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 — beep-beep-beep — 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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  • Vuurklip

    Never say “never” !!

    Given that the human brain is physical entity – albeit very complex – there should be no reason why a computer of similar complexity cannot manifest qualities indistinguishable from humans qualities.

    • MikeW

      The human brain is integrated with a vastly complex sensory system (visual, auditory, etc.) that constantly feeds the brain with information and stimulation that the brain constantly processes and uses to build its intelligence. This brain/sensory system itself is integrated with a vastly complex bodily energy system that feeds and protects it, and keeps it running. This brain/sensory/energy system itself is integrated with vastly complicated terrestrial and social environments that stimulate it and sustain it. The only way to reproduce a brain/sensory/energy/environmental system commensurate with this is to reproduce another human being. But there are far easier and more pleasurable ways of doing that than by building “artificial neurons”.

      • Vuurklip

        Nothing prevents an artificial “brain” to have all of the integration and sensory equipment you mention. Nothing like it exists but in principle, there is nothing to prohibit artificial entities to be vastly more complex than humans – indeed, vastly more complex than we can imagine. Such complex entities may never be realised but that does not mean that they are impossible.

    • Alice Cheshire

      There are many reasons, most of which are ignored by scifi writers and true believers in Will Smith movies. The complexity of the human organism makes it virtually impossible. We can’t even make a car that drives among humans without making mistakes. It has to be ALL driveless for the things to work. They can’t integrate.

      • Vuurklip

        “… The complexity of the human organism makes it virtually impossible …”
        Yes, but not completely impossible. Considering how far computers have come in the last 60+ years, there is no telling what the next 60 will bring. Not to mention the longer term of thousands of years.

        • Ye Olde Statistician

          In the next 60 years, computers will become even better at computing. But no amount of syntax will ever add up to semantics.

          • Vuurklip

            The point is that there is nothing that prevents an artificial organism to be vastly more complex than humans – and at the same time more capable. That such organisms do not exist, does not mean that it is impossible that one day they may exist. After all, what are we more than vastly complex chemical reactions? Unless you want to invoke some miraculous “life force” which has no physical existence.

          • Nate Winchester

            Now THAT is a fine bumper sticker. 😉

          • swordfish

            And no amount of evolutionary development could ever make an intelligent animal from a bunch of unintelligent cells. Oh, wait! That’s already happened.

    • Hrodgar

      This assumes what has not has not been established: that the brain in all that is necessary. But perhaps men are not merely material. If so, no merely material construct could hope to replicate one, no matter how complex.

      For my own part, I doubt whether a computer could possibly replicate even animals or plants, or even algae or bacteria, let alone the rational animal. We might nearly as well ask if a computer could replicate a ghost.

      • Vuurklip

        This is not assumed at all! Nothing prohibits a computer to all the sensory equipment required. The fact that computers are currently very far from human capability does not mean that this is impossible in principle.

    • GPS Daddy

      >>Given that the human brain is physical entity… indistinguishable from humans qualities

      On what basis do you claim that mimicking human behavior where a computer program becomes “indistinguishable from humans qualities” leads you to claim “Never say “never” !!” of the author’s conclusion of “Computers will never possess a spiritual essence”?

      • Vuurklip

        Because, in principle, nothing precludes an artificial intelligence as mentioned in my comment to be realised eventually. It may never happen but the fact that it could, means that one cannot say “never”.

        • GPS Daddy

          >>Because, in principle

          What principle are you referring too?

          • Vuurklip

            The term is used in this sense (as defined in the Oxford Dictionary):

            “A fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behaviour or for a chain of reasoning.”

          • GPS Daddy

            That did not answer my question. What principle are you referring too to make the claim of “Because, in principle, nothing precludes an artificial intelligence as mentioned in my comment to be realised eventually”?

            What principle, or fundamental truth, are you referring too?

          • Vuurklip

            OK, just leave off the the words “in principle”. So my statement reads:
            Nothing precludes an artificial intelligence as mentioned in my comment to be realised eventually. It may never happen but the fact that it could, means that one cannot say “never”.

