DAILY MAIL & GUARDIAN March 16, 1999

New World

The Devil and Ray Kurzweil
JAMAIS CASCIO advises suits and other Hollywood weasels on what could happen over the next hundred years. He worries about being called a futurist.


ay Kurzweil, the man who invented speaking computers for the blind, keyboard synthesizers for musicians, and usable speech recognition software for anyone, argues that, in the very near future, the processing capability of everyday computing systems will approach - and then pass - the abilities of the human brain.

In his recently published book entitled "The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence" Kurzweil explains that soon, we as a global society will begin to confront questions of what we want our machines to do for us, what it means to be intelligent, and what it means to be human.

Kurzweil bases his argument on a simple premise: that computing power will continue to grow by roughly doubling every year or two. Supporting this argument are the notion that human organizations will continue to try to out-compete each other, recent advances in technology, and the history of computing summed up in one phrase: Moore's Law.

In 1965, Intel engineer Gordon Moore noted something interesting. Over the course of computing history up to that point, the number of transistors per square inch of computer processor had been doubling every 12-24 months. Since the number of transistors is roughly equivalent to processing power, this meant that computer chips had been doubling in capability approximately every 18 months.

At first, most people considered it little more than an interesting coincidence. But the trend continued; every time computer chip manufacturers thought they were getting close to the limits of what the could do, somebody would come up with a new technique for making smaller, faster chips, and the improvements continued. To this day, average computer power doubles every 18 months.

(Doubling is an interesting phenomenon. Very small amounts, when doubled and redoubled, can become enormous sums over time. Take a chessboard, for example. If you agreed to pay me a single Rand on the first square, two Rand on the second, and so forth, by halfway through the board (the 32nd square), you'd owe me a bit more than 2 billion (2.1 x 10^9) Rand. Now things get really interesting. Each square doubles the last, and the sums continue to grow. By the time you reached the 64th square, you'd owe me a bit more than 9 quintillion Rand (9.2 x 10^18) -- on that square alone.)

This accelerating growth of computing power described by Moore's Law means that cheap desktop computers are able to do tasks today that even a few years ago would have been impossible for all but the most sophisticated supercomputers: voice recognition -- so the computer can understand what you say; visual identification -- so the computer can see who you are; software agency -- so the computer can recognize what you're working on and help you appropriately. Each of these capabilities can be added to a modern desktop PC for around than R 600 each.

And computers just keep getting faster. By 2010, a new desktop computer will likely be 64 times faster than today's top of the line Pentium III. By 2020, a new desktop could well be over 4000 times faster than a Pentium III.

Will the trend described by Moore's Law continue? Expert opinion is mixed. It's pretty clear that chip manufacturers are reaching the limits of what physics allows in terms of making smaller and smaller components. Sometime relatively soon, it will simply be no longer possible to add more transistors to a chip.

This doesn't mean that computers won't keep getting faster, however. New techniques are already in development to increase computer power. In the next decade we'll see the emergence of computer chips based on new materials, chips shaped like spheres instead of flat squares, perhaps even chips using computing methods borrowed from studies of the human brain. In the decades beyond that, exotic notions such as DNA-based computing and quantum processors could well lead to incredible breakthroughs.

In many respects, Moore's Law is the underlying engine of the computing industry. The drive to make the machines more powerful allows software designers to come up with ways to use that power, and gives consumers a reason to replace an "obsolete" computer every few years. For business, faster computers can mean getting an edge on the competition, with better control over business processes and more sophisticated models of the future.

But Ray Kurzweil argues that this short-sighted drive to out-do the competition, to go ever faster, may well have utterly unforeseen consequences for both good and bad. What does it mean to be human when machines can do everything that we can, including create music and art? What does it mean to be a machine when its parts are made of DNA? These are the kinds of questions that we and our children will be forced to answer.

In the coming century, we may well find ourselves rapidly approaching a world where our machines are smarter than we are. The critical question is: will they be wiser?

© Daily Mail & Guardian - March 16, 1999

* Jamias Cascio is a consultant and writer specializing in scenarios of how we may live over the next century. His clients have included mainstream corporations, film and television producers. He has written for many publications, including Wired and TIME, and is currently working on a screenplay. He is an active member of the oldest and most influential online community, The Well, and believes that new technologies are pushing people into new social, economic and political realms.

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* Arthur Goldstuck: Webfeet
* Gavin Dudley: Dr Byte
* Rupert Neethling: Toolbox
* Douglas Rushkoff: Online


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Published weekly by the Electronic Mail & Guardian, Johannesburg, South Africa. Send email comments to the editor, Gavin Dudley