Posts Tagged ‘Sean O’Neill’

Inside Knowledge: The Maximum Any One Person Can Ever Know

April 9, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of a Feature Article by Sean O’Neill in the 1 April 2017 issue of the New Scientist.  The preceding post explained why Homo Sapiens will never know everything.  This post estimates the maximum any one person can know.

A human brain has approximately 100 billion neurons connected in labyrinthine ways by 100 trillion synapses.  According to a 2015 estimate from the Salk Institute, this amounts to an information storage capacity measured in petabytes, which are millions of gigabytes.  In comparison the Large Hadron Collider, the particle smasher as CEN, pumps out some 30 petabytes of data in use one year.  A recent paperer published jointly by researchers using the collider credited 5000 people with producing and analyzing the data.

Of course creating knowledge is about a lot more than assimilating data.  Our brains are not an empty petabyte stick.  As O’Neill notes, if it were, you would send it back to the shop, disappointed in its slow upload rate.

What is relevant is how much an individual brain can know as we have never filled one up.  We reach a time limit before we reach a processing limit.  Hyperpolyglot Alexander Arguelles is already competent in over 50 languages.  He says, “Give me total freedom of time…and I could conceivably do 100 languages.”  O’Neill notes that this would be at the expense of everything else.

Cesar Hidalgo of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has dubbed the amount a person can realistically learn in a lifetime a personbyte.   He notes that the knowledge you would need to throw a beautiful clay pot is less than 1 person byte.  But if you want to build an F-22 Raptor fighter jet complete with on-board missile-guidance systems, you’re going to need many thousands of person bytes.

O’Neill optimistically concludes that “we should not let our brains meagre bandwidth get us down.  And if the amount and complexity of human knowledge has increased over time, so the means of acquiring it have steadily improved too, with spoken knowledge, written language, the printing press and now the internet.  In that profusion of information, the barrier to progress lies not in the quantity of knowledge our brains can hold, but in its quality.”

Although what O’Neill writes is true, especially in putting the emphasis on the quality of knowledge instead of the quantity, we still need to be humble about how much we think we know.  HM writes “think we know” because we can never be sure of what we know.  Regardless of the technology, there are biological limits to the rate of knowledge acquisition and the capacity of short term memory.  So we need to walk and talk humbly.

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