What have your brain and Google got in common?

What has your brain got in common with Google, spam filters, the knowledge management engine that powers ITproPortal.com and even Microsoft’s ill-fated Clippy?

The answer is that they could all, to some extent, make use of Bayesian-style reasoning to predict future events, according to latest research on how the human brain operates.

Bayesian analysis has its foundations in the work of Thomas Bayes, an English clergyman born in 1702, who also happened to have a brilliant eye for mathematics. In a paper published after his death, Bayes laid out a new statistical technique, for determining the probability of a future occurrence, by taking into account the frequency of past events.

His ideas have proved controversial and slipped in and out of fashion but a revival in their use in the IT world has helped prompt increased interest in the theory.

You will find Bayesian analysis in numerous spam filters, and it has also been put to use in help wizards, some with better effect than others - for example in Microsoft’s ill-fated and intensely irritating Clippy “I think you’re writing a letter ‘help’ tool.

Google is believed to use Bayesian analysis to help in its search results, whilst leading knowledge management company Autonomy also makes exetensive use Bayesian theories of inference and, interestingly enough, is currently the the software used to power ITproPortal.

This revival of interest in the IT world, according to an article in The Economist, has prompted psychologists in the States to look to see if the same human brain displayed similar traits.

They suggest that the Bayesian capacity to draw strong inferences from sparse data could be crucial to the way the mind perceives the world, plans actions, comprehends and learns language, reasons from correlation to causation, and even understands the goals and beliefs of other minds.

In research to be published later this year in Psychological Science, Thomas Griffiths of Brown University in Rhode Island and Joshua Tenenbaum of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology put the idea of a Bayesian brain to a quotidian test. They found that it passes with flying colours.

Well blow me, who would have predicted that.

If you are feeling like a rigorous intellectual read on Bayesian analysis and the brain then you can pop over to The Economist here and get all the details.


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