          • GPS Daddy

            Now that is switching gears. First you claim it is a fundamental truth. When challenged you back off… “well not really…”.

            Ok, now on your new position what makes you think that “Nothing precludes artificial intelligence as mentioned in my comment to be realised eventually”?

  • Alice Cheshire

    “But nobody would mistake the abacus as being alive or in possessing a mind.” They would have if a science fiction writer had created “Abzilla, the giant killing abacus”. The beads would have moved back and forth as the evil giant abacus counted down and calculated the deaths of the useless, helpless humans.

    • Vuurklip

      That is not the point. The point is that it is possible to show human like qualities whatever the substrate. The human is a physical entity however complex. This complexity does not prohibit the same complexity to be implemented on a different substrate.

  • Yawrate

    I always laugh when someone says that before they die we’ll be able to upload ourselves into a computer thereby living forever. What hubris!

    It’s safe to say we’re not even close.

  • Dan Hughes

    If coding is involved, it is not intelligence.

    How do you code, “If I don’t think about it, it’ll come to me.” Works almost all the time. How do you code plasticity? How do you train artificial neurons so that they charge faster and fewer are used as brain plasticity kicks in? How do you map artificial neurons to the spatiality of the body as plasticity does?

    The good professor is correct. And this is an area in which ‘never’ and ‘always’ is the proper description.

    • Dan I asked a grandson if there was anything that frightened him, he came back with, “yes the size of the universe and eternity”. Now I thought that was rather profound, and I’m thinking that there will never be a machine that has that capacity.

  • This nonsense should have died off with Godel and Jaki.

  • Charles Burge

    This topic really illustrates the difference between a Christian worldview and a materialist worldview. In materialism, matter is the only thing that exists, therefore our thoughts are nothing but interactions between the cells in our brains. In such a world, it’s entirely feasible to “upload” our consciousness to a computer, or have artificial intelligence that thinks like people do.

    However, if Christianity is true, then our minds transcend time and space. In that case, the brain is merely the interface between the mind and the physical realm. That makes it completely impossible to contain the mind in circuitry or to make a written program actually think (in the same sense that humans do). Not only do we have an extremely poor understanding of the mind’s true nature, we don’t even know what we don’t know about it. I think this explains why most science-fiction writers (and fans) are materialists.

    In short, computers are really good at doing arithmetic quickly, and at storing and retrieving information. But they’ll never actually think.

  • swordfish

    There isn’t any evidence that the human mind is immaterial, but even if it were true, it doesn’t follow that it will be impossible to create a purely material machine that can think.

    • davidrev17

      “Succinctly, mental representation of abstract thought presupposes abstract thought, and cannot explain it. It is on abstract thought that materialism, as a theory of mind, flounders. Abstract thought, classically understood as intellect and will, are inherently immaterial. Any representation in the brain of abstract thought (while it may exist) necessarily presupposes abstract thought itself, which must, by its nature, be an immaterial power of the mind.

      “The human mind is a composite of material particular thought and immaterial abstract thought. Interestingly, modern neuroscience supports this view. Perception of particulars maps with precision to brain anatomy, but abstract thought is not mapped in the same way. Material powers of the brain are ordinarily necessary for exercise of abstract thought (e.g., you have to be awake to think about justice), but matter is not sufficient for abstract thought.

      “Abstract thought is an immaterial power of the mind.”

      — “The Representation Problem and the Immateriality of the Mind,” Pediatric Neurosurgeon (Philosopher of Mind), Dr. Michael Egnor, ‘Evolution News & Science Today,’ (Feb. 5th, 2018).

      I see you’re still languishing under the intellectually “Sysyphean” worldview beliefs of atheistic scientism; whose laughable “swiss-cheese foundation” (or non-existent underpinnings) for this notoriously slippery metaphysical house-of-cards, has been misguidedly, though faithfully constructed out of “pretzel logic” alone.

