Your Brain Is a Computer

SCIENCE has a poor track record when it comes to comparing our brains to the technology of the day. Descartes thought that the brain was a kind of hydraulic pump, propelling the spirits of the nervous system through the body. Freud compared the brain to a steam engine. The neuroscientist Karl Pribram likened it to a holographic storage device.

Many neuroscientists today would add to this list of failed comparisons the idea that the brain is a computer — just another analogy without a lot of substance. Some of them actively deny that there is much useful in the idea; most simply ignore it.

Often, when scientists resist the idea of the brain as a computer, they have a particular target in mind, which you might call the serial, stored-program machine. Here, a program (or “app”) is loaded into a computer’s memory, and an algorithm, or recipe, is executed step by step. (Calculate this, then calculate that, then compare what you found in the first step with what you found in the second, etc.) But humans don’t download apps to their brains, the critics note, and the brain’s nerve cells are too slow and variable to be a good match for the transistors and logic gates that we use in modern computers.

If the brain is not a serial algorithm-crunching machine, though, what is it? A lot of neuroscientists are inclined to disregard the big picture, focusing instead on understanding narrow, measurable phenomena (like the mechanics of how calcium ions are trafficked through a single neuron), without addressing the larger conceptual question of what it is that the brain does.

This approach is misguided. Too many scientists have given up on the computer analogy, and far too little has been offered in its place. In my view, the analogy is due for a rethink.

To begin with, all the standard arguments about why the brain might not be a computer are pretty weak. Take the argument that “brains are parallel, but computers are serial.” Critics are right to note that virtually every time a human does anything, many different parts of the brain are engaged; that’s parallel, not serial.

But the idea that computers are strictly serial is woefully out of date. Ever since desktop computers became popular, there has always been some degree of parallelism in computers, with several different computations being performed simultaneously, by different components, such as the hard-drive controller and the central processor. And the trend over time in the hardware business has been to make computers more and more parallel, using new approaches like multicore processors and graphics processing units.

Skeptics of the computer metaphor also like to argue that “brains are analog, while computers are digital.” The idea here is that things that are digital operate only with discrete divisions, as with a digital watch; things that are analog, like an old-fashioned watch, work on a smooth continuum.

But just as either format is possible for a watch, either format is possible for a computer, and many “digital” computer switches are built out of analog components and processes. Although virtually all modern computers are digital, most early computers were analog. And we still don’t really know whether our brains are analog or digital or some mix of the two.

Finally, there is a popular argument that human brains are capable of generating emotions, whereas computers are not. But while computers as we know them clearly lack emotions, that fact itself doesn’t mean that emotions aren’t the product of computation. On the contrary, neural systems like the amygdala that modulate emotions appear to work in roughly the same way as the rest of the brain does, which is to say that they transmit signals and integrate information, and transform inputs into outputs. As any computer scientist will tell you, that’s pretty much what computers do.

Of course, whether the brain is a computer is partly a matter of definition. The brain is obviously not a Macintosh or a PC. And we humans may not have operating systems, either. But there are many different ways of building a computer.

The real payoff in subscribing to the idea of a brain as a computer would come from using that idea to profitably guide research. In anarticle last fall in the journal Science, two of my colleagues (Adam Marblestone of M.I.T. and Thomas Dean of Google) and I endeavored to do just that, suggesting that a particular kind of computer, known as the field programmable gate array, might offer a preliminary starting point for thinking about how the brain works.

FIELD programmable gate arrays consist of a large number of “logic block” programs that can be configured, and reconfigured, individually, to do a wide range of tasks. One logic block might do arithmetic, another signal processing, and yet another look things up in a table. The computation of the whole is a function of how the individual parts are configured. Much of the logic can be executed in parallel, much like what happens in a brain.

Although my colleagues and I don’t literally think that the brain is a field programmable gate array, our suggestion is that the brain might similarly consist of highly orchestrated sets of fundamental building blocks, such as “computational primitives” for constructing sequences, retrieving information from memory, and routing information between different locations in the brain. Identifying those building blocks, we believe, could be the Rosetta stone that unlocks the brain.

To put this differently, it is unlikely that we will ever be able to directly connect the language of neurons and synapses to the diversity of human behavior, as many neuroscientists seem to hope. The chasm between brains and behavior is just too vast.

Our best shot may come instead from dividing and conquering. Fundamentally, that may involve two steps: finding some way to connect the scientific language of neurons and the scientific language of computational primitives (which would be comparable in computer science to connecting the physics of electrons and the workings of microprocessors); and finding some way to connect the scientific language of computational primitives and that of human behavior (which would be comparable to understanding how computer programs are built out of more basic microprocessor instructions).

