Computers can be designed to augment human ability

Computers have found their way into nearly every corner of our lives, but in the last few years we have begun to realise they can do much more than just process information. They are beginning to help us directly and indirectly understand how other systems operate: how the brain learns, remembers and recalls information; how DNA is the blueprint for human beings. The work being done in this field was outlined in the Autumn 2015 edition of ITNOW.

In the first article of the series, we explored what we are beginning to learn from comparing and contrasting the brain and computers, and the benefits both communities can gain from studying the basic architecture of each other’s systems.

However, computing can offer us an even greater prize. Professor Daniel Dennett, arguably the world’s leading philosopher of cognitive neuroscience, has sparked an interdisciplinary debate on the novel potential of computers: ‘How can we communicate directly with our computers as partners to extend everyone’s personal ability to learn, understand, master complex topics and even learn to be more intelligent?’

Unlimited opportunities
Alan Turing argued in his 1936 paper, ‘Computable Numbers’, that if we could work out the formula to solve any problem then we could write a program which would enable a general purpose electronic device to execute that algorithm and so solve the problem. As early as 1956, a group at Dartmouth College in the USA argued that ‘all we needed was to define intelligence and we could build intelligent computers’. This statement is true.

Access to the world’s knowledge
Humans have been amassing and disseminating information since the beginning of recorded history, from ancient wall paintings and the great Greek library of Alexandria, then encyclopaedias and dictionaries through to Wikipedia and scientific literature. The challenge lies in turning all this information into knowledge.

In the previous article we explored the central function of every cognitive sentient brain: the ability to store and recall information; to create memory. We are reasonably sure that we know how the brain grows the trillions of new links and structures to be found in a mature brain, and the process is quite automatic. Every time we use these links, we cross reference them to other concurrent activities, continuously strengthening them, integrating them and incorporating them into our neural networks.

Structure of information
We can learn something else that is very useful from our computers. Every digital datafile can be interpreted as a program, or facts, or algorithms, or pictures, or music, or whatever we chose. To the outside observer all files appear identical.