When will you be replaced by a computer?

I have written before about extending our minds by using external computing power in our mobile phones [see ‘Science fiction becomes virtual reality‘ on October 12th, 2016; and ‘Thinking out of the skull‘ on March 18th, 2015]; but, how about replacing our brain with a computer?  That’s the potential of artificial intelligence (AI); not literally replacing our brain, but at least taking over jobs that are traditionally believed to require our brain-power.  For instance, in a recent test, an AI lawyer found 95% of the loopholes in a non-disclosure agreement in 22 seconds while a group of human lawyers found only 88% in 90 minutes, according to Philip Delves Broughton in the FT last weekend.

If this sounds scary, then consider for a moment the computing power involved.  Lots of researchers are interested in simulating the brain and it has been estimated that the computing power required is around hundred peta FLOPS (FLoating point Operations Per Second), which conveniently, is equivalent to the world’s most powerful computers.  At the time of writing the world’s most powerful computer was ‘Summit‘ at the US Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which is capable of 200 petaFLOPS.  However, simulating the brain is not the same as reproducing its intelligence; and petaFLOPS are not a good measure of intelligence because while ‘Summit’ can multiply many strings of numbers together per second, it would take you and me many minutes to multiply two strings of numbers together giving us a rating of one hundredth of a FLOP or less.

So, raw computing power does not appear to equate to intelligence, instead intelligence seems to be related to our ability to network our neurons together in massive assemblies that flicker across our brain interacting with other assemblies [see ‘Digital hive mind‘ on November 30th, 2016]. We have about 100 billion neurons compared with the ‘Summit’ computer’s 9,216 CPUs (Central Processing Unit) and 27,648 GPUs (Graphic Processing Units); so, it seems unlikely that it will be able to come close to our ability to be creative or to handle unpredictable situations even accounting for the multiple cores in the CPUs.  In addition, it requires a power input of 13MW or a couple of very large wind turbines, compared to 80W for the base metabolic rate of a human of which the brain accounts for about 20%; so, its operating costs render it an uneconomic substitute for the human brain in activities that require intelligence.  Hence, while computers and robots are taking over many types of jobs, it seems likely that a core group of jobs involving creativity, unpredictability and emotional intelligence will remain for humans for the foreseeable future.


Max Tegmark, Life 3.0 – being human in the age of artificial intelligence, Penguin Books, 2018.

Philip Delves Broughton, Doom looms over the valley, FT Weekend, 16 November/17 November 2019.

Engelfriet, Arnoud, Creating an Artificial Intelligence for NDA Evaluation (September 22, 2017). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3039353 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3039353

See also NDA Lynn at https://www.ndalynn.com/

Advice to abbots and other leaders

For some years I have been practising and teaching the principles of ‘Procedural Justice’ and ‘Fair Process’ in leadership. For me, it is an intuitive approach that involves listening to people, making a decision, then explaining the decision and resultant expectations to everyone concerned. It was given a name and attributed to two researchers at INSEAD Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne when I attended the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, North Carolina in 2008. However, last weekend, I  discovered that it is much older because it forms part of the advice to abbots in ‘The Rule of St Benedict‘ written around 540. In chapter 3, entitled ‘Summoning the brothers for consultation’, Benedict says ‘whenever any important matters need to be dealt with in the monastery, the abbot should gather the whole community together and set out the agenda in person. When he has listened to the brothers’ advice, he should consider it carefully and then do what he decides is best.’  So long before Kim and Mauborgne discovered the effectiveness of this approach, Benedictine abbots were using it to run hugely successful abbeys, such as Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire where I came across a copy of  ‘The Rule of St Benedict’.


The Rule of St Benedict, translated by Carolinne White, London: Penguin Books, 2008.

W.Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, Fair Process: Managing in theKnowledge Economy, Harvard Business Review, 81(1), pp.127-136, 2003.

Preparing for winter

I had been queueing slowly up the steps to board a plane thinking about nothing in particular when, as I stepped into the plane, one of cabin staff said to me ‘Are you getting ready for winter?’  I looked at her somewhat perplexed because it was only September, and she pointed to the book that I was holding ready to read on the flight home.  It was ‘Winter’ by Ali Smith.  It is a novel with much to say on many issues.

One of the central characters in the novel, Art writes a blog and someone challenges him to write about a real thing, something that he remembers happening and not a blog thing.  He describes a real childhood memory and when it is suggested that he should write about it, his response is he could never put something like that on-line because ‘it’s way to real’.  I have some empathy with Art, because it can be difficult writing about your thoughts and memories for anyone to read.  However, I have noticed that the readership of the blog goes up when I do write about such things [see for example ‘Thinking more clearly by writing weekly‘ on May 2nd, 2018 or ‘Depressed by exams‘ on January 31st, 2018].  So, if people are interested  perhaps I should do it more often.

Another passage that resonated with me was about age.  The narrator is her sixties, which I will be soon, and comments that ‘You never stop being yourself on the inside whatever age people think you are by looking at you from the outside.’  I think that this is true but perhaps difficult to reconcile with consciousness being an accumulation sensory experiences [see ‘Is there a real ‘you’ or ‘I’‘ on March 6th, 2019]

Source: Ali Smith, Winter, London: Penguin Books, 2018 (see pages 188-9 for Art recalling his childhood memory and page 251 for discussion about being in your sixties).

Same problems in a different language

I spent a lot of time on trains last week.  I left Liverpool on Tuesday evening for Bristol and spent Wednesday at Airbus in Filton discussing the implementation of the technologies being developed in the EU Clean Sky 2 projects MOTIVATE and DIMES.  On Wednesday evening I travelled to Bracknell and on Thursday gave a seminar at Syngenta on model credibility in predictive toxicology before heading home to Liverpool.  But, on Friday I was on the train again, to Manchester this time, to listen to a group of my PhD students presenting their projects to their peers in our new Centre for Doctoral Training called Growing skills for Reliable Economic Energy from Nuclear, or GREEN.  The common thread, besides the train journeys, is the Fidelity And Credibility of Testing and Simulation (FACTS).  My research group is working on how we demonstrate the fidelity of predictions from models, how we establish trust in both predictions from computational models and measurements from experiments that are often also ‘models’ of the real world.  The issues are similar whether we are considering the structural performance of aircraft [as on Wednesday], the impact of agro-chemicals [as on Thursday], or the performance of fusion energy and the impact of a geological disposal site [as on Friday] (see ‘Hierarchical modelling in engineering and biology‘ on March 14th, 2018) .  The scientific and technical communities associated with each application talk a different language, in the sense that they use different technical jargon and acronyms; and they are surprised and interested to discover that similar problems are being tackled by communities that they rarely think about or encounter.