Man versus Machine

As an IT person, the one rhetorical question I hear all the time is “I wonder what Einstein could have done with a modern computer?”

Most people think a computer is superior to a human brain. They cite such mundane facts as “the computer always beats the human in chess”, or “Watson (an IBM computer) beat Ken Jennings at Jeopardy”.

These examples may be true, but let’s compare….

Let’s take a look at Watson. It was programmed and fine-tuned to perform one function – to play Jeopardy. Every program and every module supported this one purpose – to play Jeopardy. It was programmed with full dictionaries, encyclopedias, and other reference materials including all of Wikipedia. It existed for one sole purpose – to win at Jeopardy.

The human brain on the other hand, is VERY busy. It’s a multitasker. It’s maintaining body processes, receiving input from the five senses, looking at breasts, and interacting with other human brains, all at the same time. AND it’s still pretty good at Jeopardy and chess. The human brain is an spongy version of MacGyver.

Occasionally, we get a glimpse of the brain’s potential. People like Kim Peek (the real Rainman) who are considered savants, perform amazing feats of memory and calculation but lack the skills for simple things like brushing their hair or making eye contact. So it appears that if the human brain was not busy with the day-to-day operations of life, it could certainly match wits with the best chess-playing or Jeopardy-playing computer.

And when it comes to adaptability, the human brain is far more flexible and adaptable than any computer. Humans are continuously bombarded with information, and yet the brain is able to process this info, and make thoughtful decisions, all in the blink of an eye. In fact, while we’re talking about eyes, the human eye can process about 12-15 megapixels of information in a single glance. The average digital camera clocks in around 10 megapixels.  Let’s face it, if a modern computer had to deal with the amount of data our senses handle on a second-by-second basis, it would probably blue screen.

Facial recognition is another area where the human brain wins hands down. I could show you a picture of Bill Clinton at age 18, and a picture of him now, and you would instantly know it’s the same person. The best computer can get close to 90% accuracy on facial recognition, but doing so could take minutes or even hours.

The major weakness with computers is they deal in absolutes; either the information is on the hard drive, or it’s not. They don’t forget things. They don’t suffer from “senior moments”. They never need to adapt. The human brain, on the other hand, is continuously adapting and changing. For example, look at speech. The human brain can adjust to different accents, different intellects, and even different languages. But language is one of the processes that computers just can’t seem to get right. So when you watch the talking computers on Star Trek, just remember that the computers of today would lock up and crash when presented with an accent from Boston or New Orleans.

So to answer the original question, if Einstein had access to a modern computer, he could have cut way down on the amount of time it took to verify his facts and calculate his theories. He may have even worked as a programmer. But it was his brain that was elastic enough and probing enough to pull together so much diverse information to use with his theories and ideas.

On the other hand, he might have just sat in his office at Princeton and surfed for porn.

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