If neurons are akin to computer hardware, and behaviors are akin to the actions that a computer performs, computation is likely to be the glue that binds the two.

There is much that we don’t know about brains. But we do know that they aren’t magical. They are just exceptionally complex arrangements of matter. Airplanes may not fly like birds, but they are subject to the same forces of lift and drag. Likewise, there is no reason to think that brains are exempt from the laws of computation. If the heart is a biological pump, and the nose is a biological filter, the brain is a biological computer, a machine for processing information in lawful, systematic ways.

The sooner we can figure out what kind of computer the brain is, the better.


The Mouth Is Mightier Than the Pen

Few methods beat email for sending communication blasts, getting a note in front of a far-flung sales prospect or employer, or attaching pictures and documents.

Too bad about the downside: You may not sound your smartest.

New research shows that text-based communications may make individuals sound less intelligent and employable than when the same information is communicated orally. The findings imply that old-fashioned phone conversations or in-person visits may be more effective when trying to impress a prospective employer or, perhaps, close a deal.

Vocal cues “show that we are alive inside — thoughtful, active,” said Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and one of two co-authors of the paper, “The Sound of Intellect,” published in Psychological Science this month. “Text strips that out,” he added.

In the first of a series of experiments presented in the paper, the researchers recruited 18 M.B.A. candidates from Booth. The students were asked to prepare a brief pitch to a prospective employer — a roughly two-minute proposal that the researchers recorded on video.

Separately, the researchers recruited 162 people who were visiting the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago to evaluate these pitches. Some of these museumgoers watched the video, a second group listened to the audio without watching the video, and a third group read a transcript of the pitch.

What the researchers found was that the evaluators who heard the pitches — whether in the audio or video version — “rated the candidates’ intellect more highly” than those who read the transcript, the paper reported. Those who listened or watched also rated the candidates more likable and, critically, more employable.

If you are thinking, “Well, that’s a silly experiment. The written version was meant to be heard, not read,” the researchers have a response. In a second experiment, the researchers asked evaluators to read a written pitch that was specifically drafted by candidates to be read (rather than spoken aloud). Same result. And in a third experiment, they verified the findings with a group of evaluators who were professional recruiters from Fortune 500 companies.

The researchers also turned the experiment on its head by asking museumgoers to read written pitches aloud. As before, the evaluators judged the candidates as more employable in the oral pitches, even though they had been specifically prepared to be read. “If you read aloud my written pitch, you’d sound smarter than my written pitch,” Dr. Epley said.

Dr. Epley did not control for writing ability, but given that these were students at a top business school, Dr. Epley assumed they were better-than-average writers, suggesting that the results did not reflect poor writing skills.

Nor did he select his subjects for excellence in public speaking. Rather, he says, the results validate and expand upon previous research showing that the cadence and intonation of voice allows listeners to do a better job of gauging a person’s thoughts than the same information communicated in writing.

“How do we know that another person has a mind at all?” Dr. Epley said. “The closest you ever get to the mind of another person is through their mouth.”

“People abuse text-based mediums like email. That’s a disaster in a lot of ways,” he said. “Email is really good for sending a spreadsheet, but it strips out some of your humanity.”

Review: Devices Adapted to the Outdoor Life

Whether you are hiking a mountain trail, camping in a dense forest or just hanging out in your backyard, your devices need to be rugged enough to withstand the elements, as well as accidental drops. Here are a few noteworthy items to keep in mind for your next outdoor adventure.


G-Technology’s G-Drive ev ATC with Thunderbolt is an all-terrain case with a 1-terabyte hard drive inside. Credit Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

G-Drive ev ATC With Thunderbolt, $230

The G-Drive ev ATC from G-Technology is a sturdy, lightweight portable hard drive intended to keep data secure when you are out in the field. “ATC” stands for the all-terrain case, which holds a one-terabyte hard drive inside. G-Technology says the case will protect the drive from pressure, shock, water and dust, and it will float in water. The case has a Thunderbolt cable that is easily tucked away, and the drive also has a USB 3.0 port, making it a flexible storage system. For those who already own a G-Drive ev hard drive, a stand-alone all-terrain case is available for $130.


The Venture 30 Solar Recharging Kit from Goal Zero includes a recharger and a solar panel. Credit Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Venture 30 Solar Recharging Kit, $170

With a portable backup battery, being off the grid does not mean being without power. Goal Zero goes a step further with its solar power pack, which includes its durable Venture 30 Recharger and Nomad 7 Solar Panel. The Recharger has an attached micro-USB cable and a USB port for charging other devices, with the ports protected by rubber coating.

