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Human brain beats computers cold at visual search

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From “In visual Searches, Computer Is No Match for the Human Brain” (ScienceDaily July 17, 2012), we learn,

You’re headed out the door and you realize you don’t have your car keys. After a few minutes of rifling through pockets, checking the seat cushions and scanning the coffee table, you find the familiar key ring and off you go. Easy enough, right? What you might not know is that the task that took you a couple seconds to complete is a task that computers — despite decades of advancement and intricate calculations — still can’t perform as efficiently as humans: the visual search.

But surely the point is that computer doesn’t need to find anything.

Does a computer care if it is just shut off? Invaded by a virus? Thrown into a dumpster in the middle of the night?

Some intellectual feats depend on actually wanting to do something.

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13 Responses to Human brain beats computers cold at visual search

  1. Don’t confuse them. Only randomness is purposive – and a cunning designer, to boot.

  2. This is nonsense. It’s the same as saying that if you NEED to walk a tightrope your sense of balance suddenly improves. It works great in the movies. It doesn’t work (on average) in real life.

    Humans, especially males, have a visual targetting system optimized for separating mammoths from trees and chunking stone-tipped spears into them. A thousand things we do every day reinforce the training.

    The computer hardware of course has no idea what either a “tree” or a “mammoth” is. That’s all done by software. What the article really means is that human software developers haven’t yet written a decent program to guide the hardware. Radar-guided systems to kill ships or aeroplanes in uncluttered oceans and skies have been amazingly accurate for decades.

    “Needing” to shoot down an aeroplane or sink a ship doesn’t improve marksmanship in humans, by the way. Only training improves marksmanship. The “find car keys” app for your cellphone just needs better trained programmers, and a decent “this is what car keys on cluttered countertops might look like” training/testing course. By the time a human is 21, they have, oh, 100,000 hours of “find the X” training. Try asking a 2-year old to “find the car keys”. I wonder what software with 100,000 clock hours of self-paced training would look like?

  3. ‘“Needing” to shoot down an aeroplane or sink a ship doesn’t improve marksmanship in humans, by the way.’

    I don’t believe that is true. In the preface to his essay on comparative religion, The Perennial Philosophy, Aldous Huxley spoke about a study or studies that had been performed on the way in which aircrews, during combat in WWII, seemed to act in perfect concert, in a way that was unique to that situation in all its direness.

    Not only was the individual particularly-highly attuned to the task in hand, as an individual, but also to the particular situations of the whole group of individuals he was working with, in pursuit of their common purpose. Evidently, on a psychic level.

  4. Mahuna, you are mistaken. Completely mistaken in this case.

    Needing to do something greatly improves human performance.

    This is especially true of women. Many women think they can’t “do” something, because they have been told they can’t. And it never mattered to them.

    Then, for a given woman, it suddenly becomes necessary. Then suddenly she finds she can.

    Her sense of balance, marksmanship, business judgement, or whatever suddenly improves.

    A miracle? Maybe not. One way of looking at it is that the human brain is both plastic and capacious, by design.

    When it was okay that she “couldn’t” drive, shoot, or confront a villain, because there was always a guy around to do it, she couldn’t and didn’t.

    But when her family and friends are at stake later, and there is no guy around, you hear that she suddenly drove the truck to where the villain was camped and shot him. And now, as we say where I live, there’s to be an inquest, and who’ll get the transcript to type?

    There is no shortage of stories like this from Canada, and it’s unlikely they are unheard of elsewhere.

  5. “This is nonsense. It’s the same as saying that if you NEED to walk a tightrope your sense of balance suddenly improves. It works great in the movies. It doesn’t work (on average) in real life.”

    You had the good sense to say that ‘… it doesn’t work on average,’ but it seems, does it not, that you have it the wrong way round. On average, goals are generally achieved that are commensurate with the purposiveness of the individual.

    The tight-rope walker, on the other hand, would indeed need to stay very focused, but woe betide him if he tries too hard! The balance he needs must begin in his mind.

    So, the tight-rope walker’s purposiveness must be at least as intense as that required for any other task, but would require to be very carefully filtered to match the demands of the unusual nature of the activity.

  6. Axel, the father of all UD News staff was in Bomber Command, fighting the Battle of Britain. It was exactly as you say. Very late in life, 90+, he began to speak of it, and that is what he said.

    The memory helped him cope with a damaging stroke.

    (Yes, his plane was shot down, but he survived and escaped.)

  7. Hi News,

    I’m a little wary of using this example as evidence that some intellectual feats depend on wanting to do something. Here’s why.

    1. As I describe in my online thesis at http://www.angelfire.com/linux.....natomy.pdf , even insects, fish and crustaceans are able to recognize and
    discriminate successfully between objects such as food items, nest-mates, prey and predators. See this paper by Franklin et al., page 9:

    The Role of Consciousness in Memory, in the online journal Brains, Minds and Media, July 4, 2005 (bmm150).

    The problem is that insects, fish and crustaceans are not conscious. As I explain in my thesis (pp. 77-109), consciousness (in the popular sense of the term) is probably confined to mammals and birds (and just possibly reptiles and cephalopods).

