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Face It, Your Brain Is a Computer

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 an article 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.

Gary Marcus, a professor of psychology and neural science at New York University, is the editor of “The Future of the Brain.”

Gray Matter By GARY MARCUS - The New York Times