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No. 106: Jul-Aug 1996

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Does the human brain compute, or does it do more?

Of course, the human brain can add and subtract, but does it perform all of its functions by manipulating 1s and 0s, as a PC does?

The recent confrontation between G.K. Kasparov, boasting two hemispheres of gray matter, and IBM's Deep Blue chess-playing computer, with its boards of silicon chips, suggests that the human brain may do things somewhat differently. Consider that in the 3 minutes allotted for each move, Deep Blue could evaluate 20 billion moves. This means that it could examine every possible move and countermove for twelve sequences ahead and, in addition, selected lines of attack for 30 sequences. Kasparov was obviously doing no such computation. Yet, he won two, drew two, and lost only one game. IBM's A.J. Hoane, Jr., remarked that chess geniuses like Kasparov "are doing some mysterious computation we can't figure out."

Hoane's use of the words "mysterious computation" tells us that he is a reductionist. The implication is that everything mental can be reduced to manipulating those 1s and 0s. In reality, Kasparov's brain may have been innovating, working out new strategies, discerning Big Blue's weaknesses. These "higherlevel" functions are needed when the problem (chess) is too complex for a computer to evaluate all possible moves. (A computer can always win or draw at checkers -- a simpler game.) Of course, we do not know how "higher-level" functions are "mechanized" -- perhaps they are not, and there is "something else" going on in the human brain.

Another interesting fact, incidental to the Kasparov match, is that Big Blue. Blue, when faced with identical chess boards, will sometimes make different moves! Maybe even Big Blue's behavior is not always reducible to 1s and 0s.

(Horgan, John; "Plotting the Next Move." Scientific American, 274:16, May 1996)

From Science Frontiers #106, JUL-AUG 1996. 1996-2000 William R. Corliss

Science Frontiers Sourcebook Project Reviewed in:


  • "A sourcebook of unexplained phenomena is therefore a valuable addition to a collection of scientific literature. William R. Corliss has provided this in the past with his source books of scientific anomalies in several subjects, and now he has provided it for astronomy. He has done an excellent job of collecting and editing a large amount of material, taken in part from scientific journals and in part from scientific reporting in the popular or semi-scientific press." -- "The Mysterious Universe: A Handbook of Astronomical Anomalies", reviwed by Thomas Gold, Cornell University, in Icarus, vol.41, 1980

  • "An interesting, systematic presentation of unusual weather [..] This book is recommended for a general audience" --"Corliss, William R., Tornados, Dark Days, Anomalous Precipitation, and Related Weather Phenomena, Sourcebook Project, 1983.", revieweed in Choice, September 1983
  • "..the science is necessarily somewhat speculative, but Corliss's symthesis is based on reputable sources." -- "Corliss, William R. (Compiler). Lightning, Auroras, Nocturnal Lights, and Related Luminous Phenomena" reviwed by Joseph M. Moran, Univ. of Wisconsin in Science Books and Films, Sep/Oct 1983

  • "Before opening the book, I set certain standards that a volume which treads into dangerous grounds grounds like this must meet. The author scrupulously met, or even exceeded those standards. Each phenomenon is exhaustively documented, with references to scientific journals [..] and extensive quotations" -- "Book Review: The moon and planets: a catalog of astronomical anomalies", The Sourcebook Project, 1985., Corliss, W. R., Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 81, no. 1 (1987), p. 24., 02/1987