should we slow down our AI processing speed?

August 25, 2009

The Singularity when AI overtakes human intelligence (credit: Jamais Cascio on

The Singularity when AI overtakes human intelligence (credit: Jamais Cascio on

A new study (as reported in the ArXiv blog) by Fermín Moscoso Del Prado Martín of the Universite de Provence shows that the human data-processing rate is not much more than 60 bits per second. The results are based on measuring the time it takes a subject to complete what’s called a lexical decision task, like determining whether a collection of letters is a word or not. This complexity can be quantified into a certain number of bits (each bit represents a binary state like on or off). Thus, if we know the complexity of a given task (called the entropy), and we know the average time it takes a human to complete that task, we can determine the decision-processing rate of the brain, which is where we get 60 bps.

This speed is really, really, really slow, compared to today’s technology. It’s likely that the internet connection you’re using to read this post is at least 3,000,000 bps (although I should be careful to distinguish this data transfer rate of your internet connection with the data processing rate of our brain). The computer you’re reading this on probably has a processor of at least 2,000,000,000 Hz, or cycles per second, which is more similar to the brain’s data-processing speed of 60 bps. I think you get the message.

So here’s my question: if we would ultimately like to get computers that can think like humans (ultimately being a long time from now), does it make sense to limit the speed at which they can operate? Hardware (or software) that can process data at blazing speeds can allow us to approach a problem the wrong way. The best example is the use of brute-force computational churning to make a simple decision (like using a computer to test every possible game of checkers, taking almost 20 years, to figure out the next best move; don’t laugh, it’s been done).

The power we have available to us can blind us in creating things that actually mimic the way our brain works. It allows us to go far, for sure, but far down a dead end that ultimately will not lead us to the AI sophistication we’d like. Would artificially limiting the various transfer and processing rates of our hardware force us to approach decision making in machines in a way similar as our brain?

I’m not a sophisticated AI developer by any means, but this idea seems at least worth considering. Many people, perhaps most, don’t even thing we’ll ever be able to approach the functionality of the brain, but for those true believers like me out there, this thought is worth considering.

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