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

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