    2. I’ve just been watching a fascinating talk by Jonah Lehrer on creativity at http://the99percent.com/videos.....-Need-Grit .

    He talks about people getting creative insights. The spooky bit is that scientists can predict that a person is going to get a creative insight, seven-and-a-half seconds before the person is consciously aware of it (i.e. 7.5 seconds before the “Aha!” moment), just by looking at their brain waves. That suggests to me that creative insights aren’t voluntary.

    If creative insights aren’t voluntary, then it’s highly unlikely that more mundane tasks like locating your car keys are voluntary either. In that case, there’s no reason in principle why a computer might not one day be able to do a better job than I do, at locating keys or other objects.

    3. Lehrer also mentioned in his talk that trying to have a creative insight was the worst thing you could do, if you wanted to experience one. Instead, you have to take a break and do something completely different before the insight will come to you. So it seems that sometimes necessity can actually be counter-productive.

    Thoughts?

  8. You might be right about all this, vjtorley. The only point made is that people often think they can’t do things they actually can. So wanting to do it becomes a trigger to achievement. This is especially true among women.

    In medicine, they call it “learned helplessness.” You believe you can’t do something, so you can’t. The big thing is to make the patient do it, to prove to him that he can.

  9. If, like Broadway Danny Rose, I might interject, vjtorley… First, that’s very interesting, News. I believed I’ve read confirmation of that phenomenon in another context, too.

    Incidentally, forgive the gross parlance, but this nugget would I expect, have amused your father:

    Piers Morgan – Mail on Sunday’s LIVE

    “My favourite quote on pressure came from the late, great, australian cricketing legend, Keith Miller, when asked if he was worried about going out to bat against England at Lord’s.

    Miller, who had been a pilot in the war, smiled at the question. “Pressure? I’ll tell you what pressure is. Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse.”

    Re your last point, vjt:

    “3. Lehrer also mentioned in his talk that trying to have a creative insight was the worst thing you could do, if you wanted to experience one. Instead, you have to take a break and do something completely different before the insight will come to you. So it seems that sometimes necessity can actually be counter-productive.”

    I believe it is pretty much a commonplace that, after a night’s sleep, for example, the strands of our thoughts concerning something puzzling us, or a problem, have been coordinated to produce the solution, the answer, without conscious effort on our part.

    But why conflate what must be only a little higher version of the autonomic intelligence with inspiration? Two very different kettles of fish?

    The coordination of the strands of our intelligence to produce an inspired, creative solution/idea would concern matters of an all together higher order. Compare the extremes of Einsteins musing’s on space-time, with his or anybody’s driving a car.

    Even so, the creative insights that can be ‘recorded to order’ couldn’t be exactly conceptual leaps, imo. Although they doubtless died with the rise of materialism: with the passing of the major, paradigmatc thinkers, Planck, Bohr, et al.

  10. “He talks about people getting creative insights. The spooky bit is that scientists can predict that a person is going to get a creative insight, seven-and-a-half seconds before the person is consciously aware of it (i.e. 7.5 seconds before the “Aha!” moment), just by looking at their brain waves. That suggests to me that creative insights aren’t voluntary.”

    Couldn’t his be viewed as evidence for determinism/materialism/naturalism in the sense that we really don’t have free will? All our insights and thoughts are just grey matter, atoms and brainwaves if they can be predicted like that?

  11. A tight-rope walker’s sensitivity to the necessary interplay between giving rein to his autonomic intelligence and his presumably, minimal, conscious interventions, must be critical.

    Like trying to take my socks off at night, standing on one leg. If I concentrate on my balance, it’s fatal; but if I rely wholly on my autonomic intelligence, I won’t be prepared for my conscious mind’s involuntary overriding of my autonomic intelligence, and I’ll begin to stagger. I walk a tight-rope every night.

  12. If a kid gets stuck up a tree, News, the best thing to do, is not to sympathise with him, but to read him the riot act, if he doesn’t get down from that tree “this instant”! (metaphorically speaking)

    The thought of a parent filling a kid with more dread than his falling from a tree doesn’t sound too nice, but I think it’s that the parent’s no-nonsense attitude gets the kid to think, “Well, it can’t be that big a deal finding a way down, if Mum or Dad adopts that tone.”

  13. Regarding the human brain beating computers at visual searching
    1 The problem is clearly much more difficult than most people realise
    2 Part of the human brain is clearly finely tuned to solve the problem

    My rough guide to the limits of AI is to ask: can the problem be conceived of as a game? (for example, playing chess is a yes, appreciation of poetry is a no). The problem of a visual search (i.e. find the keys in a visual field as quickly as possible) is clearly a yes, therefore, in my opinion, it’s just a matter of time until computers are just as good, if not better, than the human brain at visual searching.

    Regarding the idea that wanting something can lead to a change in behaviour; this is close to a definition of free will in action, something that computers are incapable of. However, I don’t see the connection to the visual search story.

    Regarding creative insights, I didn’t watch the video, but my feeling is that creative insights must be voluntary. When someone gets a creative insight couldn’t it simply be the case that that person (7.5 seconds previously) engaged the “correct” part of the brain for solving the problem? In other words, you get “in the zone”, this shows up in the brain wave patterns, you then get a creative insight. For “in the zone” see this article on flow.

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