When the device runs out of juice, the solar panel can be used to recharge it. (Charging takes eight hours in full sunlight.) A “pass-through” feature allows the Recharger to send out power while it is charging. And its smart-charging technology means that devices will be charged at their intended amperage.

Buhari, govs resolve to end financial crisis

President Muhammadu Buhari

The meeting between President Muhammadu Buhari and the state governors on Tuesday rose with a resolution to end the financial crisis being faced by some state governments.

Zamfara State Governor, Abdulazeez Yari, disclosed this to State House correspondents at the end of the meeting.

Yari, who is also the Chairman of the Nigeria Governors Forum, said instead of bailouts, the governors requested for the refund of Federal Government projects they carried out in their states.

He said the governors also asked that the tax paid by the Nigeria Natural Liquefied Gas Company be paid into the Federation Account and be shared.

The governor added that they also asked the Federal Government to ensure that all monies are paid into the Federation Account for sharing as stipulated by the constitution.


President Muhammadu Buhari and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo are currently meeting behind closed-doors with all state governors.

The meeting, holding inside the Council Chambers of the Presidential Villa, Abuja, is the first of its kind since Buhari’s inauguration on May 29.

Issues such as the debts being owed state governments by the Federal Government and the lifeline being sought by state governors in order to meet their states’ demands are expected to dominate discussions at the meeting.

The meeting started at exactly 10.10am with the arrival of the President.

Among state governors in attendance when the meeting started were those of Rivers, Ogun, Imo, Gombe, Benue, Delta, Niger, Kano, Katsina, Zamfara, Kogi, Borno and Jigawa.

Others were governors of  Kebbi, Kwara, Taraba, Ekiti, Ondo, Kaduna, Oyo, Osun, Edo, Anambra, Sokoto, Ebonyi, Lagos, Adamawa, Cross Rivers, Akwa Ibom and  Yobe States.

Plateau and Bayelsa States were represented by their deputy governors.

source: punchng

Rats are saving life’s in Africa….


Meet the giant Africa rats with a remarkable
skill, which allows them to safely clear large
areas filled with deadly landmines.

When the first of Apopo’s furry and four-legged HeroRats were released into a landmine-ridden field of Mozambique, there
was understandable skepticism among the various government officials in attendance.

“In Mozambique we eat rats,” joked Alberto Augusto, the director of Mozambique’s national demining institute, “so it was very
strange to see them working and demining.

We were thinking to grill them.”
But as the gigantic rodents (bigger than New York City sewer rats) stuffed into tiny harnesses began to sweep back and forth on
ropes between their human handlers, stopping every so often to scratch and point
out a landmine, it didn’t take long for the crowd to be convinced.
“These are not normal rats,” Augusto declared. “They are very special rats.”

The HeroRats are officially known as Mine Detection Rats (MDRs), specially trained by
Apopo, a Belgian NGO that researches, develops and implements detection rat
technology for humanitarian purposes like demining.

Landmines continue to be one of the world’s most dangerous weapons, especially in post-
conflict countries. Scattered across 78 countries, these weapons of war can remain
buried beneath the surface for decades, and their deadly nature does not diminish over
time. According to The International Committee of the Red Cross, more than 800
people are killed and 1,200 maimed by landmines every single month – most of them children, women, and elderly.

The sleepy African coastal nation of Mozambique remains one of the most heavily mined countries in Africa. Tens of thousands of landmines were laid during the
struggle for independence between
1964-1975 and the civil war that followed for nearly two decades.

With no maps of mined territories, Augusto says working to clear the
entire country is a “major challenge.”

Yet since Apopo’s rats launched into action in 2006, they’ve successfully cleared more
than 6 million square meters of
Mozambique’s countryside, uncovering 2,406
landmines, 992 bombs, and 13,025 small arms and ammunitions.
“They are doing a great job,” Augusto says, and with their help he believes Mozambique can be mine free in less than 20 years.

‘Smart, yet dumb’

Removing mines is actually the easiest part of de-mining. The hardest part is finding out where they are.

Over the past two decades, hundreds of millions of dollars have gone into research to improve landmine detection and save lives.

According to Apopo’s CEO Christophe Cox, when the organisation began researching the use of rat technology in the early 90s, dozens of universities were working on new
demining technologies like thermal image processing, laser detectors, and so-called Nuclear Quadropole Resonance, a chemical analysis technique.

“We’ve been the only new technology that’s made it to the field out of those hundreds
and hundreds of efforts,” claims Cox.

The problem with introducing new
technologies is that there is no one size fits all approach, says Guy Rhodes of the Geneva International Centre for
Humanitarian Demining, who has acted as a consultant for organisations in several
countries. Specifically, it is very difficult to develop one technology that can deal with the mines of different type, age and
scattered in environments that can range from sandy deserts to dense jungles.

