The Brain as Computer/Computer as Brain (part 2)

By Charles Henry posted

We are using digital technology in unprecedented ways, whether in the almost seamless integration of computational tools and resources in scientific research, or in the ceding of early phases of interpretation in humanistic scholarship. The vast teamwork involved in discovering the Higgs boson is a prime example of the former: the machines of acceleration and bombardment at CERN were coupled with powerful computers that recorded and gave shape to the collisions, amassing a staggering amount of reconstructed data that the scientists could then probe and analyze. The interworking relationship between human brains and machines was almost symphonic, resulting in a discovery that goes to the core of our interpretation of the universe and its constituent parts.

Such an integral reliance, indeed dependency, is also parcel to the humanities. “Reading” and finding patterns in nearly 200,000 transcripts of the Old Bailey records in London is not humanly possible, at least in the lifetime of a scholar. Searching for similarities and anomalies in 50,000 digital quilts, or calibrating the differences in shoreline drawing in a century and a half of mapmaking for the Great Lakes is beyond our unaided reach. This kind of brain/machine pairing will only become more frequent with the rise of very large projects such as the Digital Public Library of America and the growing prevalence of linked open data and other semantic-based tagging schemes.

These scenarios and those forecast from them are exciting. Yet while there have been great advancements in the academic sector regarding tools and applications, the public Web—specifically its capacity to search—the means by which we generally find digital information—is dismal.

Google cofounder Sergey Brin has observed that "the perfect search engine would be like the mind of God.” If our search capabilities today were compared to the functions of a brain, then we could conclude that the brain suffered from aphasia, so great is the reliance on often-repeated words, the difficulty with syntax and grammar, or the wild, rambling substitution of words when an exact match is not possible. This is language without thought. We could also characterize the public spaces of the searchable Internet as sadly solipsistic. The cookies, the profiling, the resulting advertisements and spam keyed to our inquiry is numbing and wasteful, as if our mind alone existed, without context. There may be some small solace in being attended to so assiduously by virtue of our singular interests and predilections, but it is not conducive to finding our place in a wider world, nor do these tactics encourage the kind of mature collaboration that can lead to new discovery and innovation.

A few years ago, Oren Etzioni wrote a provocative essay in Nature, "Search needs a shake-up." The article lamented the current (and present) state of search engines, which focused on information retrieval as opposed to question answering. If an investment were made in developing a mechanism that mirrored our more advanced cognitive processes, Etzioni argued, "we could soon view today's keyword searching with the same nostalgia and amusement reserved for bygone technologies such as electric typewriters and vinyl records." The week before last, Evgeny Morozov composed an editorial for the New York Times, "Imprisoned by Innovation," lamenting how technological progress not only doesn’t guarantee social progress but can impede it. "The task ahead is to prevent our imagination from being incarcerated by smart technologies," he concludes. Here again is an indirect analogy to a computer as brain, but in this instance a mechanical brain that appropriates and thereby drains discerning qualities inherent in the life of the mind, however “smart” and handy.

Read part 1 of this blog at