“Dad, I think you’re wrong about that robot trying to be your friend.” – Lisa Simpson

At the most basic and microscopic of levels, the machines we build and the brains with which we are born operate very similarly. Both involve sending barely perceptible electrical impulses, the resulting paths of which, whether on a neuron or a transistor, create logical facts that form the basis of information. Ironically enough, we understand this process far better in computers than we do in ourselves, but fundamentally, the two are quite similar.

The differences begin to arise in the superstructures we and they construct over those uncountably infinite bits. In your head is an organ that is physically shaped by the different priorities it gives to different logical functions. So, generally speaking, your cerebellum (near the bottom of your skull) helps manage and control the physical plant which keeps the rest of the brain alive (i.e. breathing, eating, moving, etcetera), while your cerebrum (around the top) initiates voluntary movement and conscious logical thought. Other parts and sub-regions create and store memories, handle emotional reactions, facilitate communication between different parts of the brain, and so on. These areas of specialty are so tightly defined that people who’ve suffered freak injuries or had brain surgery have been known to lose extremely specific mental abilities.*

(*Two of the most famous examples are Phineas Gage and Henry Molaison. Gage was a railroad worker who had a metal bar blasted clear through his head, destroying a big chunk of his brain. He remained conscious afterwards and lived for twelve more years, but with personality changes that may have lasted the rest of his life. Molaison was an epileptic who had a partial lobotomy at age 27 to control his seizures. The seizures stopped, but he lost the ability to form new conscious memories, though he could learn new skills. He lived to be 82, remembering no events from after the surgery.)

The calculating nerve center of a modern phone is called a system-on-a-chip, or (acronyms still being important) SoC. The one chip contains dedicated areas for graphical processing, memory, general processing, and communication with the rest of the device and the outside world. Just like your brain, it has different physical structures dedicated to specific tasks. The central processor has one or two cores and does most of the actual computing, but it relies on the northbridge to communicate with other parts of the chip, which in turn relies on the southbridge to control other parts of the device. The specialized graphical processor generates the image on the screen by using hundreds of parallel cores to rapidly complete all the math intensive calculations needed for video and animation that the central processor simply isn’t designed to handle. Just like in a brain, different physical structures are optimized for different tasks.

While the two different systems share fundamental mechanical similarities and analogous superstructures, they have radically different purposes and specialization needs. Your brain, like that of a great white shark or a tiny hamster, is a biological organ evolved to help you survive and reproduce in a world full of unpredictable dangers. It is primed to interpret an unknowable range of sensory input, everything from the snap of a twig that may or may not be a bear trying to eat you to millimeter changes in someone else’s facial muscles that can indicate everything from “fuck you!” to “let’s fuck!”.

In addition, and at all times whether you want it to or not, your brain is collecting a store of short and long term memories. Experiences that teach you things like “this place is unsafe”, “this other person is trustworthy”, and “I enjoy/dislike this” color your perception of each new thing you encounter. Whether something is novel or familiar affects your judgment before you have a chance to think about it. Worse yet, each memory is imperceptibly altered every time you recall it, so distortion and inaccuracy are constant and growing. And that’s life with a brain: a never-ending torrent of barely predictable sensory input washed through a filter of memories that change and fade.

By contrast, the chip in your phone has to deal with a far narrower range of tasks. The inputs with which it must contend are strictly contained to things which it has been programmed to expect. From the amount of electric current needed to power the screen at a certain brightness to how to react to each button press and vocal command, the chip has a preset reaction to every outside stimulus. It never has to deal with the unknown and it never gets tired of the known. It simply operates instructions.

To understand how divergent these two ways of doing things express themselves in the non-microscopic world, consider the touch of a finger, an action basic to both phones controlled by chips and people controlled by brains. In both systems, physical contact sets the aforementioned electrical impulses scurrying. But the mental perspectives from which the chip and the brain view that touch are radically different.

To the chip, the touch of that finger merely signals the start of a new set of instructions. Whether it’s the press of a volume key, a swipe across some part of the screen, or a person tapping a cartoon figure of Homer Simpson currently being rendered by its graphical processor, the chip simply adds together the relevant variables and follows the rules.

To the brain, the touch of that finger sets off a rollicking and unpredictable series of cascading questions. What’s the emotional intent of the touch? Is the person to whom the finger is connected calm or angry? Was it expected or unexpected? Has this person touched me before? What environmental conditions apply? Are we alone, are we in a crowded room? Did I see it or only feel it? Before a conscious thought is formed or an action taken, that jumble of half-formed conclusions all but makes the brain’s judgments for it. There’s no list to choose from, no step-by-step directions to follow, just the computational mess we call instinct and reaction.

Now think about what happens when these two very different systems sit opposite one another in a game, which is, as previously mentioned, merely a set of rules. Playing a game, whether chess, video poker, or The Simpsons Tapped Out, puts a chip at a natural and insurmountable advantage over a brain. It has no instructions about whether or not something is fair, so it doesn’t care. It has no instructions about when it should grow bored with these inherently repetitive actions, so it never does. It has no instructions about anything but continuing the game until it is told not to.

Continue to Chapter 4, “Domesticating the Beast: Video Gambling to Video Gaming“.


0 Responses to “3 – Chips vs. Brains and Machines vs. People: We Don’t Stand a Chance”



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