“There were big hopes in demining
technology” he says. “But there are so many variables that while there may be advancement in one element, there are still major limitations in others.”

Currently, there are myriad ways to detect landmines, including manual techniques –
for example, humans with metal detectors and prodders or specially trained detection
dogs – and enormous mechanical vehicles like the US State Department’s ‘Hedgehog,’
essentially a modified John Deere tractor with an armored cab and a side-mounted
attachment arm for demining tools.

Clearing minefields with these technologies can be a very slow and expensive process.

“You can spend a lot of time and money to find out there’s nothing” says Rhodes, “and that’s where these animals are important.

Rats are fairly quick tools to raise
confidence there aren’t any mines in a large area.”

Rats offer several advantages. First, they are remarkably cheap to source, feed, breed and maintain. The African giant-pouched rats are a widespread indigenous species found across the continent.

Because of their poor vision, they depend largely on their acute sense of smell, making them perfect for explosive detection.

The rats can also live up to eight years in captivity, maximizing their return on training investment. Apopo estimates that one rat costs around 6,000 Euros during its lifespan, which translates roughly to 100 euros per month if it’s put to work for just four years.

Second, the rats are “smart” enough to learn repetitive tasks relatively quickly, but –for
lack of a better description – dumb enough so that they don’t get bored or distracted easily.

Unlike dogs, which are used
frequently in demining and explosives detection, rats are not bound to their trainers, making them easy to transfer and handle. Also unlike dogs, rats are too light to accidentally set off landmines.

Lastly, one of the greatest advantages of the rats is their speed. Metal detectors will sound a warning when they sweep across any form of metal, forcing a team to stop and dig regardless of whether it is a tin can or something more sinister.

Since rats are trained to sniff for explosives, they yield far less false positives and can even detect plastic landmines. What takes a human deminer almost two weeks, one rat can do in just a day.

Deadly disease Training a HeroRat takes about nine months, and is done at Apopo’s spacious training
fields in Morogoro, Tanzania. From when they are just a few weeks old, the rats are taken from their mothers and “socialised” to
become comfortable with humans handlers.

Over the next few months, the rats are trained using a process called “click and reward” training. Like Pavlov’s famous dogs

they are trained to associate a “click” sound made with a hand-held mechanical device
with a food reward – usually mushed bananas and crushed pellets. Once a rat learns that a
click means food, they are then taught to associate a specific scent – in this case TNT- with that reward process.

Since rats are nocturnal, they are trained only in the mornings, usually from around seven until nine o’clock in the morning. Gradually, they work their way up from identifying traces of TNT in a “contaminated”
3 sq m (32 sq ft) area, to clearing 5 sq m (54 sq ft) and then 10 sq m (108 sq ft)
areas with de-activated landmines below the surface.

To earn the International Mine Action Standards Accreditation and be certified for mine action, the rats must pass a blind test,
clearing an 800 sq m(8,600 sq ft) field over two days. They must find one 100% of the mines, with only two false positives. So far,
300 rats have been cleared for action.

Yet while rats might be faster than metal detectors and cheaper and less fussy than dogs, they are not for every situation.

“It’s a novel approach that plays a
significant role in a certain context,” says Guy Rhodes, “but it may not be a tool that is
applicable everywhere. With a detector, you stick a battery in and go. With animals, you need a lot more confidence.”

Some people are scared off by the additional care that rats require- like constant re-training, veterinarian services, transportation and feeding.
Then, there are climates- like
deserts- where rats cannot work.

Other challenges come with the type of demining required.
“Many mine problems are not mine problems, but [unexploded ordinance] problems on the surface, which need demolition teams and not search animals,”
says Cox.

Even so, Apopo’s rats are currently deployed in Thailand and Mozambique, and they are
conducting technical surveys in Cambodia and Angola. By combining the rats with existing technologies- metal detectors and
other detection and diffusing tools- they are proving themselves to be fast and effective on the job.

The organisation is also discovering new uses for the rat’s powerful noses and easy
trainability. In Tanzania, the rats are being used to detect Tuberculosis in human saliva
samples- a disease which kills almost 40 times as many people than landmines each year. The rats detect twice as many TB
cases as the current methods, acting as a second-line detection system.
As with landmines, the rats are far quicker; they can evaluate more samples in then minutes than
a lab technician can do in a day.

“I’m really confident with the promise of the rats, and the potential impact which we can
make,” says Cox. But convincing everyone else still isn’t easy.

“It wasn’t easy to penetrate the demining world with rats because it’s military minded, and the health world is equally challenging,” he says. “We have to continue researching and publish and convince the policy makers.”