Should We Worry Artificial Neurons Can Now Compute Faster Than the Human Brain?


By William M Briggs Published on January 29, 2018

The report from last week’s Nature magazine is that “artificial neurons” can now “compute faster than the human brain.” We should congratulate the inventors of the mouth-twisting nanotextured magnetic Josephson junctions. They can zip along at over 100 gigahertz, a speed “several orders of magnitude faster than human neurons.”

This is some accomplishment. It remains to be seen what kind.

Nature believes these artificial neurons can be used in “neuromorphic” hardware, which is said will mimic the human nervous system. The inventors hope their creation might soon be configured to reach “the level of complexity of the human brain.”

When that happens, here comes true artificial intelligence. Computerized minds that are human-like, or even advanced beyond them, without the burden of fallible bodies. Or so they say.

But is it really speed or computational ability that makes humans different from computers? The answer is no.

At the Sound of the Beep, it Will be 1 PM

It was 1978. We were sitting in the back of geometry class and Brian brought over his new toy. A Texas Instruments hand-held electronic calculator.

Brian was the first to own one of these marvels. We weren’t surprised. Weeks earlier he caused waves of envy by sporting a digital watch. You pressed a button and it showed the time, glowing red. It beeped on every hour, lest you miss this momentous twenty-four-times-a-day event. By the end of the year digital watches were everywhere, serenading schoolrooms hourly β€” beep-beep-beep β€” because nobody could figure how to shut the sound off.

The calculator was equally fancy. It could, for example, figure the cube root of 513,537,536,512 in a flash. (This is what stood for a teenage boy’s math joke.) Just try it by hand and see how long it takes you. A minute, at least, and probably longer.

Hurry Up and Calculate

Did its speed mean the calculator was alive, in the sense of possessing a mind? Was it aware it was computing numbers? Did it even understand what a number was? As crude as it was, it could calculate faster than any human. If mere calculation speed is the criterion for awareness, that calculator was more “woke” than we were.

At what point in this speed race does the computing machine possess a mind? At no point.

Yet speed does not create awareness. By the time pocket calculators showed up, computers were already faster than people by more than thirty years. The “electronic brain” ENIAC was processing bits faster than any man by 1946. Adding machines based solely on levers, gears, and cogs were faster than men even before that. Why, the humble abacus, already thousands of years old and composed of nothing but some wooden beads on slides, was far faster than people. But nobody would mistake the abacus as being alive or in possessing a mind.

At what point in this speed race does the computing machine possess a mind? At no point. Even if we wire dozens, or hundreds, or even millions of calculators together, the conglomeration never stops being a machine, plodding along and doing precisely what it was told to do. Never does any machine know what it is doing. Calculators, electronic, mechanical, or wooden, possess no more understanding than can openers.

The Reason for Reason

Computers can simulate reason, which is the ability to calculate, to take what is given and process it by known rules. Computers have long been better at calculation than us, and of course will continue to improve. No human now can compete in calculation speed or complexity with even the cheapest device.

If computational ability were all that were needed to possess a human-like mind, computers would have long ago become “alive.” But at no point will any computer become equivalent to us, because not everything we do is calculation. Our highest thoughts are much, much more than raw processing.

Reason, or calculating ability, is below the ability to grasp concepts, to understand, to know. These important and essential operations belong to our spiritual intellects, and as such are beyond mere computation. Our intellects are part of our spiritual nature; they are non-material, not made of stuff. They can thus never be simulated in software or duplicated inside any machine.

Computers will surely best people in games like chess and in solving mathematical equations, but they will never be our equivalent in that which makes us human. Computers will never possess a spiritual essence. They will always remain machines. They can never replace us.

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Miracles in the Making
Susie Larson
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