Is Your Brain Analog, Digital, or Both?

A long time ago (high school, college?) I remember reading a Scientific American magazine cover to cover that was about the brain (blue cover – picture of the brain on it.)  While I don’t remember anything that I read (and – whatever it was – it’s probably irrelevant today), I was completely fascinated by it.

When I was at MIT in the mid-1980’s, “Artificial Intelligence” was the rage.  Cognitive Science (which has morphed into Brain and Cognitive Science) was also picking up speed at the time as MIT had a great collection of people thinking about neuroscience, biology, and psychology.  For whatever reason, I never engaged in it, and my interest ended up being a simple surface level fascination that I never went anywhere with.

Several years ago, my first business partner – Dave Jilk – started talking about some amazing research about how the brain works that was going on at CU Boulder by a guy named Randy O’Reilly.  Dave and Randy started a company called eCortex earlier this year.  I’m an investor and regularly talk to Dave about it when we get together – I understand very little of the underlying technology, but love the problem they are going after.

Randy just published an article in the 10/6/06 Science titled Biologically Based Computational Models of High-Level Cognition.  Our friends at the Daily Camera summarized it nicely – the brain is both analog and digital and O’Reilly – who is a product of the analog school of thought – suggests that “scientists trying to model the brain would be best served incorporating both schemes.”

If you are into this type of stuff, O’Reilly and eCortex should definitely be on your watch list. 

  • You forgot about that Scientific American magazine because your brain was garbage collecting using the FIFO method.

  • Janet

    That may have been the same issue of Scientific American that got Palm founder Jeff Hawkins so interested in neuroscience! You should ask him some time.

  • Jeff Hawkins, who founded Palm, has also been studying neuroscience for years and has a startup based on his theories of the brain. You probably knew that, but in his book ( he says that his interest in the brain started with an issue of Scientific American – the same one I would guess.

  • Ronald Kuetemeier

    Jeff is also working on optical recognition, at least as far as I know.
    But here is my litmus test. If you have an algorithm that works like your brain’s algorithm, why do you start at a very low level? It should work on all levels, meaning also with abstractions. In which case you can build a thinking machine without wasting all the cpu power on recognizing lines. On the other hand there are some, like Minsky, who believe we have hundreds of different algorithms. And after all of that we really have _no_ idea what intelligence really is. One, multiple,
    none, your guess is as good as every-body’s.
    So let’s start with a simple question. Why do you think?
    Second question: Why does my Dog think differently, or Apple users for
    that matter:-) ?
    If your algorithm doesn’t answer that question, see you in 50 years.