Last week’s Jeopardy match pitting IBM’s supercomputer Watson against two previous Jeopardy champions was the second most watched program across many of the biggest US television markets and has received tons of media coverage, feeding lots of futuristic speculation on AI replacing human intelligence. A most reassuring comment from Luis von Ahn, computer scientist, on the outlook for artificial intelligence in an interview with NOVA:
There are the very, very simple things that computers still cannot do. Even determining who somebody is from an image or whether something is a cat or a dog from an image is something that computers cannot do very well. So there are simple things that three-year-olds can do that computers cannot yet do.
So, computers are not set to outpace us yet. But consider some perspective on our relative processing power (math challenge: based on the numbers below, what percent of the processing power of the human brain is a typical PC capable of performing at? Answer at end of post.):
- Your PC: 100 billion calculations per second
- Watson : 80 trillion calculations per second
- Your brain: 100 trillion calculations per second
Most of us don’t have Watson’s vast reserves of trivia stored in memory (500GB in all–the equivalent of about 200 million printed pages of text). And yet, the human brain is capable of remarkable feats of memory with some training. So maybe if we do know a lot of trivia, perhaps we just don’t have the speed to recall that information in under 3 seconds. We might argue though that humans are better at critical thinking tasks than memory-based ones. But even then, we can take a lesson from Watson. Regarding learning, cognitive scientist Dan Willingham makes the following comment:
Data from the last thirty years lead to a conclusion that is not scientifically challengeable: thinking well requires knowing facts, and that’s true not simply because you need something to think about. The very processes that teachers care about most-critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving-are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is stored in long-term memory.
To allow our brain to perform at its best at the very human activity of critical thinking, there are some facts a student has to commit to memory and this is true whether in math or other subjects.
A PC performs at 0.1% of the processing speed of your brain.