      I also notice how you effortlessly move about in such profound tail-chasing metaphysical conjecture – while consistently conflating epistemological and ontological claims (in so many of your comments), when trying to establish (or ground) your groundless, incoherent worldview discourse of atheistic scientism.

      Such rational/logical maladies unique to the very small percentages of self-professed atheists, can only be addressed (and ultimately corrected/rectified) through a profound “TRUTH encounter” in Homo sapiens’ reality, with the transcendent, and thus risen/glorified Yeshua/Jesus of Nazareth – the bedrock “source,” and sole reason for Homo sapiens’ reality in the first place, i.e., “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” – Matthew 24:35. (See also Psalm 33:6; Deuteronomy 8:3b; Isaiah 42:5; 45:18; Zechariah 12:1; John 1:1-3; 6:63; Colossians 1:15-18; Hebrews 1:1-4; 11:3; Revelation 4:11.)

      (And please don’t forget your usual reliance upon the “Genetic Fallacy,” in case you wind-up trying to objectively evaluate the solid scientific/philosophical work of Dr. Egnor, in his area of expertise – the human brain and/or mind.)

      • swordfish

        I write one sentence, you reply with a rambling, multi paragraph essay – can you not express your thoughts more succinctly?

        “Any representation in the brain of abstract thought (while it may exist) necessarily presupposes abstract thought itself, which must, by its nature, be an immaterial power of the mind.” [Dr. Michael Egnor]

        This is just an assertion with no evidence to back it up, as are the other claims you quote.

        “I see you’re still languishing under the intellectually “Sysyphean” worldview beliefs of atheistic scientism;”

        There isn’t any such thing as “scientism”, let alone “atheistic scientism”.

        • davidrev17

          Do you just make these bizarre, ungrounded assertions up, as you go along? Case in point, again:

          “There isn’t any such thing as “scientism”, let alone “atheistic scientism”.

          Perhaps if you actually studied the contents in the following seminal academic (2014) book on “Scientism,” you just might learn something; whereby you wouldn’t so readily reflect that unforgettable image of a one-armed-man, trying to successfully row-a-boat, as is so typically the case when you engage in these discussions about worldviews – yours included??

          “Scientism: The New Orthodoxy,” (2014), Edited by Richard N. Williams & Daniel N. Robinson, (Bloomsbury Publishing).

          (Hardly the only academic “word” on such a demonstrably self-refuting [thus incoherent] epistemological “dead-end” either!)

  • “They can never replace us.“
    I understand that, I think, but the question remains, could they destroy us. If humans disappeared could machines find ways or reasons to continue to exist? I understand about what the Bible calls the soul. “What could man ever give in exchange for his soul”. The soul is the God connect and the eternal part of humankind. But A I sounds very much like some of the descriptions, found in the book of Revelations, that are used to destroy a lot of humanity.

  • Bryant Poythress

    For some time they looked at each other in silence: at last the caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth, and languidly addressed her.
    “Who are you?” said the caterpillar.
    This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation: Alice replied rather shyly, “I—I hardly know, sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since that.”
    “What do you mean by that?” said the caterpillar, “explain yourself!”
    “I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir,”said Alice, “because I’m not myself, you see.”
    “I don’t see,” said the caterpillar.
    “I’m afraid I can’t put it more clearly,” Alice replied very politely, “for I can’t understand it myself, and really to be so many different sizes in one day is very confusing.”
    “It isn’t,” said the caterpillar.
    “Well, perhaps you haven’t found it so yet,” said Alice, “but when you have to turn into a chrysalis, you know, and then after that into a butterfly, I should think it’ll feel a little queer, don’t you think so?”
    “Not a bit,” said the caterpillar.
    “All I know is,” said Alice, “it would feel queer to me.”
    “You!” said the caterpillar contemptuously, “who are you?”

    Alice’s Adventures Under Ground
    Lewis Carroll

How Do I Handle My Regrets?
Joe Dallas
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