Network: A creature like Stanley Kubrick's HAL has yet to see `life'

TELEVISION, WROTE Jules Verne at the turn of the last century, would be a great boon to people living in the future. He figured that it would only take one thousand years to perfect.

That the first televisions were demonstrated some 40 years later should serve as a cautionary note to those in the field of prediction, though some might say television is far from "perfected".

Nevertheless, one can draw a point from this tale. One of the world's great visionaries, living in a period of rapid invention and change, missed the mark by a huge margin.

Indeed, as global communications improve, the rate of change speeds up. A network's utility goes up at the rate of the square of its nodes, so the Internet alone is adding hundreds of millions of ways for ideas and idea-makers to inform each other.

Ergo, things we thought were way out there may, in fact, be round the corner. Yet, if one were to predict that a computer would surpass a 20th century human in intelligence by 2020, there would probably be few takers.

The reason is that one prediction which came up very short was that of artificial intelligence. Stanley Kubrick's landmark film 2001 featured HAL, a computer sufficiently intelligent to mimic the kind of unenlightened self-interest that's all too human.

But a creature like HAL has yet to see "life". Artificial intelligence, or AI as it is often called, turned out to be a lot harder than was originally thought.

AI has staged a quiet comeback in applications as diverse as autofocus cameras, automated telephone operators, automobile engines and stock exchange computers.

But the thinking computer is still a distant dream. Authors such as George Dyson say that machine intelligence is a Darwinian inevitability, outside human control. It will evolve as surely as carbon-based life did.

Of course, some would point to the glut of less-than-informed content on the Net to prove that computer intelligence isn't going up; rather computer use is forcing human intelligence down.

But, glancing through a recent book by Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines, I came across some figures that were intriguing.

Kurzweil posits that artificial intelligence's slow start is rooted in the difference between the computational ability of the brain and of current silicon-based hardware. The brain, Kurzweil contends, is capable of some 20 million billion calculations per second, whereas even a supercomputer, such as IBM's chess-playing Deep Blue, can only manage about 10 trillion.

Interestingly, in 1988 Kurzweil predicted that a computer would beat a human chess grandmaster in 1998. Deep Blue bested Kasparov in 1997, so Kurzweil's reckoning may not be all that bad.

But, if you apply Moore's law - which states that processor speeds will double every 18 months - then even $1,000 PCs will have brain-like capabilities in the not-so-distant future.

In fact, Kurzweil predicts that by 2020 a $1,000 PC will run calculations at the rate of 20 million billion. He further posits that enough RAM to contain the brain's store of 100 trillion synaptic strengths - some million billion bits - will come down from its current cost of about $200m (if purchased at my local Fry's outlet in Palo Alto) to about $1,000.

The same $1,000 would moreover buy a machine equalling the brains of a small village by 2030, the whole population of the US by 2048 and that of a trillion brains by 2060. By 2099, a penny's worth of computing power will be a billion times greater than that mustered by all the projected 10 billion inhabitants of earth.

Now, as supercomputers - those denizens of university labs and shady government departments - are often 10 years ahead of their desktop counterparts, then sometime as soon as 2010 a computer could exist that would rival a human brain.

A lot of work needs to be done before raw computer power will translate into even rudimentary intelligence. But I wonder if the jump will come sooner than we expect, a la Monsieur Verne.

In which case you may wonder who writes this column - me or my iMac?

`The Age of Spiritual Machines', Orion Business Books, pounds 18.99

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk