process (though not nearly as complicated as the process by which a neuron fires). The quad-core Itanium processor under development by Intel will have around 2 billion transistors, or about one fifth the number of neurons in a human brain. By the imperfect comparisons used thus far one could say that it is one fifth as “powerful” as a human brain, though many million times faster. Then again, as a quad-core processor, it might be more akin to four rat brains wired together and floating in a bucket of liquid amphetamines.
    I would be very surprised if there weren’t super computers out there that didn’t already have more than 10 billion transistors, and operate billions of times faster than the brain. But, where the brain really excels is in networking. Typical transistors have just two inputs and one output, a neuron has thousands of inputs and thousands of outputs. Synapse–the points of connection between neurons–number around 100 trillion, or 100,000,000,000,000. The mylenated axons, or “white matter”, that branches out from the main body of each neuron, aka “gray matter”, is so prevalent in the brain that if every axon of a 20 year old adult male were laid end to end it would stretch more than 120,000 miles, enough to circle the Earth one and a half times. That’s a lot of ethernet cable packed inside the average noggin’.
    All these comparisons are silly. Brains and computers operate on fundamentally different architectures. Computers operate in serial, a sequence of steps operating on an external set of data. Brains operate in parallel, and the data storage and processing take place in the same place. If it can be broken down into a series of discrete steps that need to be applied over and over, or if it involves large data sets, use a computer. If it involves pattern matching, a brain works better.

    • Ryan Dube

      Soph – you’ve just pulled off an excellent comparison, and a great article in itself. Thanks for writing it and offering your opinion, I enjoyed the read!

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Affiliate Disclamer

This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.