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I'm not a computer…I’m a human being!


Digital computers have given us much insight into human information processing, including of late why we are different. A recent book (Montague, Read. (2006). Why Choose This Book? New York: Penguin Publishing Group) examines human information processing - why and how it evolved to be so different from the computer on which I’m typing this.

The basic premise is that digital computers were created with little constraint on power consumption; whereas humans developed to run essentially on stored energy whose replenishment (food) was uncertain. Minimizing energy consumption drove development of the human brain (which also prevents your head from catching on fire). It is estimated that power consumption for the human brain is about 20 watts.

The author considered what type of computing machine might be developed if the goal is to minimize energy consumption. He came up with several principles.

  1. Drain energy slowly (Recharge or die) – This converts to processing slowly and softly. Transmission speed in the cerebral cortex is around 30 meters/second, compared to the near speed of light for your PC. Neural impulses are not just slow, but wide also; with durations of 2/1000th of a second (A PC is about a million times faster).
  2. Save storage space – This is done in two ways. First, the brain is as imprecise as possible, using the fewest significant digits and fewest steps in an algorithm to accomplish a task. Second, the data needs to be compressed as much as possible, which can be done by assuming knowledge. The set of instructions to be conveyed can be shortened if assumptions can be made regarding the level of knowledge of the person receiving them. Not every little detailed step needs to be specified if the person on the other end has a general idea of what needs to be done, or at least a common set of assumptions.
  3. Save bandwidth – This can be thought of as stay off the line, which means don’t repeat. However, not repeating can lead to errors – unless the receiver and sender share a mental model, so any message inconsistent with the model stands out. Consider when something is garbled on a cell phone, you may not have to have it repeated if enough subsequent information allows an inference to be made regarding the garbled transmission (Oh, you want me to pick up bread, not Fred.). This ability to do mental simulation then converts into other uses, such as the “what might have been” simulation which is so critical to learning.
  4. Have Goals - Inherent to any concept of efficiency are goals, action A is more valuable than action B. For the sake of energy conservation, goals enable the use of feedback to adjust actions, minimizing the need for transference of information. Not all steps need to be transferred if each action can be evaluated as to its relevance in achieving the goal.

So be careful in making analogies between the information processing of computers and humans. Different constraints in the development of each (i.e., power consumption) has created two very different ways of processing information. In addition, understand how the human will be using the information presented, slow, imprecise, matching to models, and oriented toward goals.

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