In a recent article, reputed psychologist Robert Epstein, the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, argues that the brain is not a computer and it is not an information processing device. His main point is that there is no place in the brain where “copies of words, pictures, grammatical rules or any other kinds of environmental stimuli” are stored. He argues that we are not born with “information, data, rules, software, knowledge, lexicons, representations, algorithms, programs, models, memories, images, processors, subroutines, encoders, decoders, symbols, or buffers” in our brains.
His point is well taken. We now know that the brain does not store its memories in any form comparable to that of a digital computer. Early symbolic approaches to Artificial Intelligence (GOFAI: good old-fashioned artificial intelligence) failed soundly at obtaining anything similar to intelligent behavior.
In a digital computer, memories are stored linearly, in sequential places in the digital memory of the computer. In brains, memories are stored in ways that are still mostly unknown, mostly encoded in the vast network of interconnections between the billions of neurons that constitute a human brain. Memories are not stored in individual neurons, nor in individual synapses. That, he says, and I agree, is a preposterous idea.
Robert Epstein, however, goes further, as he argues that the human brain is not an information processing device. Here, I must disagree. Although they do it in a very different ways from computers, brains are nothing more than information processing devices. He argues against the conclusion that “all entities that are capable of behaving intelligently are information processors”, which he says permeates all of current research in brain and behavior. Needless to say, I disagree. Any entity capable of behaving intelligently needs to be able to process information.
Epstein concludes by arguing that we will never, ever, be able to reproduce the behavior of a human mind in a computer. Not only the challenge of reverse engineering is just too big, he argues, but the behavior of a brain, even if simulated in a computer, would not create a mind.
The jury is still out on the first argument. I agree that reverse engineering a brain may remain, forever, impossible, due to physical and technological limitations. However, if that were to be possible, one day, I do not see any reason why the behavior of a human mind could not emanate from an emulation running in a computer.
Image from the cover of the book “Eye, Brain, and Vision”, by David Hubel, available online at http://hubel.med.harvard.edu/.