The Pipelined Brain / by Daniel Ehrman

While at work today I thought to myself, "How marvelous is it that if we as logic designers want more processing power out of a chip, we can simply add more logic?" It seems simple, but it's really quite remarkable when you think about it. (Imagine choosing to giving your child more neurons as needed.) Sure there is an area and power trade-off to consider, but if we need to do more work in parallel, there's nothing stopping us from building a few extra gates to get what we want.

Note that this approach is fundamentally different than software: extra code means extra time. On the other hand, transistors are a dime a dozen these days, and on chips with more than a billion of them, the added cost—for no added processing time—is truly quite trivial.

So then I thought, "What if we could do this with our brains? What if like hardware, we could think in parallel? What if I could pipeline my brain so that while one block of my consciousness were busy processing Problem A, another block could be working on Problem B? What would that look like?"

But then it occurred to me: we already do this every day. Yes, we know that our brains are busy processing thousands of patterns in parallel far beneath our consciousness, but that's not what interests me here. I'm interested in the collective brain.

Complex "intelligent" behaviors have long been observed in relatively simple species like ants via their larger actions as a community. And in humans, it has been shown that while no one of us may be an expert in a particular field, through the power of numbers, we can together achieve highly accurate results. So it really shouldn't be any great leap to think of our brains as individual workers contributing to massive results on a supercomputer scale.

I use that word intentionally—supercomputer—because that's what we are, all 7 billion of us combined. What else could be capable of achievements as miraculous as flying three people to the moon and back with less than a decade of preparation, while simultaneously managing the concerns of everyday life here on Earth?

In fact, from a computer architect's perspective, there is tremendous insight to be gleaned from the ways in which we work together to achieve results beyond the power of any one brain. Perhaps no company better exemplifies the spirit of pipelined processing than Taiwanese news animators Next Media Animations, who now go from "story conception to a finished product in less than 2 1/2 hours." This remarkable pace is achieved only by treating each worker as a distinct, specialized unit capable of solving a problem in isolation from, and in parallel to, the other members of their team, much in the same way that we design microprocessors.

The success of Next Media Animations is a glimpse at what can be accomplished when a production process is constructed to remove as much serialization and dependencies as possible. With advanced tools at our disposal, such as 3D rendering software, which dramatically reduce the pipeline latency of product development, we are poised more and more every day to function like a high speed computer, moving with microprocessors along Moore's curve rather than watching them pass from the sidelines.

It's now up to the entrepreneurs, the managers, and the creative thinkers of tomorrow to match the evolution of computers with equivalent developments in our workflow, growing in tandem with the technology to ensure that we are as efficient and as productive as we can be.